With all the 1,000-odd Tata Magic maxicabs that operate in the city on the road to regularisation, the question of effective utilisation of the increasing number of such share cabs and autorickshaws to serve the city's transportation needs has cropped up again.
Speaking to The Hindu, Transport Minister K.N. Nehru said that a Government Order would be issued in the next couple of days and Tata Magic vehicles would operate under the same regime as share autorickshaws. “The distinction between the two would be dropped and the government-fixed fare of Re.1 per kilometre for shared transit vehicles would apply to these maxicabs as well,” he added.
From the draft of the GO, it seems that it does not address the larger issue of integrating maxi cabs and share autorickshaws, which are called as Intermediate Public Transport (IPT) vehicles, into the city's existing public transport infrastructure.
There is also no evident attempt to offer incentives that could widen the coverage of such vehicles into interior areas of the city which remain cut-off from the public transport network.
K.Subramanian, a resident of Thiruvanmiyur who regularly uses Tata Magic cabs, says: “The share cabs are quite comfortable, but operate only along select routes. For example, I still have to rely on a regular autorickshaw to reach Adyar or Saidapet.”
Raj Cherubal, coordinator, City Connect, an NGO working on transportation issues, says that the de facto route restriction that is in place must be tackled through policies that will encourage short wheelbase vehicles such as maxi cabs to ply through residential areas where buses cannot be operated.
“They must start displaying routes, similar to buses. Any entry-level barrier which stops operators from running a share taxi service must come to an end. Government must focus on regulation, instead of restriction,” he adds.
The government's position has been that share taxi operation should be restricted as it affects the revenue of State Transport Undertakings. However, commuters such as Mr.Subramanian feel that share cabs currently operate along routes which are not served by an adequate number of buses. “Though buses ply on Old Mahabalipuram Road, many pay Rs.20 to Rs.25 to use a maxi cab because buses are either less frequent or less comfortable,” he says.
Even the National Urban Transport Policy makes this point. It observes that when the quality of public transport deteriorates, para-transit tends to substitute for public transport. “Unfortunately, this has started happening in many Indian cities."
The Chennai Comprehensive Transportation Study substantiates this by pointing to a three-fold increase in the average trip length of IPT mode between 1992 and 2008. There has also been an increase in occupancy of maxi cabs and share autorickshaws, at a time when patronage of regular autorickshaws dropped.
Essentially, allowing competition from share cabs and share autorickshaws can improve the service quality of government-run buses.
Anumita Roychowdhury, Associate Director of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CES), says that para-transit vehicles can play an important role in multi-modal integration. “They offer a unique advantage in terms of travel requirement and affordability, especially in the case of Indian cities where the incidence of urban poverty is as high as 25 per cent in some cases.”
According to her, upcoming projects such as Metro systems must focus on redesigning interchange points of public transport by providing bays for cycles, para-transit vehicles such as share cabs, and buses. Private parking lots must be a little further away.