“Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light?
Or just another lost angel... City of Night? ”
Jim Morrison gave us a clear binary about cities. How do we want our cities to be—functional cities of light or those teeming with the horrors of night?
What makes some cities more functional than others? At the fundamental level, it is the ease, affordability, and safety of everyday travel. How a city moves tells a lot about its priorities.
From climate change to violence against women and other vulnerable groups, a city's transport map needs to address various concerns. Since it has been established and even acknowledged time and again that the State is unable to meet all the citizens' demand, there is a much bigger need for the private sector enterprises to pitch in with solutions.
But, are we ready for the solutions that are essentially driven by the profit principle? If not, what are the alternatives?
Is India Ready For ‘Future of Work’ a Decade After Digital Disruptions?
A lot of attention is now being paid to "gig economy" in India, thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's stated goals to turn the country's economic landscape through initiatives like Digital India and Startup India. The proliferation of service-oriented apps has led to what social scientists John Zysman and Martin Kenney term “The Rise of the Platform Economy”. For mobility, taxi-hailing services like Uber, Ola et al have become household names in urban India. But with great exposure come greater responsibilities and controversies as has been demonstrated, yet again, by Karnataka's decision to outlaw three-wheelers using Uber, Ola and Rapido.
This action must allow for. debate to emerge on whether Indian regulatory framework is ready for 'future of work', and vice versa.
Let's focus on Uber, the biggest employment generator in the history of the United States of America, its home market. An independent report commissioned by the company throws some interesting numbers about its India operations in 2021.
Despite this degree of participation in the Indian market, Uber has not been able to deliver services that are the norm in other markets like the US, UK, Europe, Australia. Protests by drivers, customer complaints about cancellations, government agencies' concerns about security, among others, have inhibited what could have been an even bigger mobility gamechanger in India.
Can Gig Workers Find Justice?
Just like in the US, Uber's home country, India has seen multiple protests from workforce against contractualisation. And as reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2005 about the US — “From coal miners in the 1940s to Microsoft Corp. programmers in the 1990s, hired hands seeking to be classified as employees have clashed with companies” — Indian employers, too, even the State enterprises have been engaged in this logjam.
After the UK Supreme Court ruled last year that Uber must count driver partners as employees and extend all benefits to them, a similar demand emerged in India and drivers called for strikes in various cities.
In case of Uber, can there be a solution that might satisfy everyone? A brief chat with Mike Orgill Uber's Senior Director, Public Policy and Government Relations, Asia Pacific throws up some ideas.
How difficult is it to operate in India?
Oh, it's a lot of fun! India is country with a lot of opportunities.
Do you get concerned that the logjam situation will end up impacting the consumer experience adversely?
We try to offer different services for different price points and we are listening very carefully to all the feedback we get from riders and drivers. Drivers in India have given us a feedback that they want to know the destination upfront so they can make an informed choice and not cancel a ride after accepting it.
Do you think the Uber experience in India is not at par with its global story because of the government regulations?
We are always ready to work with different state governments in identifying solutions for India's mobility issues. Uber, for example, is very happy to pay into a central fund that the government wants to set up for the gig workers. It will certainly improve the condition of our driver partners.
Can Uber’s Successful Global Model Work in India?
As on date, India's gig workers depend on the arbitrary and sporadic generosity of companies they are engaged with. Understanding this precariousness, Indian government has announced a Code on Social Security, defining gig workers as a unique occupational category, where existing labour laws do not apply. The social security fund Orgill mentions is a part of this code, which is yet to come into effect.
Uber, however, would like the Indian government to also understand what makes their model work better in the West. While sometimes it's an apples and oranges comparison, the attempt to build a peer-to-peer service system may not be that bad an idea. India allows cab-hailing apps to only offer commercially licensed vehicles to get on the platform. In other markets, anybody can get on the Uber platform and offer point-to-point transport. A reporter driving from Gurgaon to Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg everyday can earn extra money by using her private vehicle to offer a cab service to those on the same route.
Indian cities and towns are not new to the practice of carpool. What, then, is blocking the rollout of peer-to-peer service?
Here, other findings from the 2021 India report are worth mentioning.
Is It Fair to Only Hold Aggregators Responsible for Safety?
Are the authorities in India worried that a peer-to-peer service will see escalation in assaults against vulnerable groups, especially women? If yes, a harder look at India's own policing and administration is merited, too. No service can be created in a vacuum. And violence against women is a global issue which needs urgent but sustainable countermeasures.
According to The New York Times, at least 40 women have filed lawsuits against Uber since September 2021, claiming they have failed to protect riders. 13 others sued Lyft. And this has happened in Santa Clara County of California alone. However, all these cases have yet to go to trial.
Women's safety is a social issue and this buck cannot stop at an aggregator platform. Can a rapid response to Uber's new distress alarm in the app—as opposed to a conspicuous alarm installed in the vehicle mandated by some states in India—address safety concerns? Should the State not be looking at quick investigations, redressal, and judicial processes in case of a complaint instead of taking a hardline position?
When public transport systems are neither safe enough nor adequately covering urban spaces, ride-hailing companies are needed to plug the last-mile connectivity gaps and ensure that women do not fall off the workforce ladder.
India Needs Sustainable Solutions to Congested Roads
As the festival season comes charging at full speed, another issue is staring us in the face: congestion on roads and resultant vehicular pollution. While there is no comprehensive study on how sharing economy positively impacts the environment, anecdotal evidence and rudimentary studies show that sharing resources is more sustainable and environmentally friendly than owning them.
Here are some more numbers from the Uber survey.
As has been noted by multiple studies on climate change, transport is sector responsible for around a fifth of global CO2 emissions. Cleaning it up is one of the most important steps for countries to achieve net zero emissions. Compared to traditional taxis, on-demand ridesharing services like Uber end up achieving much higher utilisation rates and have a positive impact on emissions.
Such platforms also make it possible to replace a driving trip with a multi-modal trip, combining public transport and rideshares. Technologies such as ridesharing, carpooling and electric bikes are making it easier to get around, and reducing the burden of congestion.
Can India’s Green Goals be Achieved by Making Uber & Others Incentivise Electric Vehicles?
Proliferation of app-based mobility solutions does not need to come at the expense of worsened sustainability.
In Europe, US, and Australia, Uber allows the rider to specifically ask for a 'green' vehicle at no extra charge. It is difficult to believe that anyone would mind waiting a few extra minutes, unless in an emergency situation, for an e-vehicle to arrive.
Uber aspires to have an all electric fleet by 2030 in the West, allowing only EV drivers on the platform after this deadline. Through millions of dollars of investments, the company is bringing more EVs to its platform by partnering with Hertz, the car-rental service, is helping more drivers get access to tens of thousands of Tesla vehicles in the US. Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO, has clear goals. "We have a target to be fully electric in the US, Canada and Europe”. Can India get on this bandwagon as well?
London, with 7,000 electric vehicles registered on Uber, boasts of carrying around 15 per cent of all trips being green, while the global average remains a single-digit percentage. Despite the court ruling, Uber remains bullish on London as more and more drivers are getting on the platform. Khosrowshahi’s promise of pay raise and £500 referral bonuses to drivers may have been a key mover, along with rising living costs in the UK, for the end of supply shortage for the company.
Perhaps, with regulations that suit many to most, Indian government will be able to reach sustainable solutions for its mobility woes. As of now, India, with the highest number of registered vehicles in the world—296 million—is struggling to keep its road transport safe and sustainable.
(The author was hosted by Uber in Sydney where she interacted with driver partners, top executives, and third party researchers.)