Learning from an informal idea

While several of us find the ban on e-rickshaws by the Delhi High Court fully justified and the others have reasons to criticise it, it is time to look beyond just the regulation issue associated with e-rickshaws. Though late in the day, there is hope that there will be some regulatory solution soon which will hopefully address all the issues of public concern - safety, security, and congestion associated with the use of e-rickshaws. Interestingly, what is not being debated or looked into is the basic reason for the arrival of these feeder modes of transport that were completely unknown to Delhi's roads until a couple of years ago.

These modes penetrated Delhi because there was this very specific gap in the last-mile connectivity, especially after the expansion of metro services, which wasn't being met by any other informally evolved or planned mode of public transport. E-rickshaws came just in time and hit the problem right on spot in terms of being the cheapest and affordable option for last- mile connectivity, being incredibly convenient for boarding (both physically and spatially), being secure in the sense that these are shared, open from all sides, and operate usually in crowded places, and most importantly, being amazingly smart in the choice of routes - just where you would want them.

It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that they were an immediate hit like a masala Bollywood film with the right ingredients to appeal the masses; the audience in the case of e-rickshaws was the public transport commuter in Delhi who is extremely cost-conscious, but is still concerned about safety, convenience, reliability, and speed. All this was all happening when we - several transport policy decision-makers and planners — were talking about the lack of last-mile connectivity/feeder services to public transport that can make our public transport systems, especially Delhi Metro, far more popular, so that it can take ease traffic on our roads.

Perhaps, the best of minds were and have been struggling to find the right connectivity solution which is 'formally' provided to the users. And here we were with the e-rickshaw drivers applying their own, not so skilled, transport planning mind to find the right route, the right fare, and the right business model that could get them the right amount of profit from their services at the end of the day, and in turn met the critical mobility gap in the city.

So, isn't there a very clear message that most of us seemed to have missed in this whole debate about how to regulate e-rickshaws - a question that is in no way unimportant but very critical, but has definitely taken away all the attention? We have really missed the other side of the story which offers amazing answers and learnings about the successful planning of feeder services in metro cities.

And, while we definitely need to find an answer to the issue of regulation of e-rickshaws, which is in the best interest of the commuters from the perspective of safety, security, affordability, convenience and reliability, we also need to learn from this extremely successful model of feeder transport and find ways to replicate it or perhaps let it operate the way it has been. It needs to be done with a regulatory environment which doesn't force them to change their operational model but brings in the basic, essential requisites of safety and security. It is a fact that several systems that are just left to the market and evolve locally as a response to the market demand, work rather well in the Indian situation.

Also, hasn't this entire episode of e-rickshaws just demonstrated an extremely successful 'pilot/demonstration project on feeder services' that we would usually implement before the large-scale implementation of any formally planned project? So, let's just make an attempt to learn from this 'informal' pilot project and develop a feeder transport network for the city that is really workable and successful.

In short, the e-rickshaw operations have provided all the specific clues and answers to the puzzles associated with feeder transport planning, which many of us have not been able to answer for years.

Tags: transport planning, e-rickshaw