Riding the wave: The need to regulate bike taxis in Chennai

Bike taxis are here to stay. The Tamil Nadu government needs to bring in stricter measures to make them safer and more accountable.

Aravind is a college student in Chennai. He also works as a bike taxi driver on a part-time basis. After his college hours, he logs into the mobile application and waits for a ride to be booked. He gets anywhere between eight to ten such bookings between 5 pm and 11 pm.

Hailing from a middle-class family, he says, “My parents got me this bike on loan. I also got a bank loan to pursue my higher studies. This part-time job as a bike taxi driver allows me to at least meet my daily expenses and provide a little for my family.” On average, he earns ₹300 to ₹1,000 a day.

There are hundreds of people like Aravind who work as part-time bike taxi drivers for additional income that will help them make ends meet. Though this may mean economic stability for some people, for cab drivers for aggregators like Ola and Uber, it seems like too much to contend with. That’s why they staged a protest recently in Chennai, urging the Tamil Nadu government to ban bike taxis and regulate fares.

Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu government moved the Madras High Court in June this year seeking a ban on two-wheeler taxis, saying that such vehicles put the safety of commuters at risk and should not be used for commercial purposes. Notably, in 2019, the court had directed the state government to frame rules to regulate the operation of two-wheeler taxis. On the other hand, bike taxis in Chennai are becoming increasingly popular with users of app-based taxi bookings as they are cheaper and faster.

What is the solution to this issue? Can all the stakeholders co-exist and benefit by regularising the system?

Why do people prefer bike taxis in Chennai?

Before going into the regulatory aspects of bike taxis it is important to understand why people prefer bike taxis in Chennai.

Sanjai lives in Perambur and travels to Guindy for work every day. He takes the bike taxi from his home to Thirumangalam metro station. From there he takes the metro to Guindy and then takes another bike taxi to reach his office. “During peak hours it is almost impossible to board a bus and autos are not an affordable option. Whereas, when I take a bike taxi, it only costs ₹30–₹40 from Perambur to Thirumangalam and another ₹20–₹30 to reach my office from Guindy metro station to my office,” he says.

Karthika finds the bike taxis more accessible than autos although she prefers autos. “On multiple occasions, I have tried to book an auto or a cab but it was only a waste of time. Besides, the auto drivers demand extra cash and agree to accept the ride only if we agree to pay them. Compared to the autos, it is more easy to book a bike taxi,” she says.

Conversations with several regular users of bike taxis in Chennai reveal that easy accessibility, cost efficiency, and first and last-mile connectivity are the major reasons they prefer bike taxis over other modes.

This clearly shows that bike taxis have become a popular mode of transport, especially for first and last-mile connectivity.

Read more: Bike taxis in Chennai: To ban or not to ban?

Regulation of the bike taxis

bike taxi
The ride-hailing platforms like Rapido have been gaining popularity in cities struggling to deal with congestion. Pic Courtesy: Rapido Web portal (Picture used only for representational purposes)

Santhosh Loganaathan, an urban development professional, notes that a blanket ban on bike taxis will not remove the bike taxis from the system. Rather, it will only exist in different forms. The way forward is to bring in regulatory measures.

Sumana Narayanan, Senior Researcher at Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG), points out that the government should revisit the reasons why they are against regulating bike taxis and come up with a solution for it. “If the reason is the revenue loss due to the use of private vehicles for commercial use, then it is a taxation issue and they should figure out a solution for it. If it is about the safety constraints, then they should bring in regulatory mechanisms for that.”

As Sumana points out, the Union government has also put out Motor Vehicle Aggregator Guidelines 2020 which serves as a roadmap for state governments. Now the state government has the power to ban or not to ban the use of private vehicles in aggregator platforms.

Ensuring the safety of users

As pointed out by the State government safety of the users is a major concern when it comes to bike taxis. Though bike taxi drivers have a helmet for pillion riders, they do not insist that pillion riders use it. “They often ask us to keep it in the hand and put it on if we see a traffic cop on the road. Some of them also have broken helmets,” says Karthika.

She further adds, “As women, we have safety concerns with bike taxis. If the driver takes a different route other than the one assigned in the app, it is hard to check on it, especially if we are new to the city. However, unlike cabs or autos, a pillion ride on a bike makes it easy to reach out for help in case of need.”

Sanjai says that he had fallen on the road a couple of times during his ride in a bike taxi. “The roads were slippery due to rain and so we fell. Luckily, it was not a major accident,” he says, adding that some drivers are also not very experienced and that adds to the safety issues.

According to the Union government’s Motor Vehicle Aggregator Guidelines 2020, these are the compliances to ensure the safety of the users:

  • Ensuring appropriate functioning of the GPS installed in the vehicle and providing efficient resolution for any issues that may develop in its functioning
  • Ensuring that the driver plies the vehicle on the route assigned on the App and is in non-compliance with the same, developing a mechanism wherein the app device indicates the fault to the Driver and the control room of the Aggregator immediately communicates with the Driver with regard to the same
  • Ensuring the safety of women employees and Drivers by introducing mechanisms to protect their rights, in compliance with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013
  • Enforcing a mechanism on the App to ensure that the identity of the Driver undertaking a trip is the same as the one enlisted with the Aggregator requiring verification every time a trip is accepted
  • Ensuring regular spot checks of vehicles integrated with the Aggregator by personnel authorized by such Aggregator.

Read more: Stringent process for obtaining driving licence the need of the hour in Chennai

Karthik, yet another bike taxi driver notes that there was no proper scrutiny to register at these aggregator platforms. “The requirements were very basic. The bike we registered should be in the name of the driver. Documents like Aadhar card, driver’s license and the Registration Certificate of the bike along with photos of the bike and the driver should be uploaded to the web port of the aggregator platform. In a couple of days, it will be authorised,” he says.

Since there is no monitoring mechanism to verify if the registered driver is the one using the aggregator platform to take rides, it also poses security issues for the users.

Here is what the government guidelines further stipulate:

  • The driver shall have a minimum driving experience of 2 years; if he doesn’t the aggregator shall facilitate driver training for him before on-boarding.
  • The driver of the vehicle shall not have been convicted within the past 3 years, for the offence of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or any cognizable offence under the Code of Criminal Procedure, ‘1973 or the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (as may be applicable) including fraud, sexual offences, use of a motor vehicle to commit a cognizable offence, a crime involving property damage or theft, acts of violence, or acts of terror.
  • The driver shall undergo a complete medical examination at the cost of the aggregator.
  • Complete police verification of the identity of the driver needs to be done. Subsequent to such verification, the police authorities shall grant a certificate of good moral character without any criminal record, to the driver.

Fare regulation, the need of the hour

The high commission charged by aggregators affects the livelihood of the auto/cab drivers, whereas, they find the increasing popularity of bike taxis a threat to their livelihood. “They take their anger out on the bike drivers as they are more vulnerable. The underlying issue here is the need for fare regulation,” points out Sumana.

Regulating the fare and ensuring safety are two areas that require the immediate intervention of the government. Santhosh also suggests that the government can conduct a study on the use of bike taxis and then come up with regulations. They can give incentives to electric bike taxis as a viable option to reduce by providing incentives. This will help in reducing the pollution.

If the public transport system is in place, the public will eventually move towards that. While we take measures to regulate bike taxis and other such modes, it is also important to ensure that the public transport system is accessible, and well-connected to all routes and also ensures first and last-mile connectivity.

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