Bengaluru, the Uber app and poverty in India

Transport apps are revolutionising commutes for the middle classes, but poorer citizens still face daily gridlock.

    Bengaluru, the Uber app and poverty in India
    In India, start-ups like Uber have been aggressively promoting their services [Prathap Nair/Al Jazeera]

    Bengaluru, India - As the expanding city of Bengaluru, formerly Bangalore, struggles with chronic traffic problems, a plethora of start-up companies are offering technology-driven commuting services to help people move around the southern Indian metropolis.

    While applications ranging from Uber to Zipgo are making life easier for the city's growing middle classes, such options remain out of the reach of the majority of Bengalurians, most of whom have to rely on a creaking public transport system.

    According to 2015 transport department statistics, Bengaluru's roads have five million vehicles on them. That is almost one car for every two members of its 8.4 million population.

    Among residents, Bengaluru's perpetual traffic problems top the list of conversation topics.

    A city once considered a retirement haven, Bengaluru's development, and its commuting problems, expanded rapidly with the advent of IT companies in the mid and late 1980s.

    A favourable climate and government tax breaks brought multinationals to the city and Bengaluru's boom as the Silicon Valley of India gathered pace.

    Although now among the most desirable cities in India in which to live and work, urban infrastructure has been slow to catch up with rapid development.

    Roads now witness bumper-to-bumper traffic on a daily basis.

    The daily gridlock on outer ring road in Bellandur, southeast Bangalore, reflects the constant traffic problems facing the city [Vikram Deo/Al Jazeera]

    'Unpredictable traffic'

    It is a sunny morning in January and telecoms engineer Madhu Kiran is boarding a 12-seater tempo traveller.

    Earlier, he had bought a ticket valid for a single trip using Zipgo on his mobile phone, a newly launched shuttle service provider app, for the 26km ride to work from his south Bengaluru neighbourhood of Kalena Agrahara, to Whitefield, the hotbed of the city's IT companies.

    Moments ago, Madhu had received alerts on his phone about the shuttle's arrival, requesting him to be present at his pick-up point. Although it is 11am, considered an off-peak time, there is no respite from the traffic.

    Madhu looks out as the motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, cars and buses jostle for space on the narrow, lane-less arterial thoroughfare, Bannerghatta Road.

    "The traffic is unpredictable any time of the day," he laments.

    Madhu uses Zipgo, a newly launched shuttle service provider, but wishes it would introduce monthly passes [Prathap Nair/Al Jazeera]

    Latest offers

    A few kilometres away, in the Bellandur neighbourhood of southeast Bengaluru, Shubhangi Pushp, a market research professional, has just called an Uber taxi.

    She commutes from Bellandur to Bagmane Tech Park, a distance of about 16km, almost exclusively in vehicles using taxi aggregator apps on her mobile phone.

    "It's quick, convenient and on time," she says boarding her cab.

    Watching the slow-moving traffic out of her taxi's window, she says that she has forgotten the last time she took a bus to work.

    "You really have to plan your day ahead because the unpredictability of the traffic can throw your plans out of gear," she says.

    A regular user of such services, she knows the latest offers available from various taxi services and is quick to leverage them to her benefit.

    "For instance, the fares on Uber cabs work out cheaper than Ola autos," she says.

    Shubhangi Push uses cab aggregators regularly and says they are 'quick, convenient and on time' [Prathap Nair/Al Jazeera]

    Spoilt for choice

    For Bengaluru's working professionals, commuting to work has not always been this simple.

    Although the network of air-conditioned and non air-conditioned buses, run by BMTC (Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation), the city's transport authority, covers most parts of the city, they are almost always overflowing with office-goers since that is the only available public transport system for the general public.

    Madhu and Shubhangi belong to a growing breed of Bengalurians who now have the ability to select from commuting services offered by various start-ups looking to cash in on Bengaluru's urban transport problems.

    The number of such service providers is increasing.

    As well as popular brands of taxi aggregator services such as Uber and the home-grown Ola, users can also opt for shuttle services like Zipgo and ride-sharing services like 360 ride and BlaBla car, which recently entered the Indian market, or self-drive car rentals like Zoomcar.

    Passengers board the BMTC bus, which is the only public transport system available for the general public [Prathap Nair/Al Jazeera]

    'Too poor to afford taxis'

    The already crammed market is going to get tougher as players raise funds to add more vehicles to their fleet.

    Uber recently raised an India-specific funding of $1bn, while Ola - through which you can even hire an auto-rickshaw - received funding to the tune of $700m.

    Sudhira HS, whose doctoral thesis Studies on Urban Sprawl and Spatial Planning Support System for Bangalore, India, focused on the topic, has a different take on whether this will redefine the face of urban transport in Bengaluru.

    "These services are only beneficial for the middle [classes] and upwardly mobile people. One cannot discount the five million commuters BMTC transports every day. They are too poor to afford taxis for their daily commute," he says.

    Back in the south of the city, Madhu asks the driver to make a diversion.

    "Can you take the lake road," he suggests, referring to a tertiary road that has less traffic during off-peak hours.

    The driver, however, cannot oblige since he has just received an alert on his device requesting a pick-up at the next stop. Besides, he also needs to let another passenger off at the next designated stop.

    Bengaluru's narrow tree-lined roads have become choked with traffic [Prathap Nair/Al Jazeera]

    Long wait

    "Taxi services offer flexibility for someone like me," says Shubhangi.

    "Earlier I would have to negotiate with drivers and listen to their rants about traffic snarls and the distance before agreeing on a price," she recalls.

    Using an app, her interaction with a driver is reduced to a few obligatory words of polite conversation. 

    "I don't know if the drivers on Ola received any training before they were recruited but they are all polite," she adds.

    Despite their convenience, the start-up services still cannot guarantee that Shubhangi will reach her office on time.

    There is another unplanned diversion today which means she is likely to be delayed.

    Still, she says, she cannot imagine going back to using the buses.

    The official date of completion for all phases of the Metro is 2019 [Vishwas Pai/Al Jazeera]

    As of January, only a portion of phase one of the proposed Bengaluru Metro Rail system is operational.

    The official deadline for the project's completion is December 2019, when it is expected to bring some relief to the city's urban transport woes.

    While the city's poorer citizens still have years to wait for any form of respite from their commuting problems, Madhu has more pressing concerns.

    "They should introduce monthly passes for commuters," he says, referring to Zipgo's pricing.

    He expects this will reduce his monthly travel expense significantly. "I'm sure they will; they are just starting up," he adds hopefully.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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