When China began to worry about smog, congestion and traffic jams in its cities, the authorities started to encourage people to use bicycles. But by this time the Chinese people had grown rich enough to afford cars. We’ve been riding bicycles for decades, they told urban planners. Why would we go back to that now?
Karachi and its people are perhaps not that different when it comes to how they think about transport. If you gave anyone a choice which one do you think they would take: the W11, a Chingchi, a motorcycle, an air-conditioned car?
The reality in Karachi is that our public bus system barely serves the whole city. The rickshaw and Chingchi networks are also not enough. So when six buy-a-ride services—Über, Careem, Praxi, Bykea, Limofied, Uride and Über Rickshaw—came to town, many people were only too happy to use them.
These ride-hailing services have changed our lives—but not necessarily for poor people.
Ride-hailing is reinventing the way we think about getting around and taking taxis in Karachi. But beyond the psychology, we are also seeing it change the transport market. The motorcycle and Chingchi have become the answer for low-income people and the comfortable smart-phone app rides have changed the lives of the people with more money.
A few years ago one of your few choices in Karachi was the black-and-yellow taxi, if you could afford it. But these taxis did not survive the arrival of high-tech networks operated and corporatized by huge investments from global giants. Apps give people more control to calculate fare, track route, give information about the driver and demand service at their doorstep without haggling. This was unthinkable a few years ago.
The services grew in demand. In 2017, private job placement company Rozee.pk did a survey on ride-hailing culture in Pakistan. It questioned 7,391 people with smart phones. As it turned out, 73% used the apps one to three times a month. They judged them by wait time, user-friendliness, condition of the vehicle, cost of the trip, security, behavior of the drivers and discounts.
Young working women who need cheap and safe ways to get around the city say that their lives have changed with these services. They have also created a way for men to earn money. In general, everyone started to think that ride-hailing services were a brilliant idea.
But there is another aspect to ride-hailing that merits discussion. Few people talk about how it makes majority of Karachi’s population (55% of people live in katchi abadis) uncomfortable as well. Affordable private rides are the new love of an assertive middle class who forget that public transport used to be a great social equalizer.
Siphoning off money from public transport and sending it to private rides does not augur well for the city, society and the environment. Private rides are not a viable alternative to public transport that serves the whole city. Just consider that to even begin to use them you need a smart phone as a minimum requirement.
Myth No. 1
Ride-hailing app-based services provide jobs
They create the illusion of giving people jobs. They form a bubble and push a culture of under-employment. Many university graduates have chosen to become ‘captains’ and make jubilant and hasty declarations of how much they are earning in conversations. This is just temporary relief that lets the government off the hook when it should be creating jobs for them.
Myth No. 2
You earn well as a driver
The shrinking rate of commissions gets people into trouble but no one talks about this. A driver who came from Hyderabad to Karachi daily to work for an app-based service, got a new car on lease from a bank to join the company. In the first few months of the company, bonuses were lucrative and targets were easy. He said that with each day the company was maximizing profit but started tightening the noose around drivers by cutting bonuses and making targets difficult to achieve. He got stuck because he had to pay the car installments. And because of impossible targets, his earnings shrank.
Myth No. 3
Ride-hailing is safe
Riders are probably safer but drivers are not. One driver was mugged twice by riders and he could not do anything because he would have lost his job. The company’s rules were clear: he cannot let the customer down and once the ride is booked he has to be very customer-friendly. He said bitterly that if one day he were killed, the company will not even help his family because the contracts were not labour-friendly.
Myth No. 4
It’s the cheapest transport option
Users are irritated by ‘peak factor’ charges according to which you sometimes end up paying 2.5 times actual fares. This happens in traffic jams and during rush hour. The rate is higher because they argue they are paying more for fuel and could be taking a ride in another part of town at the same time.
Myth No. 5
It solves our city’s transport problem
Ride-hailing services taking over transport at a break-neck speed is cannibalizing public transit. App-based ride hailing is no alternative to mass transit. Eventually people will not use public transport as they should as their habits and thinking changes. If that worst fear comes true, chances of social and economic equity in commutation will further dwindle.
It is worth mentioning that ride-hailing that brings a car to your doorstep means people who use this are likely to walk even less. You stop walking to a bus stop, for example, or from the bus to your doorstep or from the place where your Chingchi drops you off to your house through your neighbourhood. Karachi’s walkability index is already low at 50. Bangkok is 121, for comparison. An estimated 21% of Karachi walks to work and to get about.
If the long term goal is to become a city where people can walk more than using cars, then we have to plan for this. And championing ride-hailing may not be the best solution. Walking is healthier as well. But we have to ensure urban planning makes walkability a priority.
Ride-hailing works in many ways but it does not absolve the city’s decision-makers from providing transport for people who cannot afford these rates. There are other important questions for social equality that should also be asked. Is this city only for the people who have cars? For the rich? For the middle class? How much road space should be given to buses over cars? These are decisions that should be made by the city’s politicians in local government or on the city council. It is a political process with power groups making decisions.
Also, remember, urban planning is most of the time a response to a crisis created by Capitalism. The absence of mass transit in Karachi just reflects the fragmentation of government responsibility to plan, leaving a void for private companies to fill. In the long run, this may throw up what we call solutions to the way we live, but they come at a devastating price for the sections of society who fall to the bottom of the food chain.
Mansoor Raza is visiting faculty at Program of Development Studies, Department of Architecture and Planning, NED University of Engineering and Technology, Karachi. His areas of interests are urban issues, societal and demographic changes in Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com