Ride-sharing platforms have become popular in a comparatively short time. They have not only brought about a significant change in the modality of urban public transportation but have also offered an opportunity to the riders to make a decent income at their convenience. These platforms are, however, yet to be regulated and address safety concerns raised at times by the stakeholders.
Public transportation in Kathmandu is horrible, to say the least. Most public vehicles are overcrowded, and commuters hardly reach their destinations on time. The city’s narrow streets do not have access to public transportation. And that is where ride-sharing apps have revolutionized urban commute.
Amrit Neupane, an employee at a private school in Kalanki, has to travel in a public bus from Maitidevi on a daily basis. “The eight-kilometer bus journey usually takes 45 minutes, said Neupane, adding that sometimes it may take more than an hour or so. “Everyday, I wish for a shorter and comfortable journey.” After Kathmandu lifted the second phase of lockdown, his school asked him to join classes in person. “My only concern, during my regular trips, is to avoid the risk of the coronavirus infection,” he said.
There are tens of thousands of people in Kathmandu who neither own a private vehicle nor love to travel in public buses. A number of ride-sharing platforms have created a hassle-free journey in the city’s narrow alleys, and also to those who are willing to utilize their two-wheelers and four-wheelers and make some money.
Despite repeated complaints by taxi entrepreneurs and crackdowns by the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division and the Department of Transportation (DoTM), the government repealed its decision to halt ride-sharing services as these platforms are hugely popular in the city.
Tootle, Pathao and a bunch of others
Nepal-made startup Tootle was the first to introduce the ride-sharing concept in the domestic market in 2016 which drew tens of thousands of service seekers and riders. According to Sixit Bhatta, the chief executive of Tootle, as many as 60,000 people have registered to the platform as riders. Pathao, the US-owned company that acts as the mediator for a multiple of services including ride-sharing, that entered Nepal in 2018 as the foreign direct investment, has registered nearly 80,000 riders. “Of the total registered in our platform, at least 15,000 riders have been actively engaged in service delivery,” said Asheem Man Singh Basnyat, country director of Pathao Nepal.
Besides Tootle and Pathao, there are other platforms who have come up with integrated services, including ride-sharing and newer promises to the customers. Super App, Lozoom, Hoop Rides, Sarara and Filili Ride are the new entrants in the market.
How does it work?
Most ride-sharing platforms offer their services online. To get the service, a customer needs to install an app from Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store. Using the mobile device’s GPS service, one can simply mark the destination location and request for a ride. As the system automatically calculates the fares, the two parties do not have to bargain. The riders are rated by the passengers based on the quality of service, which, the companies claim, helps to maintain discipline among the riders. Some platforms have also offered offline booking, spot booking and phone booking facilities. “Those who are not familiar with mobile devices can take advantage of our spot and phone booking facilities,” said Pratik Subba, the CEO of Lozoom. The passengers can pay either in cash or via online on most platforms.
The riders, on the other hand, have to register on the platform. They also need to install a different app developed for the riders where they receive requests for rides.
Transforming urban public transportation
Ride-sharing platforms have not only provided an opportunity for riders to make money and commuters hassle-free travel, they have provided an alternative to urban public transportation. First, the existing transportation services should be more competitive. The use of ICT can enhance reliability and effectiveness.
People prefer speedy and hassle-free service regardless of its cost. People wish to be picked from and dropped at their doorstep and want the transportation services available in narrow streets. People are becoming time-conscious, which in fact, has triggered the growth of ride-hailing services.
While traditional public transportation services are confined to business hours, most ride-sharing platforms offer their services 24/7, which is crucial for those who have to work late hours or make an emergency late night journeys.
“It’s high time that the public vehicles, especially taxis, made use of technology,” said Sandeep Ghimire, who uses ride-sharing services.
COVID-19 pandemic and ride-hailing apps
Public transportation witnessed a massive decline after the first-phase of a four-month (March 24- July 21, 2020) long nationwide lockdown. People were reluctant to use public transportation.
Ride-hailing business, however, boomed during these nine months, mainly due to two reasons. First, passengers opted to avoid crowds in the public vehicles. Second, those who suffered a collapse in their businesses or lost their jobs found it lucrative to make the best of these platforms and make some money. “Tens of thousands of people who were earlier associated with the hospitality sector were jobless. Most newcomer riders on our platform are from that sector,” said Pathao’s Basnyat. The new registration per day has increased by 100 percent, he added.
Tootle CEO Bhatta shared that the new riders’ registration has surged by 50 percent after the first wave of COVID-19 in the country. “Most of those joining our system during this period were private school teachers,” he added.
