Rickshaws are a ubiquitous piece of imprecision engineering (basically a scooter engine, a metal frame and some tarpaulin) that keep Mumbai going. They are also peopled by some of the more ruthless drivers on any continent.

Travelling from work during rush hour is a bane. Our office is conveniently situated right on the thorough fare, a fact that should work in our favor but never does. A ‘rick’, as they are affectionately called, will rarely stop for you post 5:00 pm. Oddly enough every single rick that passes you by for the next half hour, is full or ‘broken’, and the ones that are available, won’t take you to the station.

Why? Because it’s not a profitable trip to make.

As several rickshaw drivers have explained, the office-station trip is just not the most profitable use of their time. In the same time (including the inevitable traffic jam) they could take a longer trip, drop someone off further, and make a lot more. One of them told me that he felt so guilty about picking his customers that one day he chose to drop whoever came to him (you would think this is normal). Apparently that was the last day he did it; he made about half the money he would have made normally, (approximately Rs.120 vs Rs. 250 between 9:00 am and 1:00 pm – this is purely anecdotal). When you consider the significance of each Rupee, having your earning power halved is a joke.

Now, since I like thinking about these things, I tried figuring out whats driving this. Obviously this situation is inefficient, customers other than just me are languishing and rickshaws are wasting time trying to find an appropriate customer to make their lives profitable. This is definitely a situation where the rules of the games are skewed and need intervention, and I think the problem is that there aren’t enough rickshaws.

There is not enough supply to ensure healthy competition, should more licenses be given out, this would mean that search times for clients would grow, till a point is reached that it would be more profitable for a cabbie to just take whichever client is available than spend time choosing the best client possible.

Another aspect that I’ll cover in brief is how fares are calculated. Rickshaws work on old analogue meters, which also keep track of the speed the rickshaw is travelling at. Travelling at faster speeds increases money earned, making long empty stretches more profitable, while offering the kiss of monetary death to anyone going through a traffic jam. Since the traffic jam is the more prevalent condition it may be more profitable to change the way these are calculated. At the same time, making it profitable for a cabbie to crawl along or sit still would pervert the incentives we are trying to establish here.

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