By Maimun Mustafa
As more cars and motorcycles join the national fleet each day, can consumers expect sustainable quality service from the dreams painted by architects of ride-sharing services?
The average commuter who denied by the bus, the CNG and MRT dream was overjoyed with what the ride sharing apps brought to the cities of Bangladesh. Relatively more comfortable rides by the early Ubers and the mobility delivered by Pathao was a Godsend. Obhai, Shohoz and Piickme quickly followed to add competition to this market that saw offshoot services like food and parcel delivery also grow. The ability to follow up and check rate services drew a picture of hope for accountability. However, what started as quick easy rides quickly spiralled into uncharted waters.
Reports of accidents, deaths, hijacking and verbal assault have come across as new inexperienced rider partners are added. Uber does not provide a customer care hotline but rather a confusing in app complaint service for the non tech savvy user. Quick online responses to a mass uneducated customer base leave a lot to be asked for. Pathao does have their own call centre but users complain that resolution of complaints are not effectively handled always although it has over 200,000 service providers. For verification, Pathao for example confirms vehicle authenticity and other documents like NID by rechecking with Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA).
This Eid witnessed skyrocketing prices for the ride sharing services. The non regulated supply demand model saw consumers having to pay even 200 taka over the average fare rate at times as the rain handicapped people to pay fares or stay home if they did not have personal transport. A throwback to the days of the early yellow cabs.
THE PRICE OF PROFESSIONALISM
Nevertheless we must ask ourselves if it is only the service provider’s fault to blame. Obhai has tried to engage the badly regulated CNG market through in app CNG services. Is it really a culture in Bangladesh to try to hike up price once a product or service gets popular? Or is it riders who cannot properly value the service they are providing?
Pathao recently promoted digital payment via Bkash. An initiative that was thoroughly rejected by the majority of Pathao riders according to user complaints. When contacted Pathao said that they informed riders regarding digital payments via phone calls, give in-app pop ups and also provide digital payment acceptance bonuses. Maybe the cash based society in Bangladesh could not still accept Pathao’s wallet offering given the personal data privacy intrusion allegations. Whatever the reason maybe for lack of digital payment acceptance, a thorough research could have been conducted before launching a massive campaign in which many users were rejected rides. Uber on the other hand does not accept local credit or debit cards at all and makes it highly inaccessible to anyone not having an international payment option.
Another huge woe faced by consumers of the services are the cancellations. Uber users frequently complain on social media that because of the inability to see the exact destination after the request accepted, drivers end up cancelling rides. Sometimes even back to back five rides may be cancelled leading to loss of time for a service. Terms for cancellation and fines for them need to be more explicitly defined. Also riders control over where they want to go should be made flexible so complete information is available before the transaction.
IS IT REALLY A CULTURE IN BANGLADESH TO TRY TO HIKE UP PRICE ONCE A PRODUCT OR SERVICE GETS POPULAR? OR IS IT RIDERS WHO CANNOT PROPERLY VALUE THE SERVICE THEY ARE PROVIDING?
Pathao recently had to downsize over 300 workers without prior notice. From a business point of view this can be argued that it needed to be done to remain efficient. However it remains to be seen if this will have an effect on quality. Globally Uber has gone public but with falling share prices, the business viability of ride sharing comes into question.
With many novice riders joining the force to make the extra buck, the probability of unpleasant and unsafe rides rose as communicated by users on social media platforms. To regulate purchases meant solely for ride sharing, the BRTA has made it mandatory to have a driver’s license to purchase a motorcycle from 17 June 2019. This would enable only registered drivers to drive motorcycles over inexperienced ones.
The BRTA is also taking measures to begin registration of ride sharing companies by July 1, 2019. After 1.5 years of passing the guidelines, the service is finally getting legal recognition as a separate industry. As there were no legal guidelines in place over the past few years, complaints by users could not be legally admissible. The incorporation of the ‘999’ national hotline could be done on the app due to discrepancies on part of the Bangladesh Police but is expected to be added by the end of July to reassure safety concerns of consumers.
However companies like Pathao believe as it is a growing market that attracts foreign direct investment regulations like excessive taxation might deter growth.
No commuter would like to go back to the archaic practices of being under the mercy of the old public transport sector system. However ensuring safe, affordable and sustainable travel should be the long term goals that the ride sharing industry can assist us in achieving.