Indian cities have an infamous reputation for their traffic jams and smog-filled air. In a city like Bengaluru, which is bursting at the seams with 5,207,693 two-wheelers and 1,449,334 private cars, it has become routine to spend between two and three hours in daily transit.

Cab aggregator services like Ola, Uber and Lyft have been touted as holding the solution to urban congestion as suggested by Travis Kalanick founder of Uber, in 2015. Computer modelling studies show that ride-sharing services can address the demand for transport with a relatively small number of vehicles. But the reality seems different.

Cities such as Boston, New York and London have reported a surge in traffic congestion after cab aggregator services were introduced, increasing the number of overall taxis. A similar trend can be seen in Bengaluru too. In May 2015, Bengaluru had 84,092 taxis, a number that has now nearly grown by 89% to 1,59,519 registered taxis in mid-2018. The number of cars has grown by 31%, in comparison, while buses (private and public) have increased by just 24% – a clear reflection of how private transport has come to the fore. In Mumbai, the iconic kaali peeli taxis have dropped by 70% in recent years, while the number of aggregator cabs has risen sharply.

These ride-sharing companies claim they incentivise carpooling – because people get rid of private vehicles and move to cabs – resulting in a more efficient use of road space and reduced congestion. But recent studies have begun to question these claims.

Photo credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters.

Cabs may provide a more efficient use of cars, but issue is the dearth of road space in our cities, not cars for purchase. Our cities are filled with tens of thousands of taxis, which move around from drop-off point to pick-up point looking for customers, a phenomenon known as deadheading. Despite efforts to build efficient algorithms that minimise such movement, deadheading clogs road space and burns additional fuel. This increases existing high carbon emissions and releases more pollutants into the already choked air.

The number of cabs is timed to fit the maximum demand during peak hours. During off-peak hours the cabs park on roads, often in front of malls and offices – further congesting roads and obstructing traffic flows. At peak demand, all taxis move towards the same spots: offices, malls, restaurants and metro stations. The convenience and speed of the metro can be disrupted by the fact that you are often stuck at the exit for several minutes – waiting for co-passengers to hook up with their pre-ordered cabs which back up traffic for kilometres.

Collapsing systems

Cities are limited by their road space but faced with a constantly growing population that needs to utilise this space. Road networks constitute a classic case of the misnamed Tragedy of the Commons. Garret Hardin, in his famous 1968 article, described the tragedy using an example of grazing lands. When a pasture is open to all, each grazer seeks to bring in more cows. The pasture soon collapses due to over-harvesting. But what Hardin termed the tragedy of the commons is actually a tragedy of open-access regimes, as Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom pointed out. Her research, and that of many others, has shown that public and common resources – such as roads – can be managed well by collective action, or by government policies that limit overuse. However, when private self-interest takes over, free-for-all grabbing becomes widespread, and the system collapses.

Bengaluru's infamous Silk Board junction. Photo credit: Ashwin Kumar/Wikimedia Commons [ Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic].

The more obvious consequence of cab aggregation may be on congestion. But the deeper, more disturbing, change is the behavioural impact on commuters. Cab aggregators market themselves as providing a solution to collective action problems by encouraging carpooling. But a recent study of seven cities in the United States, where cab aggregators are widespread, shows that the ride-sharing opportunities move people away from energy-friendly means of transport. Between 49% and 61% of trips made in these seven cities by cabs would either have not been made at all, or have been made on foot, on a cycle, or via public transport. Cabs not only contribute to more road trips, but also change urban transport behaviour. Not so long ago, people walked to most places that were a kilometre or two away. But today, with non-existent pavements, erratic traffic and smog, it is much more convenient to take a cab.

Another US-wide study found that aggregator cab services added 2.8 miles on the road for every mile of personal car use that they reduced, making traffic congestion much worse. Smartphone app-based cab services also serviced a relatively small section of urban society – those who were relatively young and well off and lived in the city, with access to smart phones. Others, such as people living in suburban areas and disabled commuters, could not easily access these services.

Given the frenzied pace of urban life, services such as Ola and Uber are definitely convenient for young urban commuters with time constraints, and with some income affordability. But there is a flip side to this. When people can catch a cab to get to their destination today, it’s possible that it diverts their attention from the systemic issues of transport planning, about which they need to press their policymakers.

The focus should be on creating walkable cities. Photo credit: Adondai/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International].

This shift in individual behaviour also reflects a larger problem with policy. Most government efforts at traffic planning involve some form of infrastructure expansion, such as road widening and flyovers. These only provide temporary relief. As the number of vehicles on the road increase, roads return to their former congested states. Instead of seeking to reform traffic by focusing on walkable cities and public transport, government agencies are now looking to private cab aggregators to solve public problems of traffic.

Recent reports suggest that Niti Aayog, the central government’s policy think-tank, is studying ride-sharing as a possible solution to traffic congestion. In Bengaluru, transportation authorities are withdrawing bus feeder services to the metro. Instead of using public transport to address last-mile connectivity, the Bengaluru metro is working with cab aggregators – taking the easy way out and laying the foundation for greater congestion.

Government agencies should be focusing on expanding metro services, upgrading dilapidated bus fleets, and promoting cycling and pedestrian-friendly cities. Ironically, they seem to be taken in by the language of sharing, community and convenience, in which cab aggregation is marketed. A temporary payment to share a cab with a stranger cannot be deemed commoning. True commoning arrives when people work with their community, transforming their outlook – no longer thinking only of personal gains, but also of the greater common good. Shared taxis are brief moments of space and time when strangers co-inhabit the four metalled walls of a cab. Counting on them to contribute to transformative change of our traffic systems is delusional.

Harini Nagendra is Professor of Sustainability, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.