Dressed in a pink headscarf and a smart black jacket, 18-year-old Kiran Rao leaves her home in a hurry. It is early morning in Karachi and Kiran could easily be mistaken for a regular office-goer. Instead, Kiran gets into a smart pink-coloured taxi parked in front of her house. And off she goes, to the other end of town, to pick a passenger and drive her to work. Kiran is a Paxi’s Pink Taxi pilot.
Early morning drives in Karachi are a thing of freedom: traffic is thin, the roads are clear, and long distances can be covered swiftly. Kiran steers over flyovers, through a signal-free corridor, just making a brief stopover to refuel at a petrol station. She is there at the client’s doorstep in 25 minutes.
Paxi’s Pink Taxi is a cab service exclusively for women. Kiran was their first ‘pilot’ (as these drivers are referred to) when the service was launched back in March this year. “A few pilots are supporting their families,” she says. “Women, especially if they are not educated, face a lot of problems whenever they go out to work. But now they have an opportunity to earn money in a respectable manner.”
A cab service exclusively for ladies is altering women’s experiences with public transport
Kiran arrives some minutes before the client emerges from her house. While waiting for her, she straightens her headscarf and wipes the windshield clean. Once the client is seated, she smiles back at her, registers the ride through SMS and breezes off to drop the lady to her office in PECHS.
THE BUSINESS CASE
Kiran joined Paxi even before the service was launched. She had been keen to learn driving ever since childhood, when she’d watch her father teach her cousins how to drive. She’d sit in the back-seat and carefully note all the instructions her father would issue to her cousins. She eventually learnt to drive when she was in class 7 and would secretly use the family car to run errands.
When she turned 18, she quickly had her CNIC made and obtained her driver’s licence. “I also wanted to earn through driving,” she points out. “Soon after I got my license, I came across an ad by Paxi on Facebook and applied. When I was called for an interview, I told them that they should do something [to facilitate] women. At this point, the CEO shared his plans with me and I was hired as the first pilot.”
Whereas cab-hailing app services such as Careem and Uber are ubiquitous these days, Shaikh Mohammed Zahid, Chief Executive Officer of Paxi, realised how insecure women feel using public transport when he saw how much trouble his wife faced while commuting. This inspired the concept as well as the nifty slogan of Pink Taxi: “For women, driven by women.” After studying the Uber and Careem business model, he decided to start a chauffeur service that is purely Pakistani, and where the money stays in Pakistan.
For women in particular, public transport options such as buses, rickshaws and regular taxis aren’t all that appealing. Karachi’s public buses have never been the ideal way to travel: not only are they packed to the brim, women are vulnerable targets for harassment even though they sit in a segregated section at the front of the bus. Anyone who can avoid taking the bus does so — the popularity of the now-banned Qingqis is a testament to that. And let’s not forget, at least 55 percent of women face some kind of harassment while travelling on public transport.
Rickshaws, though easily accessible, are also a nightmare to travel in — at least on Karachi’s potholed roads. The jolts received on a rattling rickshaw can shake the traveller up so badly that their backs will ache for days afterwards. If you already have back problems, doctors’ advice would also be to avoid rickshaws.
When the Pink Taxi was launched in March, it sought to address this problem of safe and convenient transportation for women in Karachi. With greater safety and ease, went the theory, women could go about their business without the ugly reality of harassment. They wouldn’t be confined to their homes or be dependent on someone else, they’d have transportation in their control.
Zahid’s idea caught on quickly. At present, his service is only available in Karachi but there are plans to expand it to Rawalpindi and Islamabad by August or September and later in Lahore. Pink Taxi, which began as a start-up, is growing fast and investors are taking a keen interest in the business.
But Paxi is not the first one to see and exploit this gap in the market. Other women’s-only transport services have also been launched before: in 2015, for example, Pink Rickshaws arrived on the roads of Lahore through a venture organised by the Environment Protection Foundation (EPF). Rickshaws were provided to women at a very low cost and the women work as independent entrepreneurs. One can hail them off the road or get their individual numbers from the EPF and call them whenever one needs a ride. There are about 10-12 Pink Rickshaws running in Lahore. Launched last year in Pakistan, Careem also have a few female drivers (‘captains’ as they call them) in some cities.
