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Get thee from A to B

A big part of the rat race is wasted on the road. Your smartphone can make commuting easier


Vishy Kuruganti (extreme left) and  Solomon Prakash (centre), co-founders of mGaadi, want to make it easier for commuters to find transport. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Vishy Kuruganti (extreme left) and Solomon Prakash (centre), co-founders of mGaadi, want to make it easier for commuters to find transport. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

An independent brand positioning consultant, Rini Dutta spends a large part of her day commuting. She had come to terms with Bangalore’s infamous traffic jams. Driving a car saved her from elbow and briefcase jabs. But she was troubled by the environmental impact of using a car.

“I am always looking for ways to reduce my carbon footprint and prefer using buses as much as possible,” says Dutta, 39. “But the bus stop nearest to my house is too far to walk to, and you rarely get autos when you need them. I would end up using my car all the time, something I used to feel quite ashamed about.”

Around a month ago, Dutta heard about mGaadi, an autorickshaw-booking service, available on call and recently launched as an Android app. “It has brought down my travel costs significantly and there is the joy of using public transport,” says Dutta. All Dutta has to do is enter her destination on her smartphone, the GPS fixes on to her location and the auto arrives at her doorstep.

Navdeep Asija, who started Ecocabs. Photo courtesy: Ecocabs
Launched in October, mGaadi is “a systemic and social enterprise solution to the urban commuting quagmire”, says co-founder Vishy Kuruganti. A technologist, Kuruganti, who founded TechSangam.com, a social enterprise blog, and partner Solomon Prakash, a social entrepreneur and former country head for Ashoka India (a global organization that invests in social entrepreneurs), wanted to use emerging technology solutions to create a better commuting experience and a greener city.

“Our vision for a better city is one where more people use public transport and the overall cost of commuting, be it time, money and environmental impact, is dramatically reduced,” says Kuruganti.

mGaadi, which has so far advertised itself solely on social media, has roped in over 500 drivers in Bangalore. The drivers have to go by the meter and while many of the autos come equipped with GPS, the company is looking to add GPS to the remaining autos soon. The GPS enables the call centre to track them 24x7. For the pick-up service, an additional Rs.10 is levied above the fare. Since their launch, they have done about 500 rides.

From the way we work, socialize, communicate and now travel, this is yet another example of how increasing smartphone penetration across India is influencing lives. With India projected to become the world’s most populated country, and an increasing number of cars hitting the roads every year, commuter salvation may lie in computer technology

Ecocabs, the world’s first dial-a-cycle-rickshaw scheme started by urban mobility expert Navdeep Asija, is an example of how, with the right kind of support, such initiatives can take off in a big way. Asija started the service in 2008 in his hometown Fazilka, a small town in Punjab on the India-Pakistan border. A transport engineer, he hit upon the idea after he saw his mother struggling to get a rickshaw to go to the market.

“Small towns in Punjab are largely populated with elderly couples who live alone and depend on cycle rickshaws for their chores. I thought this would be a blessing for them,” says Asija. “Ninety-three per cent of Punjab has mobile penetration, while just one in 100 people own cars, so I thought the simplest solution was to link those who have phone connectivity”.

Fazilka already had an informal network of rickshaw stands. These were linked through local tea stalls where one could call and book a rickshaw. Today, the scheme operates across 23 cities in Punjab with the support of the local district administration and non-governmental organizations.

The service is customized for each city. For example, in Patiala, a popular tourist spot, rickshaw operators are also trained as tourist guides.

Now available as an Android app, the scheme won the 2011 National Award of Excellence in the area of non-motor transport.

For Mumbai-based engineers Nilesh Dungarwal, Rishabh Jhunjhunwala and Nisarg Shah, the idea of designing Meter Share, an app that promotes ride-sharing, was born out of their experience of negotiating traffic and crowded public transport as students. A free app, Meter Share relies on a number of services like Facebook and Google Maps to enable commuters to find others looking to use the same route. All one has to do is enter details into the “to” and “from” locations, and the app comes up with details of others on the same route. Introduced in Mumbai in April, Dungarwal says it has nearly 2,000 users.

“Everywhere in Mumbai people are seen fighting for that one elusive cab or auto to take them to their destination,” says Dungarwal, who designed the app with his friends when they were students at Mumbai’s Sardar Patel Institute of Technology. “But just because there is no centralized way through which they can communicate, they don’t collaborate, and travel alone and waste their empty seats. This made us think of a platform where people can share the empty seats with others travelling on the same route.”

“The beauty of it is that I am not restricted to a fixed set of people and can share my ride with anyone who is travelling on that route at that time,” says IT engineer Shrushti Parekh, who uses Meter Share for the 15km commute from her home in Malad to her office in Powai. Adds engineer Jignesh Darji: “I used to waste time earlier waiting for a bus. I spend about Rs.6, which is what I would pay as bus fare.” If you are worried about safety, you can choose to travel only with women.

Recently launched by software engineer Raxit Seth, Smartmumbaikar runs on similar lines. For a monthly charge of Rs.400, one can log in and connect with people who want to share autos and taxis or carpool on the same route.

“You are using fewer vehicles and creating greater access, so it’s all good,” says Madhav Pai, director of EMBARQ India, a not-for-profit initiative that works with authorities to find solutions to problems of urban mobility, and whose mission is to “catalyze and help implement sustainable transport solutions to improve the quality of life in cities”. The EMBARQ network works in different countries, teaming up with local transport authorities to reduce pollution, improve public health, and create safe urban public spaces.

“This whole trend of sharing is coming, and optimizing resources will make an impact. It is quite interesting that this is all being driven by the Internet,” says Pai, adding that it is critical to encourage such solutions to combat the growing threat posed by air pollution in India.

Kuruganti believes that getting all the stakeholders on board will provide greater impetus. “A majority of auto drivers are unbanked. If public and private sector banks provide priority lending to this sector, it would ease their job of acquiring GPS devices. Also, the cost of 2G data plans could be subsidized by the transport department.”

“In many countries, attempts are being made to facilitate biking and walking,” says Pai. “Flyovers are being taken down. But our solution is to build more roads even though studies show that only 3% of people are actually driving to work. So all these innovations we are seeing are a very small step in the right direction.”

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