Intermediate Public Transport (IPT) plays an indispensable role in the transportation system in Indian cities. It is often addressed as the mode that bridges the gap between public and private transport in the city, ensuring first- and last-mile connectivity to users. IPT modes can be broadly categorised into two: (1) contract carriage services, which are flexible demand-based services where the passenger determines the destination (e.g., autorickshaws, taxis and cycle rickshaws) and (2) informal public transport (bus-like) services, characterised by shared fixed route services with intermediate stops for boarding and alighting (e.g., share autos, mini bus, share taxis) (Fouracre and Maunder 1979).
But when it comes to Kerala, the range of IPT services is constricted compared to other Indian cities. The available options are limited to autorickshaws, taxi services and app-based shared cabs. Shared taxi-jeeps are (were) also a common mode in lesser accessible areas such as hilly terrain. Shared auto service, an essential part of the urban transport structure in most of the cities in India, is still an unexplored solution in this southern state. Can the reasons be strict enforcement of law, high penetration of buses or high ownership of private vehicles?
Autorickshaws in Kerala run on Contract Carriage permit provided by the Regional Transport Authority after allotting parking areas. The total number of Autorickshaws in use in the country as of 2017 (based on valid permit) is 33,87,019 and in Kerala it is 5,16,632 (Road Transport Year Book 2016-17). Hence, within the category of total commercial vehicles in use, the share of autorickshaws in Kerala to that of India is almost 15 per cent, which is a significant number.
COVID times are proving to be the apt time to rethink about this curious case of missing shared autos in Kerala. The existing public transport sector is facing serious threats due to the pandemic, like the fear among the users to travel in public vehicles, poor financial situation of the operators and their capacity to ensure a sanitised environment to staff and passengers, etc. This when combined with the mobility needs of the people can result in a surge in the use of private vehicles—a nightmare to a sustainable vision for transport. In this context, shared autos will have the advantage of reducing the apprehension of the passengers as the number of co-passengers would be negligible compared to a bus. Sharing the fare with co-passengers would be a win-win situation for both the passengers and the operator, whose net income tends to increase by coming up with a robust fare division formula. The State government’s active role would lead to a regulated shared auto service. Cashless transactions and ease of sanitising a smaller vehicle would be additional advantages. A new mode of IPT could be easily introduced without any additional investment in its infrastructure.
The regulatory barriers restricting the operations of this particular mode in the State need to be relooked into. In Kerala, the Motor Vehicle Department (MVD) often misinterpret the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988 and treat the shared autorickshaw operations as illegal or which require additional permission. Their argument is mainly based on the point that separate fares for passengers are not permitted for a contract carriage. Autorickshaws are issued with Contract Carriage permits, which along with taxis mainly fall in the category of ‘motorcab’. As per the MV Act, a “Contract Carriage” means a motor vehicle in which passengers could be picked up from the origin and dropped off only at the destination without stopping in between to pick up or drop off passengers who are not included in the contract and no separate fare shall be collected from the passengers. But it also includes “a motorcab notwithstanding that separate fares are charged for its passengers”. [And a “motorcab” means any motor vehicle constructed or adapted to carry not more than six passengers excluding the driver for hire or reward]. Autorickshaws very well fall in the ‘motorcab’ category of contract carriages. Hence, the interpretation of the MVD is not sustainable, as the MV Act permits ‘autorickshaws’ to ply collecting separate fares in a trip, thereby can function as a shared auto.
This definitely points out the need to have more simplified and unambiguous regulatory provisions. Even with all these hazy regulations certain organisations like the KMRL and Smart Cities Limited have taken steps to introduce shared mobility in rickshaws in the State through their government linkages. Though this is a welcome step, a more effective result could be achieved if such hurdles are removed permanently for all such operators.
As an initial step, the ambit of the shared autos could be widened to shared cabs as well and the strategies to promote these needs should be prioritised at the moment. Considering the current situation, where private bus operators are finding it difficult to resume operations, temporary permits could be given to shared services in those particular areas until the bus operations are back to normal. Their service routes could be rationalised to act as an efficient feeder system to bus services. The Local Governments should decide their routes/area of service and permits should be given accordingly. The existing autorickshaws/cabs could be allowed to ply as shared vehicles limiting the number of passengers to two. Various innovative, cost-effective methods to ensure minimum contact between the drivers and co-passengers such as installing partitions in the vehicles could be adopted. With easing off social distancing restrictions, increased awareness among people regarding the spread of the virus and improved methods of ensuring sanitised conditions, the restrictions on the number of passengers could be lifted and thereby try to achieve an improved transportation system in the State.
Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
This article was published in Mathrubhumi malayalam newspaper on June 20, 2020 Click here to read
Fouracre, P. R., and D. A. C. Maunder. 1979. “A Review of Intermediate Public Transport in Third World Cities.” Transport Research Laboratory.
Road Transport Year Book 2016-17. Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, Government of India.