Digital Ride Hailing Services: Redefining Urban Mobility in Pakistan

Ahmer is a software engineer living in Islamabad. He first came to the city to pursue his undergraduate degree in 2010. As a student, he didn’t own a vehicle and initially relied on local taxi service to commute from one place to another. “It was unsettling for me to pay Rs.150-200 for going only a couple of kilometers,” he said.
However, it was not just the exorbitant taxi fares that concerned Ahmer. Rather, the debilitating conditions of the local taxi cabs also added to his woes. “As soon as you sit in those cars, it feels like you have signed up for moving coffins.”

These woes ended for Ahmer in 2016 when ride hailing services Uber and Careem entered the transport market. “With half the fares as that of the old taxi and in an air conditioned latest model car, I was now commuting in a respectable manner.”

Ahmer is just one of the customers who are reaping the benefits of the public transport revolution brought by the entry of US based Uber and UAE based Careem. Launched in late 2015, these services have gained immense popularity in a short span of a year among the citizens for being affordable, offering quality services and also becoming a source of income for Pakistanis.

According to Careem’s Head of Public Affairs, Sibtain Naqvi, their service is operating in 11 cities across Pakistan including Lahore, Multan, Karachi, Hyderabad, Sialkot, Gujranwala Faisalabad, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Abbotabad and Peshawar. Meanwhile, Uber is operating in at least seven cities including Karachi, Hyderabad, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Gujranwala. and Faisalabad.  Both these companies plan to expand to other regions.

However, the apparent success of Careem and Uber may not be as much of a fairy-tale as it appears on the surface. They are under immense pressure from multiple quarters.

The “Taxi mafia”

“I nearly escaped the wrath of taxi mafia a week ago,” said a relatively perturbed Careem driver as he chatted with the scribe. “I was about to take customers to Murree from Daewoo bus station when I noticed through the back mirror that somebody was taking note of my car number.” At first he didn’t understand why his car number was being noted. However, his gut feeling convinced him to discuss this suspicious behavior with his fellow drivers.

“They told me not to take any customer to Murree as taxi mafia had damaged multiple vehicles of Careem captains”, he said. The person noting his car number actually wanted to inform other taxi drivers in Murree to teach him a lesson as soon as he entered the limits of Murree. “Luckily, I got information about this sooner and had to leave the passengers at Bara Kahu”.

This explains the continual tensions between conventional taxi drivers and Careem/Uber drivers. In multiple interviews with Uber/Careem drivers, the scribe came to know that scuffles often broke out between taxi drivers and Careem/Uber drivers at Daewoo bus stand.

“They blame us for taking away their customers from the bus stand without realizing that we only come to Daewoo after customer itself requests for the ride.”

In the past few months, multiple protests were launched against them by the traditional taxi drivers; one of them turning violent in Islamabad. They had accused them of taking away their market share and operating without any route permit. Recently, a petition in Islamabad High Court by a taxi driver was accepted for hearing. The petitioner noted that the Uber and Careem cars didn’t register with the local transport authority, obtain permit and color their vehicle as per the requirement of the government. The petition called for banning Uber and Careem for violating local public transport laws.

As a countermeasure to these hostilities, Careem launched a taxi service and registered more than 1500 cars, according to Careem’s spokerperson Sibtain Naqvi. Careem and Uber have also introduced Rikshaw Services in Lahore.

Commenting on the rising hostilities between taxi drivers and ride hailing services in Pakistan, Sibtain said that certain elements were stoking tensions for their vested political objectives. “There is a small group within taxi drivers who see their influence fading within their own union as many drivers are now registering with our system.”

Compliance with Local Laws

The tussle between government, taxi drivers and ride hailing services has been going on for quite some time. On January 31, 2017 media reports claimed that the Punjab government decided to ban the ride hailing services for violating local public transport laws. The news spread like wildfire. It was soon followed by Sindh government asking Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to ban them. Local authorities in Islamabad also followed suit and started a crackdown against Careem vehicles in the city.  In the midst of this panic and confusion, Punjab government clarified that it was not imposing a ban immediately and that they were working on evolving a mechanism to tax the ride hailing services in Pakistan. Later, Lahore High Court and Islamabad High Court also barred government from banning the services.

