Bike taxi services made their debut on Bengaluru roads in 2015-16. Since then, controversies surrounding the services have refused to die. When the aggregators, including Bengaluru-based startups, introduced the service, the Transport Department came down heavily on them by impounding vehicles and booking cases against owners of two-wheelers who attached vehicles with the aggregators. Owners of the bike were made to cough up a penalty of over ₹5,000 for violating various rules, including using private vehicles (whiteboard vehicles) for commercial gain.
Continued action by the department forced the aggregators to either suspend or stop the services for some time. One of the start-ups even shut down. The action taken by the Transport Department received mixed reactions from the bike taxi users. People who were in favour of the service had argued that bike taxis provide an affordable mode of transport, work as last-mile connectivity, and metropolitan cities like Bengaluru should have more travel options for the people.
People had also ridiculed the Transport Department for taking action without bringing guidelines on bike taxis (it was only in 2021 that a scheme was announced for the introduction of only e-bike taxis in Karnataka). The Transport Department officials, meanwhile, had maintained that aggregators were providing services against provisions of law as they are using private vehicles for commercial purposes, and customers are at risk of not getting insurance coverage if they meet with road accidents. They were citing issues of safety of women travellers and so on.
It is said that after the outbreak of COVID-19, the number of users of bike taxi services has started gradually increasing. Auto and taxi drivers who were in financial distress induced by the pandemic opposed bike taxi services vehemently as they are directly competing with them and eating into their revenue.
There were many instances of auto drivers staging protests and carrying out “drives” to catch riders using personal bikes for commercial purposes and handing them over to police and RTOs. Exerting pressures on the State government, the federation of auto unions in the city observed a day-long strike on March 20, earlier this year.
Why do rules apply only to auto drivers?
M. Manjunath, president, Adarsh Auto and Taxi Drivers’ Union, said that for years bike taxis in the State were allowed to run without any regulation. “If one wants to run an auto, it is mandatory to hold a permit and badge, and the vehicle should be registered as a commercial vehicle. The authorities also regulate us by fixing fares, and it is also mandatory to fix digital metres. No rules apply to bike taxi operators. Whoever has a bike can attach the vehicle and use it for commercial purposes. These illegal operations are eating into the revenue of auto drivers. There are over 2.10 lakh autos plying on city roads. They are badly impacted by this illegal business,” he said.
Another auto driver, Kishore G., said, “Increasing number of bike taxis has resulted in a reduced number of booking for us. It is very hard to find a single passenger who is booking an auto. No one regulates fares for bike taxis, whereas all rules apply to us. In other States, the government took bold steps like banning illegal bike taxis. But in our State, the Transport Department spent years without taking stern action against illegal operations.”
Source of income for thousands
On the other hand, people relying on bike taxi services to earn livelihood say that more than 1.1 lakh bike taxis may be in the city, out of which 80,000 to 90,000 are active. Among those who have attached their vehicle with aggregators include gig workers, students, and those working in unorganised sectors such as garments, factories and others.
“Thousands of people have taken up bike taxis as full-time and part-time work. I am a student, and it has helped me earn money during non-college hours. I also support my family and meet my educational expenses. Like me, it has been benefiting thousands of people,” said Ganesha, a bike taxi rider.
They complain that some of the auto drivers continue to target them for riding bike taxis. Harish, another rider, said, “Recently, I had dropped a person at a private hospital in Vasanth Nagar. An auto driver, who sensed that I was riding a bike taxi, started questioning me. After some time, I managed to escape from him.”
In the past, there have been instances of auto drivers harassing bike taxi riders and destroying their helmets and snatching mobiles. In March, bike taxi riders staged a protest demanding action against auto and taxi drivers.
Bike riders say those who work full-time can earn ₹1,000 to ₹1,500 depending on the number of bookings. “The aggregator pays ₹7 per km for riders up to 10 km; beyond that, a rider gets ₹10 per km. On weekends and during peak hours, there is more demand for bike taxis. Riders also get incentives depending on how many bookings they service, accepting peak hour booking and others,” said Harish.
Will go by court order, says commissioner
However, there is no clarity as yet, on the legal position of bike taxis. Transport Commissioner S.N. Siddaramappa said, “When the department took action against the bike taxi operations which are running without obtaining any licence, the aggregators had approached the Karnataka High Court. We will go by the decision of the court.”
No takers for e-bike taxi scheme
In 2021, the State government launched an e-bike taxi scheme for the State. However, so far, no one has come forward to provide the services under the new scheme. The State government had also fixed the fare of ₹25 for the first five kilometres and ₹50 for rides between 5 to 10 km.
An official of the department said, “After the scheme was launched, we received an application from a private organisation which was previously providing bike-on-rent service in the city. Though the permit was issued to them to introduce the e-bike taxi service, so far they have not introduced the service.“
Regulated bike taxi services required
Urban mobility expert and convenor of the Sustainable Transportation Lab of IISc Dr. Ashish Verma said that regulated bike taxi service for short distance travel is required in the city to address last-mile connectivity.
“Considering the expansion of metro services in the city, there is a need to address last and first-mile connectivity issues. A regulated bike taxi service could be a solution for commuters who are looking for short-distance travel to reach the office or their residence. However, long-distance travel using bike taxis is not advisable as two-wheelers are more vulnerable to road accidents,” he said.
He added that authorities should protect the interest of the riders and customers in terms of fixing fares and prioritising the safety of women using the service. The lack of last and first-mile connectivity issues remains a concern for Bengalureans. The city has an operational metro network of close to 70 km. Bengaluru has the second longest metro network after Delhi.