On two wheels and a prayer, bike taxis have bumpy ride

What started out as a promise of affordable, accessible mobility that was also quick, in India’s overcrowded metro roads, has led to uncertainty among commuters, riders, and bike service app aggregators

April 08, 2023 09:55 pm | Updated April 09, 2023 09:48 am IST - Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai

More than 1.1 lakh two-wheelers are attached with aggregators Rapido and Uber, out of which 70,000 to 90,000 are active. 

More than 1.1 lakh two-wheelers are attached with aggregators Rapido and Uber, out of which 70,000 to 90,000 are active.  | Photo Credit: SUDHAKARA JAIN

Shreyaa Shyam, 25, stands at Bengaluru’s Malleshwaram, waiting for a ride she has just booked on an app. As the traffic moves, bumper to bumper, she knows that if she takes an auto, it will cost her ₹227 to Koramangala. Buses are of course a fraction of the cost at ₹25, but then she will probably reach only an hour later than if she took a bike taxi. At ₹134, a bike taxi is at that just-right price and speed. “The longer the distance you commute within the city, the cheaper it is,” she says, having worked out the math 18 months ago, when she began to use them, though the service came into existence in Bengaluru in 2016. In Delhi and Mumbai, they began in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

Ms. Shyam, who works as a copywriter in an event management firm, is like thousands of commuters who use this service in India’s metros to commute to work, catch up with friends, or to reach a metro station, where haggling with auto drivers is another stressor in the day.

However, with various State government flip-flops on whether app-based bike taxis are allowed or not, commuters, riders (white-board — not yellow board — vehicles), and aggregators all face problems, affecting both livelihoods and mobility. Services are disrupted, upsetting the bike taxi ecosystem built on youth-friendly rides, tapping into the lakhs of singles in the city.

Bengaluru brakes

The Bike Taxi Association of Bengaluru says that more than 1.1 lakh two-wheelers are attached with aggregators Rapido and Uber, out of which 70,000 to 90,000 are active.

Adi Narayana, from Tirupati, shifted to Bengaluru in 2013. Until the outbreak of the pandemic, he worked as a cab driver. “In 2019, I bought a car and registered it as a taxi hoping to earn decent money. But everything changed after the outbreak of the pandemic that hit the transport sector,” he says. He defaulted on his ₹18,000 EMI to the bank, and his vehicle was seized.

“In 2021, I decided to run a bike taxi as I had no income source. There are hundreds of people like me, each one has their own stories,” he says, adding he earns between ₹1,000 and ₹1,500 per day. While Mr. Narayana is a full-time rider, there are students and workers who have fixed job timings who ride part time.

In Bengaluru, they have not had an easy run of it, with the Transport Department impounding vehicles and imposing heavy penalties on bike owners for running bike taxi services without obtaining a license. Auto drivers have heckled and abused riders from the time they began plying, but on March 20, it came to a head with autos protesting.

Urban mobility expert Prof. Ashish Verma, convenor of Sustainable Transportation Lab, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) says, “A regulated bike taxi service is likely to help people seeking first- and last-mile connectivity from the metro stations and bus stops in the city. However, proper regulation is required on bike taxi services as two-wheelers are more prone to road accidents.”

Unlike him, Prof. Geetam Tiwari, Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, says bike taxi services are “not a good idea”, mainly because two-wheelers are largely unsafe. She says bike taxis continue to ply because of poor enforcement and inefficiencies in the public transport system which lead to people resorting to using them.

Startup trouble

Both in Bengaluru and Delhi (the service was stopped by the Arvind Kejriwal-led government on February 20), there is a push towards electric bikes. The Delhi draft of the aggregator scheme notes that a bike aggregator will mandatorily convert “100% of its existing bike fleet” to electric by the end of the second year, from when the scheme is notified.

As with many startups who are just getting their skin in the game, this is not a seamless service with customer care at its heart. Jagrathi Nagaraj, 25, from Bengaluru, says she stopped using bike taxis for several reasons. “Riders would bring bikes with different registration numbers from the app. Some riders provide poor quality helmets that do not cover the head. I also found it uncomfortable when they brought bikes with heightened pillion seats,” she says, adding that they often didn’t follow traffic rules.

This non-adherence is common, especially in Delhi, where rules are meant to be bent. Ajay R., 23, a photography student, has done a daily 9-km commute in 22 minutes through the duration of the ban order. “The rider asks me to say I am a friend or relative, and I am okay with it,” says Mr. Ajay, who is originally from Mumbai.

“Sometimes, riders arrive to pick me up, but cancel the ride on the application and drop me to my destination for the same price, to instantly receive the money,” he says. He pays anywhere between ₹70 and ₹90 on a bike tax, while auto rickshaws and cabs on the same apps charge almost double.

For women though, this could be plain unsafe. Ramya Srinivas, 32, a freelance copy editor who moved to Delhi from Tirupati, delights in the rides, and the anonymity in a city that gives her that choice. However, Ms. Srinivas avoids taking a ride from someone who has cancelled it. “That means there’s no record of my ride, so I won’t be able to register a complaint if I need to,” says Ms. Srinivas, who sometimes takes upto four rides a day, saving around ₹3,000 every month after switching from autos to bike taxis.

In Mumbai, Meera Kumar misses her daily bike taxis, which unlike in Delhi, are not plying following a Bombay High Court ban since January. The 41-year-old bank manager heard about them through her sister in Delhi and wants them back. “It was uncomfortable to sit on the bike of a stranger because you don’t know where to hold, but the rides were never more than 20 minutes long,” she says. She carried a scarf to protect herself from the pollution, and a shower cap to wear beneath the shared helmet.

A bike taxi fills the gap between autos and taxis, says Sivasubramaniam Jayaram, national lead — transport system and electric mobility, at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a not-for-profit organisation working on inclusive sustainable transport. He says this uniquely developing-world ‘solution’ unfortunately still does not have any regulation.

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