A ride of woes on 4 wheels

It wasn’t long ago when cab aggregators were perceived as the perfect answer to commuters’ problems. Safety, nominal price, 24x7 availability, pick-up & drop anywhere — they checked all the boxes. Cab aggregators had become so popular that company names had become a verb.
A ride of woes on 4 wheels
A couple loading their luggage in a cab before boardingPhoto: Justin George

CHENNAI: “How long did you have to wait for a taxi?” A routine question that anyone using cab aggregators are often asked. That’s how untenable the situation has become.

Cancellations of a ride on app-based taxi services have put commuters in a tough spot. Often, after accepting a ride, drivers call the passenger to know the destination before cancelling.

It wasn’t long ago when cab aggregators were perceived as the perfect answer to commuters’ problems. Safety, nominal price, 24x7 availability, pick-up & drop anywhere — they checked all the boxes. Cab aggregators had become so popular that company names had become a verb. But for the last few years, minor grumbles from commuters escalated to full blown venting on various social media handles, with aggregators being accused of cancellations, payment issues, unruly drivers, unavailability of rides, and most of all, the nightmare of hailing a taxi to go from point A to point B.

“They’re unwilling to arrive at specific destinations or pick up passengers in areas located away from main roads or in the suburbs,” said one regular user of app-based taxi aggregators. “Drivers often ask if I’m paying by cash or online before deciding whether to cancel the ride.”

R Shanmugham, a resident of Pazhavanthangal, pointed out that it’s a huge inconvenience when drivers refuse to arrive at the pick-up point at night. “When we cancel a ride, we’re fined Rs 50, but no relief is given to us when drivers cancel,” he said, adding that he was stranded for 45 minutes in Egmore at night last week trying to get a taxi to take him to Pazhavanthangal.

“Every driver who accepted, cancelled without even alerting me after calling to check the destination,” he rued. “One of the drivers even asked me to pay twice the charge as he’d be returning empty after the drop. Tell me, how is this different from haggling for price with an auto driver?”

Saradha, a resident of Neelangarai, concurred, and urged app aggregators to address the issue of cancellation. “The biggest plus with cab aggregators was that we no longer had to deal with auto drivers and their shenanigans. That’s how Ola and Uber became so popular. But for the last few years, we’re able to book a ride after 3-4 cancellations and drivers calling to ask about destination and payment, which inevitably delays the trip by at least 30 minutes. How is this different from the old system of taking an auto?”

G Bala, a resident of Kilpauk, said that mode of payment is another challenge. “It took some time to realise that Chennai cab and autorickshaw drivers preferred to be paid by cash, and not online. Why does the app provide an online mode of payment if the drivers are not okay with it?”

Cab drivers have their own list of complaints varying from reduced earnings, ride cancellations by passengers and payment schedules. Most drivers don’t accept online payments because it takes a few days for the company to reimburse them.

Hike in diesel prices is another livelihood challenge for drivers. Their earnings have taken a big hit and the burden to compensate, unfortunately, falls on the commuters who are often asked to pay extra for the trip.

“When commuters cancel the ride, the apps penalise them, but the fine they pay does not reach drivers. We don’t get paid for that. Even the recent increase in cab fares due to fuel price hike largely benefits the companies rather than us,” claims a taxi driver.

Another plaint is the number of passengers allowed in a cab, which is determined by the size of the vehicle. “As per the rule, we are allowed to carry only 4 people. in a sedan or a small car. But when I arrive at the rider’s place, there’d be at least 5 passengers. So, I don’t have an option but to cancel the ride,” said an Uber cab driver from Royapuram. “Secondly, due to heavy traffic, we might get delayed reaching their place. By the time we reach near the destination, the ride is cancelled. It’s a huge loss for us monetarily.”

Drivers also complain that the company doesn’t act on their complaints against commuters for fear of losing them. “When a rider files complaints against the driver for not wearing the uniform or poor maintenance of the vehicle, the company takes immediate action. In addition to scathing calls we receive from the company, our accounts are blocked for at least 3 days,” averred a cab driver. “This prevents us from accepting any rides for those days. This is a loss of income for us. But how many passengers are penalised like that?”

While repeated queries from DT Next to a few aggregators went unanswered, Uber Technologies Inc released a press statement a few days ago, promising solutions to both commuters and drivers.

“We’re now showing trip destinations to drivers before they decide to accept the ride,” the statement read. “In our attempt to incentivise the right platform behaviour — only those drivers who meet a predefined trip acceptance threshold — will be eligible to get destination information so that they can make an informed choice. This upfront feature is already live across 20 cities and will be expanded to all others.”

On the drivers’ complaint about long-distance pick-ups, Uber said that it has introduced additional earnings for drivers. “This will give drivers the comfort to accept more trips and will also benefit riders as trip reliability goes up. Drivers will be able to see earnings for long distance pick-ups, displayed separately on the fare receipt,” the company said.

Uber also confirmed that drivers are shown the mode of payment (cash or online) before the trip starts. “Going a step further to make the cash or online decision irrelevant, we’ve now introduced a daily pay process for drivers,” it clarified.

While problems continue to plague commuters and drivers, long-term solutions are possible only if they stem from the principle of transparency and reasonable trade practices.

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