I first visited the south Indian city of Bangalore, now called ‘Bengaluru’, in January 1994. About 30 years before that, one of London’s first ‘minicab’ companies, Meadway Cars, began carrying customers all over London. The minicabs were the first new addition to the existing modes of public carriage in London for many years. Prior to their introduction, the public could travel by bus, tube train, or in black taxis (‘Hackney Cabs’) – trams and trolleybuses had been phased out by 1964.
The options for public carriage in Bangalore in 1994 were: busses (often looking very battered), auto-rickshaws (three-wheeler ‘autos’), and private hire cars. The latter were operated by smallish private firms, and could be hired in advance for varying lengths of time and distance: for example for 4 hours and 60 Km; they were not metered. These cars were in general unmarked.
Gradually taxi companies such as ‘Easy Cabs’ hit the city’s crowded thoroughfares. Generally, they were uncomfortable Maruti vans, but they were metered. Unlike autos, they could not be hailed from the street; they had to be ordered by telephone.
The 21st century has seen not only the construction - albeit exceedingly slowly - of a metro system in Bangalore, but also the introduction of two new kinds of four-wheeler taxi. One of these is the so-called ‘Airport Taxis’ operated by companies such as Meru and KSTDC, and the other is the ‘computerised’ taxis such as are operated by the international company Uber, and the Indian company Ola. All of these new cabs may be ordered using ‘applications’ downloaded onto ‘smartphones’, and there the problems begin.
Before going any further, I must emphasise that I have not encountered any problems ordering Meru Taxis (by telephone.) However, this cannot be said of Ola and Uber, which I have attempted to order using their slick ‘apps’. On opening the Ola or Uber ‘app’, a GPS mechanism attempts to locate the potential Passenger, and then displays a map showing where the nearest Uber or Ola vehicles are located, and also how long it is likely for each cab to reach the customer. Sadly, this is where things begin to go wrong. A cab which might be stated as being 5 minutes away might take as long as 30 minutes to reach you, or may not reach you at all! This is either because the GPS has not located the passenger accurately enough or because - and this is most likely - the Driver is unable to comprehend the workings of the GPS system, or both. Whilst driver and passenger are attempting to meet, the former makes innumerable ‘phone calls to the latter, often adding to the confusion and frustration of the passenger.
If and when the cab (Ola or Uber) eventually arrives, the passenger should not begin to relax. Despite the fact that the cabs are fitted with devices to enable the driver to navigate from A to B, some drivers seem unable to benefit from them. And, as many of the drivers we encountered seemed to be ignorant of Bangalore’s geography, what should have been a relaxing trip becomes stressful because the passenger needs to navigate and issue instructions to the driver. So far, I have yet to be impressed by Ola and Uber. For long distances, I would recommend the slightly more expensive Meru cabs. For journeys within Bangalore, there is no substitute for the somewhat uncomfortable, yet remarkably nippy autos. On the whole, the auto drivers know their way around Bangalore, and if they don’t they sidle up to another auto and make enquiries.
It might be early days for Ola and Uber in Bangalore and that with the passage of time, they will live up to the optimistic expectations of so many Bangaloreans and others who have begun to make use of them and are currently putting up with their defects.
to read more by Adam Yamey