In the last couple of years, Rapido has become a well-known name in Indian cities. The ride-hailing platform, focussed solely on two-wheelers, has been gaining popularity in cities struggling to deal with congestion. Now the other major ride-hailing platforms - Ola and Uber - are also offering bike taxi services. Rapido has also become a household name as it were because of the recent spate of backlash against it and attempts to get it banned. Several states have banned the platform, cases have been filed in court and the tug of war between the company and state governments (Delhi, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu) continues.
Why are governments looking to ban bike taxis?
According to media reports, the reasons given by state governments (Tamil Nadu is a recent case in point) is one or a combination of the following:
- Bike taxis violate The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 (amended in 2019)
- Bike taxis are unsafe.
- Bike taxis are polluting
Let’s break these down.
Violation of the law
The Motor Vehicles Act (MVA) 1988 and its current amended version, the Motor Vehicles Amendment Act (MVAA) 2019, envisage two kinds of vehicle registration - private and commercial which are quite self-explanatory. Section 93 of the Act makes this very clear.
Registration fees for commercial vehicles are higher so the income of the government is more from these. In the MVAA, Section 93 has been amended to add the term ‘aggregator’ as the aggregator or ride-hailing platform system is a new development that was beyond the realm of imagination in 1988. The MVAA requires aggregators to be licenced and to follow the Information Technology Act of 2000.
The Union government has also put out Motor Vehicle Aggregator Guidelines 2020 which are not legally binding but are meant to serve as a roadmap for state governments. It calls for all motor vehicles and e-rickshaws to be integrated by the aggregator; lock surge pricing to 1.5X; and a host of other regulatory mechanisms. It also suggests that the aggregators can pool non-transport (i.e private) vehicles unless the state government bans it. So the power lies with the state governments to ban or not to ban the use of private vehicles in aggregator platforms. A point to note is that the Guidelines encompass all motor vehicles used as aggregators, including cars but since in India, people owning their cars are unlikely to sign up as ride-hailing drivers (unlike the USA and Europe), this is relevant largely to two-wheelers.
If a state government bans use of private vehicles in an aggregator platform, the Guidelines suggest that the rationale for this prohibition be specified in writing and made available on the transport department website.
The Guidelines also suggest restricting the extent to which private vehicles can be used in a platform to a maximum of 4 ride-sharing intra-city trips on a calendar day and a maximum of 2 ride-sharing inter-city trips per week per vehicle. In addition, the vehicle should have an insurance of at least Rs 5 lakhs for the passenger(s).
Fly in the ointment
So the state governments now have the power to decide whether to allow private vehicles to be used on aggregator platforms. However, in all the conversation, arguments, and court cases, what has been ignored is that if violating the MVAA 2019 by using private vehicles for commercial purposes is the issue, then e-commerce delivery services are equally guilty. All the food, grocery, and consumer goods delivery services (Zepto, Amazon, Swiggy, Zomato, Dunzo, etc) fall into this category. All of the delivery people are gig economy workers who have to use their personal vehicles to deliver goods to customers, which they get paid for.
Why then are we banning only bike taxis? The difference, of course, is that the bike taxis transport people while the others move goods. But either way, the vehicle is a crucial and essential part of the service with all of them using private vehicles for a commercial purpose.
Car pooling platforms like BlaBla are also in violation of the law. In fact in September 2023, the Karnataka government banned car pooling platforms. However, there is a lack of clarity in the approach taken by the various state governments and the push to ban first bike taxis and then in a piecemeal manner the addition of car pooling indicates no cohesive thought on the policy.
Safety on two-wheelers is definitely an issue, whether they are bike taxis or individuals on a two-wheeler who may or may not have a pillion rider. Helmet compliance continues to be problematic, as is overall safety since rules are either not known or adhered to. There is also the safety of the client (ie the pillion rider) as they are essentially taking a ride from a stranger and so may get taken for a ride. However this can apply to the bike taxi rider as well. These safety issues equally apply in ride-hailing car taxi services and car pooling services. The 2020 Guidelines do suggest some clauses to ensure safety of the client such as requirements for drivers/riders to be registered and undergo periodic training.
Pollution was the other reason put forth for banning bike taxis. Yes, bike taxis pollute as they run on fossil fuels. However, one will have to see how these passengers would travel if bike taxis are removed from the equation. Would they take cabs or autos or public transport? Are bike taxis causing a modal shift from buses/trains to bike taxis; or from cars/autos to bike taxis? If it is the latter, then that should mean less congestion, less pollution. There is unlikely to be data on this as yet. But without that data, we can't say that bike taxis are adding to the pollution. The other interesting anecdotal information that we received by speaking to a few bike taxi riders is that they do this not as a full-time job but really try to combine it with their regular commute. This brings their transport costs down. So if that is how bike taxi riders are approaching the opportunity then the pollution argument doesn’t hold water. They would anyway be commuting to work and back and the passenger might have taken a cab or auto. In addition, the 2020 Guidelines, as mentioned earlier, suggest a limit on the number of rides per rider (if they use a private vehicle) making this an unlikely full-time job for anyone. This could be looked into.
Considering that Niti Aayog has mooted the idea of bike taxis as an important sustainable mobility solution to fill the last mile connectivity gap, it's surprising (or not so surprising as government agencies love to work in silos) that the state governments are looking to ban bike taxis.
From media reports, it seems to be that the autorickshaw lobby is feeling threatened by bike taxis and therefore is seeking a ban. However, from a sustainable mobility perspective, different modes of transport have a role to play. While cycling and walking are great for short trips and are most sustainable, for longer distances or for people carrying goods or having other impediments (age, disability, etc), other modes may be ideal. So depending on a host of factors (age, ability, time taken, accessibility, ease of use, cost, etc) a commuter may choose different modes for different trips. Bike taxis give citizens yet another option but it doesn’t mean that autos will die out. The same citizens will continue to use autos as well.
With all the shades of grey in using each mode of transport, bike taxis are not necessarily the villain of the piece. The government needs to view bike taxis as part of the matrix of transport options in a city and the role they might play in improving sustainable mobility and not jump the gun to ban a mode of mobility which is clearly filling a gap.