Bipin KC, a postgraduate student, usually books rides through ride-hailing apps. “Using ride-sharing is safer than the congested public vehicles, and you can skip the chaotic traffic,” he said. “For me time is money. I can save my time which means I indirectly save a significant amount of money.”
Making some money
Ride-sharing platforms offer the riders with an opportunity to make money at a time convenient for them. Ananta (name changed) arrived in Kathmandu from Syangja in November last year to study at Tribhuvan University (TU). However, the pandemic-haunted TU routine is still confusing. He had nothing to do. Out of desperation, he decided to take up a job. “I have now joined Tootle and Pathao. I come online at a time convenient for me and accept rides along comfortable routes,” he said, adding that he earns an average of Rs 1,500 per day. “I can pay for my room and even manage daily expenses.”
Basnyat, Patho’s country director, shared that there are some riders who have been generating a maximum of Rs 3,500 to 4,000 a day. “Those who are in desperate need to support their family work hard,” he added.
The best part of ride-sharing is that the riders are never forced to go online and take trips. One can utilize his leisure time or take rides on the way to destination.
Lozoom, the newest in the sector, is launching its services in Biratnagar, Dharan, Itahari and Pokhara. It will be the first company to reach out of the Valley, claims the company. Tootle and Pathao, however, said they would not immediately launch their services beyond the Valley, owing to COVID-19 crisis.
Despite the popularity of the ride-hailing platforms, they are beyond the government regulation. The companies, which have emerged with newer business ideas, have found it difficult to grow, on the one hand,+- they are being criticised for illegal operation. Numerous incidents of clashes with ride-sharers and taxi entrepreneurs suggest that a legal framework to regulate these platforms is a must. Most companies are criticised for exempting themselves from taxe for their business due to the lack of governing laws.
Bagmati Province came a step ahead of the federal government and hinted that private vehicles can also carry passengers. Section Section 14 (2) of Province Vehicles and Transportation Management Act-2019 states that the two-wheelers and four-wheelers registered for private purpose can hail passengers and take fares after fulfilling the necessary legal parameters. The provision, however, is not sufficient to regulate the ride-hailing business.
The federal government, later in February, 2020, started working on incorporating the issue, following a directive issued by Patan High Court, in February, 2020, to promulgate law to regulate ‘ride sharing’ services. The court had issued the order in response to a writ petition filed three months ago by a Taxi Special District Committee of Nepal Labor Association. A draft of the Federal Vehicles and Transportation Management Act was forwarded to the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport some eight months ago, according to Loknath Bhusal, spokesperson for the Department of Transport Management. “The ministry might be studying the draft as it has not yet been tabled at the Cabinet meeting,” Bhusal added. Once the act is enacted, the Department can formulate a separate guideline to monitor the business, Bhusal added.
As the existing Motor Vehicles and Transportation Management Act-1993 prohibits the use of private vehicles to carry passengers on fares, the country desperately needs to make a separate act to manage and regulate new forms of urban transportation.
Stakeholders argue that the governing laws are mandatory in order not only to regulate the platforms but also to monitor the ride sharers so that they become responsible. The law would also ensure passenger safety and enhance the quality of ride-sharing. “In the absence of regulation, we are blamed for issues that we have nothing to do with. Therefore, an integrated law, that includes e-commerce, transportation and other related activities, should be introduced,” said Pathao’s Basnyat. An intermediary act is also a must to regulate this business, while studying the practices in those countries where ride-sharing businesses have proved their success. The USA, China and India have introduced intermediary acts, according to Basnyat.
The Nepal Meter Taxi Entrepreneur’s Association (NMTEA), an umbrella organization of registered taxi operators, strongly objects to the operation of ride-hailing service by private vehicles. “They are breaching the law and operating unlawfully,” said Arjun Gautam, the Chairman of NMTEA. “It’s unfortunate that the authorities concerned only assured us of taking action against those operating illegal transportations services.”
While criticising the ride-sharing platforms, some question their safety. The customers and riders are both exposed to road accidents, violence, robbery and intimidation. Several cases of road accidents during rides have remained unresolved. The legal constraint impacts safety concerns, stakeholders argue.
Tootle said that it has provided a training on road safety and violence against women to more than 4,000 riders. Pathao, on the other hand, shared an insurance plan of Rs 600,000 each to the rider and customer in case of the accident. Most companies provide pre-ride training ranging from 15 minutes to two hours before the riders are authenticated for the job.