Indeed, along with easing transportation woes for ladies, the service is also empowering women: the ‘pilots’ come from all backgrounds, some work to support their families, other to earn extra income. Those who they are servicing are also grateful.”
WHEELS OF CHANGE
Harassment was a central concern for both Pink Taxi pilot Nurjehan and a client named Maria Iqbal*. Today, neither feels as unsafe as they used to.
Nurjehan had previously been driving a children’s school van which was owned by her cousin. She joined the Pink Taxi service in March this year. “My family has no issues with my working here as I had been driving earlier as well,” she says. “Here, we just take female passengers and hence feel very safe.”
After she lost her parents, Nurjehan moved in with her widowed cousin and her children. She argues that Pink Taxi is a good way for women to earn a livelihood. “There should be more women joining the field as women travelling in public transport don’t feel very safe and often face harassment,” says Nurjehan. “Being driven around by other women will ease their discomfort. It is a good way to earn your livelihood.”
Indeed, along with easing transportation woes for ladies, the service is also empowering women: the ‘pilots’ come from all backgrounds, some work to support their families, others to earn extra income. Those who they are servicing are also grateful; trust is a currency in short supply when it comes to transportation.
Take Maria Iqbal* for example. She works long hours but has a mother who is reluctant to let her drive on her own. “She has heard stories of women drivers being harassed and doesn’t want me driving on my own especially late at night,” she says. For Maria, Paxi was a god-send. “It’s made my life so much easier.”
Although there is a Paxi app to call a ride, one can also do so through their call centre, SMS or even hail a Paxi off the road. A quick internet search will bring up the number so a taxi is just a phone call away. On registration, passengers receive a code on their phone, which also creates a travel record that serves as security for the pilot and the company. The first passenger of the day usually calls as early as 7.00 am. These clients are generally women who are either in a hurry to get to work or when their driver has not shown up to work.
Fatima, who works at a private firm and uses the Pink Taxi on a regular basis, signed onto Paxi as a convenient pick-and-drop service for the entirety of the month. “I have a regular contract with them. They charge only 6,000 rupees per month for pick and drop,” she says. “And it is not like a van service where multiple people use the same vehicle.”
Having started with 10 Pink Taxis, there are now 15 on the road. Another 15 pilots are under training and will soon be driving other women around in Karachi. Though the company prefers that applicants for the job should have basic driving skills, all applicants undergo 20 days of training in which not only their driving skills are polished but they are also trained in soft skills such as their interactions with the passengers.
“The pilots are also trained in self-defence and first-aid so they are able to independently handle emergency situations,” says Zahid. “Our vehicles are equipped with first-aid kits. We also provide accidental insurance to all our commuters as well as to our pilots.”
The basic criterion for a driver is matriculation which may be waived in certain cases. “We want someone who can read, write and talk properly with the passengers. If that [potential] is there, we train them,” says Zahid.
For pilots such as Kiran, one wonders if her family approves or was reluctant to come onboard. She replies that she brought her mother to the office to give her a feel of the place and the people she’d be working with, which put her parents at ease.
“When I had applied elsewhere, my father was not comfortable. He told me that anyone can sit in the car and take me anywhere and there would be no record,” she narrates. “With the Pink Taxi it is only women passengers.” She adds that people on the road do give strange looks but the traffic police are usually very cooperative.
The most convenient policy is that they don’t have to work till late night if they don’t want to. The timings are from 7 am to 6 pm. If a pilot wants she can work overtime and take on extra passengers after that. “If they do, 25 percent of the revenue earned during the extra time is given to the pilot,” says Zahid. This policy offers an option to earn extra income but at the same time the drivers are under no compulsion to work after hours.
** Name has been changed to protect privacy
The writer is a member of staff*
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 16th, 2017