The rapid pace of urbanisation in the country has witnessed cities expanding and subsuming surrounding villages and smaller towns, evolving into Tier II and III cities
This boon of urbanisation has necessitated the need for improved means of last mile connectivity – commuting from point A to B leveraging public mode of transportation for livelihood and personal purposes has been far from a cosy exercise. Bengaluru-based Rapido has provided a coating of ‘innovation’ to last mile connectivity with its app-based bike taxi services that promises to offer a better commuting experience. Auto Tech Review caught up with Aravind Sanka, Co-Founder, Rapido to understand how the bike taxi start-up has managed to entrench itself in the market and challenges encountered owing to the outbreak of COVID-19, among others.
Founded in October 2015 by the trio of Rishikesh SR, Pavan Guntupalli and Aravind Sanka, Rapido like any other start-up endured the initial struggles and its two-wheeler ride-hailing platform steadily grew popular, and is now offered in more than 100 cities, serving over 10 mn customers and is consistently adding new users every day. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 has left a damaging effect on businesses, especially shared mobility providers, which prompted Rapido to work its socks-off to remain business-relevant over the past few months. The focus of the company was on ensuring protection of its customers as well as its captains (driver-partners). The resumption of bike taxi operations after the national lockdown phase has been a source of big relief for Rapido’s around 15 lakh captains, as their livelihood was at stake, said Sanka.
According high priority to every safety parameter, Rapido made it mandatory for its captains to install the Aarogya Setu app before they start accepting orders, besides adhering to safety protocols such as wearing mask at all times, helmets, hair nets, etc. The captains were adequately trained to regularly sanitise their bikes as well as sanitise the pillion seat before on-boarding customers for a ride. Sanka said bike taxis are a more open and personalised intra-city travel as opposed to other crowded alternatives like cabs, buses, autos and trains, wherein customers have less exposure to any infection due to limited interaction with the captain.
Many start-ups, especially shared mobility service providers, have been battered owing to the COVID-19-induced lockdown, but Rapido took the ‘reinvent’ route and forged partnerships with the likes of Big Bazaar, Big Basket and Spencer’s for delivery of essential items during the lockdown phase to atone for near breakdown of its usual bike services.
Clearly, the COVID-19 times have been exceedingly challenging for businesses, but prior to the pandemic Rapido’s bike-hailing platform had steadily grown in popularity for daily office-goers as it offers an accessible and time-saving mode of transportation, especially for short distance rides. Sanka said the country does not have too many economical and efficient last-mile connectivity options on account of which customers have to hire an auto or bike or drive their own car or bike.
Shared transportation is not as efficient in India as shared mobility service providers do not take customers to their final destination and this is where Rapido saw an opportunity to leverage the free pillion seat on bikes to make inter-city transportation convenient and accessible, thus paving the way for an affordable commuting ecosystem aimed at solving India’s last mile connectivity issues, he pointed out.
It’s not just affordability and convenience alone – bike taxis are seen as a great way to decongest cities since it is using the existing vehicles and infrastructure. A bike can travel faster than an auto or a car in a crowded area and reaching or leaving a public transport station is easier in a bike taxi than a cab or an auto, observed the Rapido Co-Founder.
It is important to understand that app-enabled services can be prone to mapping errors and Rapido is aware of the negative impacts of map-related errors. The company’s engineers leverage data from various sources of feedback along with captain’s feedback to identify such mapping errors. It uses on-device machine learning to filter the GPS data at the source and also works with a closed group of partners along with open maps initiative to identify ways to reduce map errors, while preserving the privacy of users, explained Sanka.
There is a lot of talk generated over Rapido deploying men captains for woman customers, something seen far from ideal for a conservative society we live in. Allaying any such apprehensions, the company said it leverages technology at its backend and rigorously monitors the quality and feedback of each ride. Sanka said for the safety of its women customers, Rapido uses a number-masking technology, wherein the mobile numbers of its women customers are always masked from its captains, when they take a ride and further many safety features are being worked on to provide a safe environment to its women customers, he noted.
Another concern area has been the lack of strict adherence to wearing of helmets by captains and the customer. The company is committed to ensure a safe riding experience for all its customers and has partnered with traffic police across various cities to drive home the importance of wearing helmets, stated Sanka. Rapido is offering half helmets to its customers as opposed to full-face helmets keeping in mind the personal hygiene and protection of its customers and Captains.
Of course, rolling out bike taxi services in a country had its share of cultural and societal challenges, such as sitting behind a stranger. Sanka said there were initial reservations among people about taking a ride with a stranger but the company was able to convince them by carrying out an elaborate awareness-creation exercise that involved educating the people across the country about bike taxis and the benefits of using them. Rapido adopted a multilingual approach for consumer outreach as it set out to reach a larger set of audiences across Tier I, II and III cities, noted Sanka. The company also worked on attractive videos and positioned the brand in a fun way with themes such as “Don’t be late, Save Your Date”, “Kabhi Bhi Kahin Bhi”, “Don’t’ Get Crushed Away in Traffic” and “Late for Exam, Just Stay Calm!”, etc.
The country is giving a big push to electric vehicles (EVs) and Rapido is excited about the promise of the electrification technology and believes that electrification is the future of mobility and it is making investments in this direction. Sanka denied having any plans to get into the cab ride-hailing space and is only focussed towards infusing substantial investments going forward aimed at growing its bike taxi business. Rapido has raised a total funding of $ 80 mn from various investors including Westbridge AIF, Nexus Ventures, Sabre Investment, Skycatcher LLC, Bace Fund, Integrated Growth Capital among others.
There is little doubt that there is a crying demand for better commuting experience across the country. And Rapido’s bike taxi services will go a long way in building an affordable commuting ecosystem. Last mile connectivity will evolve further with growing urbanisation, but for now Rapido’s app-based bike taxi solution appears to be a long-term winner.
TEXT: Suhrid Barua