New apps, virtual taxi-sharing solutions fill gaps in Mumbai’s transport system
Commuters are flocking to private bus services with wi-fi, new apps and virtual auto and taxi-sharing solutions that are stepping in to fill gaps in the city’s public transport system.
The bus comes on time, everyone gets a seat and the driver is courteous.
These are not things you could say of a BEST bus, not with any degree of confidence.
And that is one reason commuters are turning to a growing number of privately run alternatives — including point-to-point bus services and apps that allow you to share taxis and autorickshaws — for their daily commutes.
In addition to ease of use and flexibility, the new contract carriage services offer better infrastructure (air-conditioning, wifi, reclining seats, water bottles and newspapers) and even a sense of community.
Take the six office-goers who commute from Mira Road to Kalina daily by nine-month-old service rBus.
In July, during a particularly rainy spell, they decided to leave their homes 15 minutes early to allow for traffic snarls and flooded streets. As a result, they didn’t have time for breakfast. So every day one person in the group would take turns bringing breakfast for everyone else.
“This is not something we could have done on a normal BEST bus,” says Supreetha Suvarna, 30, an executive assistant at a telecom company.
Suvarna and her fellow travellers have been using rBus for three months. Their vehicle picks them up along the Western Express Highway and drops them off at their offices in Kalina.
In addition to rBus, Cityflo and OfficeBus offer similar point-to-point private bus services to areas such as Lower Parel, Kalina and Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC). And apps such as Jump In Jump Out, LiftO, BlaBlaCar and Tripda allow people to seek out or offer lifts and share the cost of commuting by taxi or autorickshaws in addition to private vehicles.
All these services are less than a year old, set up by young entrepreneurs who spotted a gap in the market.
The key advantage is that the service providers have recognised the new residential and commercial hubs and are providing direct services between them — something the BEST has largely failed to do. Moving with the times to offer as much convenience and customisation as possible, they even have the option of a taxi to pick you up at home and drop you to the pickup point on the highway.
Communication, rather than being traumatic or absent, is seamless.
“We have a WhatsApp group so everyone knows of delays or changes in schedule, if any,” Suvarna says.
“Ideally, a city like Mumbai should not need an rBus,” says rBus co-founder Siddharth Sharma, 40. “But in the absence of viable public transport links, we realised that people were looking for alternatives — and we were right.”
There is no direct bus from Mira Road to Kalina, for instance, so Kotian first commuted by office shuttle and, once that stopped, took autorickshaws that would cost her Rs 350 one way. Now, her daily two-way commute costs Rs 160.
She is one of 500 people who have signed up with rBus so far, prompting them to ply 30 vehicles across 17 routes — up from one bus and 14 passengers when they started.
“To actually make a dent, we need to be a thousand times bigger,” says Sharma. “The truth is, no one can do transit as well as the government. But if they can’t offer enough options and variety, we will.”
These are desperate measures to fill gaps created by lack of government initiative, says Rishi Aggarwal, co-convener of the Mumbai Transport Forum and research fellow at Observer Research Foundation. “The government is not concentrating adequately on new mass transport links. We are depending too heavily on one lifeline, the railways. The BEST hasn’t seen any adequate investments or changes — we need a higher frequency of buses on arterial roads, our AC buses need improvements, new routes need to be set up to accommodate the changes in residential and commercial hubs.”
Ticket to ride
People we spoke to during our market research had two problems with buses — they often had to wait up to 25 minutes, and they would often not get a seat,” says Jerin Venad, 24, a mechanical engineer and co-founder of Cityflo. “We solve both these problems.”
In April, Cityflo started point-to-point bus services from the northern suburbs to BKC. A similar service, OfficeBus, launched services in September from Mira Road to Lower Parel and Dahisar to Thane. rBus, meanwhile, has been plying for nine months.