Speaking on the matter, Careem spokesperson Sibtain shared that they were in consultation with government and a mechanism will soon be evolved. Meanwhile Express Tribune quoted an Islamabad Transport Authority spokesperson who revealed that ride hailing cars will be asked to display stickers on the front and at the back.

An official at Ministry of Information Technology says that, “the discussions within our Ministry among colleagues has been that that such disruptive services should be left on their own… Let the market grow”.

Safety Concerns

There is also another kind of concern that can have an impact on the sustianability of these services.

Laraib Abid left her hometown Lahore and moved to Islamabad in pursuit of her professional endeavors. She regularly used Uber while going to bus stations and also for office. However, one day, as her friend ordered an Uber car for bus station, she encountered an unfortunate incident. The car arrived in time. She had three huge bags in hand including a big suitcase, her wallet and another bag. As soon as the car stopped in front of her house, she came out, threw her wallet and hand bag in the back suit and quickly moved to the trunk to put place their suitcase with her friend. “It took us only 10 seconds to put my handgbag and wallet in the backseat, open the car trunk, place my suitcase and then come back to sit in the car.”

Her journey towards the bus stand remained smooth. They reached in time, paid the uber driver and moved to buy the ticket. However, it was when she reached the bus station and opened her wallet that she realized that her money was gone. “I didn’t want to blame the driver but he had stolen money while I was trying to place my suitcase in car the trunk.”

She immediately called the driver and urged him to return the money.  “He didn’t admit it” The next day the driver’s phone was switched off. “Not only my money was gone but my ID card, ATM card was also taken away”.

She immediately complained to Uber. “It took them more than a week to respond to my complaint.” The final answer was that they could not take responsibility of the driver as he was not their employee rather a partner.  “I don’t know but every driver that is on Uber’s system represents them”.

Similarly, accusations of harassment at the hands of drivers In Careem/Uber have also been reported on social media.  These incidents of harassment have not only been reported during the ride but also follow up over phone as they (the drivers) get hold of customer’s cellphone numbers.

Meanwhile, drivers of Careem claimed that whenever a ride was booked, they never had access to the cell number of the client. However, UBER drivers had claimed that they could easily see the contact details of the person. However, one Careem driver noted: “There are often times when the clients including girls would call us to check the status of their ride”, thereby making it useless to hide the numbers.

On the other hand, if one goes by the website, Uber and Careem claim that they have put in place stringent security measures and a proper verification of criminal record of a potential driver/captain is undertaken before they enter him into the system. However, in background discussions with drivers, it emerged that the stringent security measures being claimed on the websites were not strictly in place. A number of Captains this scribe talked to mentioned that Careem sought police criminal record and would even visit their homes to verify the details.  However, drivers registered as early as two months ago noted that the system has been changed and made more lax. Now any potential Captain only needs car registration book, ID card and driving license to register into the system.  The process is completed within the same day and the person is eligible to start accepting rides.

Careem’s spokesperson rejected that the system was lax. He said that a third party was assigned the task of independently carry out verification with relevant police stations. “Previously the driver used to get the police certificate but we have eased out the system and the third party itself checks the record from the relevant police station.” He also shared that during the ride every passenger was insured up to Rs.1 million. Careem passengers are largely unaware of the said insurance.

Meanwhile, despite multiple attempts to seek Uber’s version on this, no response was received from them.

It seems that the culture of ride hailing services is here to stay with its own positives and areas of concern.  There are reports that more services such as Australian based limofied, Pakistan based Wahyd and Daewoo are also stepping into this zone.  However, will the government introduce market friendly taxation policies for these services? “The last thing I want is for these services to get expensive as a result of government taxation”, sighs Ahmer.

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