Auto-rickshaws in Mumbai

Photo by Mark Hillary 

There is much good to be said about autos in Mumbai. They are generally available in plenty at all times of the day. And to a lesser extent even in the middle of the night. They generally charge by the meter, which is more than can be said about Delhi or Bangalore. And they (again generalizing here) have a more positive attitude towards their passengers and humanity at large than their brethren in other metros.

But at the end of the day, they are, like all of us, slaves to economics. While I am in India, I often take an auto from our office back to the guest house in Malad which is less than two kms away. For reasons that we will explore further, I have to ask an average of a dozen auto wallahs before one of them agrees to take me to my destination. In the process you learn many important life lessons. For instance, how to take rejection well (Chin up, move on to the next auto). Or why you shouldn’t take some things personally (He likes you, just doesn’t like where you’re going). Although the looks I sometimes get when I ask the question “D-mart jaoge” don’t make me feel loved. Some don’t even bother with a response. They just look away. You just know they are saying to themselves “Kahan, kahan se uth ke aa jaate hain!”

Although, all this is character-building and all that, I decided to go a little deeper and look at the economics of this. I am sorry to say that I don’t have a solution for the problem. But still here goes…

An auto wallah’s decision whether to take a passenger or not depends upon many variables. Some are actually system constants like the running cost per km. Some depend upon the situation like the expected wait for a passenger at a particular location or the distance of the passenger’s destination. The only variables that can be changed by the administration are the meter fare per km. and the minimum fare. Interestingly, the time cost of an auto (the rental the auto driver pays the auto owner) does not matter. Nor do the driver’s own expectations of profit.

We define a variable called fare contribution per min (FC) which is the price per km. less the running cost per km. and assumes that the auto moves at a certain constant speed only (which is pretty close to being fact in this traffic!). In making decisions of “Wait or Ride” the auto wallah is basically trying to maximize total Ride time over the day.

This sounds simple. Price per km. doesn’t matter. It is simply a trade off between taking a short fare vs. waiting to get a longer fare. Keep making these trade-offs in order to maximize Ride time over the day.

But there are other complexities. A ride shorter than the minimum fare gives an opportunity to make a higher FC than for full fare rides. Also, a major wrinkle is that the auto wallah can always ride empty from a long wait location to a short wait location. When riding empty the FC is actually negative. In a city like Mumbai, where a low wait location is seldom far away, the relation between Ride FC and Empty FC is, I would guess, the biggest driver of passenger refusal. However, I couldn’t say if it was big enough to change behaviour if we raised the fare a little or increased the minimum fare. We’d need a lot more data to arrive at that conclusion. But my suspicion is that a fare increase will reduce but not eliminate passenger refusal. Of course, most people who travel to and from the train station and generally don’t face this problem would rather not see a fare increase, thank you very much. So the discussion is very academic. But it is nevertheless satisfying to know that my suffering is for a greater cause. By tolerating constant rejection, I support lower auto prices in Mumbai.