Tech in transit

September 16, 2019

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The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.
The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.

YEARS after Uber and Careem gained popularity, there is a new service in town: Airlift. Unlike existing services, which would essentially function as online marketplaces for private commute, this service links up many more people by selling seats in larger vehicles. And if you were to believe their founders, it is the answer to our people’s transit woes.

Almost as if on cue, there is competition. Swvl, another startup that originated in Egypt, has entered the market, and existing services like Careem are working on similar models to retain their share of commuters. But is a surge in capitalist interest sufficient to establish the positive value of these services in our cities?

One thing is certain: services like Airlift and Swvl can significantly improve the plight of urban commuters just by virtue of their operational model. Where commuters could book a car on Uber, they can now book individual seats on Airlift. The service can match more commuters to a single vehicle (12 for vans, for example, or 27 for a minibus), and therefore reduce costs for both themselves and commuters.

This model also has other important implications. Because more commuters can now use the same vehicle, this model can effectively take vehicles off the roads — reducing both congestion and environmental impact of commuting. At their smallest, 12 commuters in one van would surely take less space and use less fuel than 12 private cars — or 12 Ubers, or even six Ubers shared by groups of two.

The ability to reserve individual seats also solves, for many, problems of comfort and safety. A guaranteed seat means more comfort, and the presence of other commuters in the same vehicle means lower risk of inappropriate conduct by drivers and other operational staff. Individual seats also lower the risk of theft and even assault.

If we have private companies providing this service, why do we need the state to step in?

Nobody stands to gain more from these services than women. The numbers are already telling — almost half of Airlift’s passengers are women. Compare this to a 2016 paper (Muhammad Adeel), which found that in Pakistan females only accounted for 20 per cent of all trips! The same paper also found that 55pc of women didn’t travel at all, while the same figure was 4pc for men.

The cost implication is also significant; I have written previously about how our analyses of commuting facilities are misleading because women face a different set of constraints and must pay a much larger share of total income on commute. By introducing a new safe, and relatively cheaper, mode of transit for women, services like Airlift allow many more women to engage in useful economic activity. This combined benefit of cost, convenience and safety cannot be understated — in preliminary findings, the Women’s Mobility Project at CERP reported that women are much more likely to engage in economic activity if they can find a convenient way to commute. Airlift’s numbers show that this impact is already visible.

So what does this really mean?

Good as they may be, services like Airlift and Swvl are enabled only by the pathetic urban transport systems in all our cities. Twelve people sharing a vehicle is certainly good, both for the environment and for individual commuters. Scale that up to 40 or 100 or 200 — clearly, we are making an argument for an efficient public transit system, and it is the state’s lethargy that is allowing private enterprises like Airlift to fill this gap.

But if we have private companies providing this service, why do we need the state to step in?

The simple answer to that question lies in studying who such services will exclude. While the environmental and gender implications have become immediately apparent, they are applicable only within a class-blind framework that excludes the poorest from analysis. A better system would maintain those advantages and extend them across all income groups.

Among other things, services like Airlift exclude through pricing, mode of payment, areas of service and their own positioning within the market. They target commuters served by private cars, taxis, rickshaws and Uber, but we should remember that such people are a very small part of our total population. By introducing lower rates than Uber, they can cater to more people. But their fares can never compete with public transport, even as these companies burn hundreds of thousands of dollars every month to grab market share.

On the contrary — and this is where we must pay attention — Airlift and Swvl can actually harm the interests of our poorest commuters by taking away relatively richer commuters from public services like the metrobus. A route that runs from Shahdara to Gajju Mata in Lahore is effectively competing with the metrobus, providing guaranteed seats in return for almost thrice the fare. For those who can afford it, the choice is clear. But their switch to other services makes the metrobus less viable, raising questions over its subsidy, and threatening to eventually make service much more expensive for those who can barely afford current fare levels.

It is clear that all benefits that services like Airlift accrue are merely those of an efficient transit system. Whatever success they find is also due to the pitiful state of our transit arrangements — but if they can do it, why can’t cities? Such ‘bus hailing’ apps can be successful as a complement to — and not competition for — existing transit services, and their interest should not encourage the state to completely abdicate its responsibility to its citizens.

There is space for Airlift and Swvl and any number of innovations in transit, but not at the cost of services that cater to everybody. The state has a responsibility towards its poorer citizens. We must look at the bigger picture: develop equitable transit solutions for all, and invite innovations like Airlift to improve the overall urban experience without taking away from the worst off.

The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.

faizaanq@gmail.com

Twitter: @faizaanq

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2019