Before Tootle, a ride-sharing service, was launched in late 2016, followed by Pathao in September 2018, your transport options to get to college or to a friend’s birthday treat at that swanky new restaurant in Durbar Marg were limited.
It was either stuffy microbuses where you would definitely be seated cheek by jowl or limited-capacity safa tempos with, if you were lucky, someone else’s bulging bag poking your sides, or else a baby gurgling and kicking you with dirty shoes. The regular big buses, when you dared to take those, had you praying for dear life, if all your attention wasn’t on keeping a safe distance from the man with slicked back hair ogling at you. Taxis, oh how you wished you could afford those.
With Tootle and Pathao, you could book a scooter or motorbike ride at a nominal fee. Even better, you were picked up from your exact location. You didn’t have to walk to the bus stop or bargain with a taxi driver. It was a novelty that gave youngsters the option to travel comfortably and cheaply. But it didn’t go down well with transport entrepreneurs, especially the taxi association, who claimed that these services were not only eating into their businesses but also illegal. Time and again, taxi drivers in Kathmandu have demanded the government put an end to the use of private vehicles for public transport.
The Department of Transport Management, under the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport, has tried to ban Tootle and Pathao multiple times but each time, due to public uproar, the services have been resumed. In November 2020, another ride-sharing service, Sawarima, was launched. The popularity of ride-sharing services seems to have only grown. But the debate on whether they should be allowed to operate rages on. Ashok Dhamala, CEO, Book Cab Now, says red-plate vehicles are meant for private use only. These vehicles pay less tax than black-plate ones and letting them ferry passengers gives them an unfair market advantage.
However, Samikshya Adhikari says she doesn’t want the government to rule against ride-sharing services. Life without Pathao is unimaginable, says the 22-year-old post-grad student. If the service were to be unavailable, commuting in Kathmandu would be a nightmare. What takes 30 minutes on Pathao, would otherwise take an hour or more. It would also be expensive—used to the comforts of a private ride for two years now she doesn’t see herself getting on a crowded bus again. “I have a scooter but I have yet to learn how to ride it. Pathao is so convenient, plus you can totally escape the hassle of parking. If ride-sharing were to be discontinued, I’d have to buckle up and get a driving license, I suppose,” she says.
Majority of people who use Tootle or Pathao are young—either students or those who have newly joined the workforce. For them, commuting needs to be efficient and budget-friendly because two things youngsters are mostly strapped on are time and money. Those who use the services also say it’s the best way to commute in a city like Kathmandu that’s already choc-a-bloc with vehicles. Rozina Baral, 23, feels Kathmandu without Tootle or Pathao would just mean more two-wheelers on the road. Every other person would buy a scooter or bike as soon as they reached the legal age to drive. The consequences of that on the environment as well as city traffic are immense. Ride-sharing, she says, ensures less carbon-footprint.
Also, Kathmandu is mostly a network of alleys. Navigating them on bikes is much easier, say the users of ride-sharing services. No Tootle or Pathao, Adhikari adds, means having to get off at various inconveniently located stop points and walking for at least 15- 20 minutes to get to your destination. Not just that, there’s also the fact that ride-sharing services have given young women, who don’t own bikes or cars, the confidence to work late. Baral says not having to worry about wrapping up work in time to catch the last bus home puts her at ease and allows her to focus. If Kathmandu didn’t offer ride-sharing services, many, especially women without their own vehicles, wouldn’t be able to work odd hours that various competitive jobs sometimes ask for, further tipping the scale in men’s favor.
With over a million downloads each of the Tootle and Pathao app, there’s no denying that ride-sharing has become an essential service. So much so that many relying on them for their daily commutes claim to have been disappointed when they didn’t resume their services immediately after the Covid-19 lockdowns. The pandemic made ride-sharing even more popular because it felt safer, says marketing manager of Pathao, Surakshya Hamal. Currently, Patho has 30-35,000 active riders and gets around 50,000 ride requests in a day.
Sachhyam Man Singh Pradhan, 22, who has been using either Tootle or Pathao for four years now, says Kathmandu needs ride-sharing services. Without them, the cost of commuting would go up and a major chunk of your day would be wasted on getting from one place to another. Pradhan, who spends approximately Rs 10,000 a month on transport, adds that ride-sharing has, for many, also become a good source of secondary income. Anyone who has a bike can register with these services and at least make enough to cover fuel costs.
Sixit Bhatta, entrepreneur, co-founder/CEO of Tootle, says the goal behind the ride-sharing service was to find a solution for easy mobility and that his team wanted Tootle to grow organically, and it did. It wasn’t a possibility as much as an eventuality, says Bhatta. Innovation, he adds, is always accepted but it also gets a fair share of resistance when there is market monopoly.
But in the view of Sanjit Paudel, MD of Easy Taxi, if Tootle and Pathao weren’t around, it wouldn’t mean more business for taxis because the crowds they cater to are different. The opposition to ride-sharing services, he adds, is actually an opposition to a system with random rules that favors some and victimizes others.
“Taxi services are okay with competition as long as it is fair. Tootle and Pathao can have arbitrary pricing but the rest have to wait for a nod from the government for a fee hike. That is what doesn’t sit right with us,” he says.
While there is a need to iron out the wrinkles, Tootle and Pathao are operating within the system and creating job opportunities while at it. Rajesh Shrestha, 40, a rider with Tootle for the past four and half years, says no ride-sharing in Kathmandu would increase the unemployment rate. Shrestha was a painter but the job was tiresome and left him exhausted. He also didn’t have the freedom to take a break. Being a rider for Tootle gives him the liberty to work at his own pace while earning as much as, if not more than, he did at his previous job.
“If there were no Tootle or Pathao, life would be inconvenient for some but for those who make a living from it, it would mean a lot of uncertainty and hardship,” says Shrestha.
Kathmandu’s public transport has always been problematic. Reckless driving aside, it’s insulting to have to contort yourself to fit a space that can’t even comfortably seat a child. Then the process of having to get out of a bus or tempo is even more harrowing. It’s a gradual unfurling out of the vehicle versus being spit out. Taking taxis every day just isn’t possible so without Tootle and Pathao, we would be back to that sad, uncomfortable reality.