“We are offering comfort and good infrastructure because we are targeting those who drive to work. We want them to give that up and get on the bus,” says OfficeBus co-founder Vijay Mamtani, 22, a software engineer.
OfficeBus’s ideal customer, then, is someone like Praveen Arora, 38, head of customer service at financial services company Motiwal Oswal. Arora used to drive daily from his home in Kandivli to his office in Prabhadevi but found that too much of a hassle, so he switched to taxis, but found them too expensive.
“The commute for me was always a waste of time and OfficeBus has changed that,” he says. “I can now work on my laptop, which means that even if I leave the office at 6pm, I am working till 8pm and still getting home early.”
For Kenil Shah, 28, the big differentiator is the punctuality.
“The buses are always on time, and since they’re GPS-enabled, we can track them on the app,” says the diamond trader and Cityflo customer since September. “This is cheaper and so much easier. And the drivers are well-trained and open to route suggestions and feedback.”
The bus is the best form of carpooling, adds Rishi Aggarwal, co-convener of the Mumbai Transport Forum and research fellow at Observer Research Foundation. “More such services will hopefully lead to less traffic, and greater convenience.”
How it works
All providers require a minimum of seven people to start a new route.
rBus and Cityflo require users to register on their app, OfficeBus on its website.
Charges vary. Cityflo charges Rs 3 per km, OfficeBus Rs 5.5 and rBus a fixed rate of Rs 80 per one-way ride.
OfficeBus has 24 customers; Cityflo started with 5 buses and 35 passengers and now ferries 900 passengers in 70 buses. rBus has 30 vehicles and 500 passengers.
The buses operate on a contract carriage permit from the Regional Transport Office.
Share your taxi, autorickshaw
Month-old LiftO offers a ride-sharing service that allows users to share the cost of commuting by car, taxi or autorickshaw. Users are verified via LinkedIn. The app, launched by brothers Vikesh, 33, a sales and marketing manager, and Nikhil Agrawal, 35, an investment banker, has had 3,500 downloads.
“The number of cars on the road has increased so much that it gets very tedious to drive. So I am glad I can do my bit to help reduce traffic by offering affordable rides via LiftO,” says user Mrinal Bhalla, 30, a consultant who commutes from Borivli to Thane daily and has given 12 people lifts so far.
The principle of such carpooling and ride-sharing apps is to encourage people to share a vehicle and split the costs.
Similar apps include Jump In Jump Out, which is two months old and has 500 users, and Tripda, a carpooling solution focused on long distances. Their most popular route, predictably, is Mumbai-Pune.
Tired of emerging from dinner to find that your bike or car has been towed? That’s exactly what prompted Avinash Raheja, 42, to set up Veh2Park (left). “I would cancel plans with family if I wasn’t confident of getting valid parking,” he says.
The five-month-old app identifies designated pay-and-park areas across 170 locations in the city, also listing their rate cards and phone numbers, if any.
Three-month-old Transitpedia, meanwhile, helps its users find the fastest and cheapest route to a destination, using public transport.
The app offers bus, train, taxi, auto, Metro and monorail options, listing timetables, fares, megablocks (if any), and estimated travelling time. It has had 8,000 downloads.
“I wanted to help streamline the multiple commuting links in the city, which can be confusing and cumbersome and are still not available on any one platform,” says co-founder Mehul Sutariya, 30. TransitPedia is available in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Bangalore and Hyderabad.
The bus routes
From Borivli, Thane, Bandra, Koparkhairane and Mira Road-Bhayander to Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC)
Thane to Andheri East
Mira Road to Lower Parel
Borivli to BKC
Mira Road, Borivli, Malad, Thane and Navi Mumbai Sector 35 to Kalina
Mira Road and Kandivli to BKC
Malad West to Navi Mumbai
Navi Mumbai to Lower Parel
Khargar to Worli
Malad West to Andheri East
Mira-Bhayander to Malad West
Thane to Jogeshwari
Santacruz to Chembur.