Unlike the thousands running after public buses in Dhaka, commuting to the office used to be an easy bike ride for Shajed Hossain. Every morning he would call a ride-sharing bike through an app. The biker would wiggle through the clogged Dhaka traffic and somehow, in the nick of time, Shajed would manage to reach his office.
But of late, his mornings have turned into a nightmare.
"In the past, suppose three riders cancelled my request but the fourth would agree. Up to 30 minutes would be wasted on cancellations but eventually, I would get a ride. But then a time came when either no riders were available or no one would agree to take me," said Shajed.
He could not carry on with the uncertainty and anxiety for long. So he readopted the old ways – commuting on buses or rickshaws and accepted his 'fate,' a two-hour marathon journey to the office. Sometimes on his way back home, he takes a bike on contract to reach faster but they are not very safe and charge much more than the apps.
We talked to over a dozen such office goers who recently opted out of ride-sharing platforms for a myriad of issues including drivers/bikers refusing trips, unavailability of cars and bikes, cancellation charges in the case of cancelling a trip on Uber when drivers or bikers are unresponsive. And some faulted their inability to spend more on transportation amid the increasing cost of living.
This disillusionment, or call it frustration of the passengers with ride-sharing platforms, has been reiterated by the bikers as well.
Nasirul Islam saw ride-sharing as a viable career option from the beginning when the platform began to grow popular in Dhaka.
"After driving for different apps for a few years, I realised I was not making enough money. They charged me up to 25% as commission for each trip I made. Also, my bike bears the brunt of nonstop use on the roads. So a large chunk of money I earned through the companies was eventually lost. This is why I no longer use the apps and run on a contractual basis," Nasir said.
In the last decade, nearly a dozen platforms including Uber, Shohoz, Pathao, Oi Khali, Obhai, Chalo, Amar Bike, etc emerged when this city seemed like fertile ground for digital transportation platforms.
However, a few years down the road, Uber and Pathao competed them out of the market.
And with these two in the market, the crisis that seems to have surrounded the ride-sharing market is triangular in nature – the drivers and bikers are unhappy with lesser orders and platforms' commission policies, the passengers cannot cope with increasing fares amid the already skyrocketing living costs and finally, the fact that contractual rides are being allowed even though they are neither safe nor legal.
The bikers like Nasir who run on a contractual basis are in abundance on Dhaka streets. Especially in important junctions like Kawran Bazar, Gabtoli, Mogbazar and Farmgate, bikers queue in different corners calling on passengers like rickshaw pullers and CNG drivers do.
"I would say almost 90% of us bikers now carry passengers on contract. We can earn more on contracts than on apps. Also, the request rate has dropped in the apps recently and they don't pay me for faraway requests that I attend to [the distance from drivers' location to pick-up point]," said a biker named Parvez who started taking on passengers and driving a year ago.
We also talked with ride-sharing car drivers to learn how they are coping.
A driver named Sumon Miaji said, "In the last few months, it occurred to us that we had been online all day and yet we didn't get a single order. The situation improved a few days before Ramadan but it has been dull again since the beginning of Ramadan."
There are available riders. But in comparison to the past, the number of passengers has decreased because they have increased the fare."
According to the ride-sharing drivers we spoke to, the passengers, especially those using Uber, now have to pay more in fares than before. Drivers had previously lobbied for a reduction in the commissions the companies charge them. Instead, the ride-sharing companies are attempting to compensate by increasing the overall fares.
With so much going on in Bangladesh's ride-sharing atmosphere, how are the ride-sharing companies doing? Ride-sharing platforms here are not surrounded by dangerous security threats that rattled the Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi or Uber in Brazil.
The challenge is different in Bangladesh.
We reached out to Uber and Pathao to learn their stance on the contractual rides, commission issues and how their platforms are doing under these circumstances.
Pathao didn't respond to our queries. An Uber spokesperson, however, sent us a statement through their PR agency in Bangladesh.
Uber said that its business has seen a "robust recovery in Bangladesh." They also mentioned that the launching of their services in eight divisions was successful and defended their commission policy, as they previously did, which is: "Sustaining a safe and reliable ride sharing platform in Bangladesh requires significant investments. Our commission reflects the need for us to reinvest in tech and other solutions to ensure riders and drivers get the best quality service."
However, about the contractual rides, they said, "We strongly discourage off-platform trips as these have no accountability or safety support for either riders or drivers."
"Recently, the BRTA has also warned riders and drivers against using street-hailed trips," the statement added.
According to Ride-Sharing Guideline 2017, no ride-sharing motor vehicle can be waiting on the road for passenger collection except at designated stands or authorised parking spaces.
We reached out to BRTA Director (Road Safety) Mahbub-E-Rabbani to learn what steps are being taken about the contractual rides that are taking place.
"Other than lodging complaints with specific proof and documents, what steps can we take? We speak with ride-sharing companies regularly. It is their responsibility to find out which riders are conducting contractual rides and cancel their connections," Rabbani said.
When we asked about the bikers lining up and calling on passengers in broad daylight, he questioned, in response, why the passengers take those rides in the first place. He said bikers cannot take passengers without apps. But "how can we understand who has the apps (and who is carrying passengers on contract)?" Rabbani asked.
We couldn't find a roadmap to a solution for the triangular problem the ride-sharing platforms in Bangladesh are facing.
"The solution could be reducing commissions charged, not increasing the passengers' fares," said Belal Ahmed, the Secretary of the Dhaka Ride-Sharing Driver's Union, "Capitalising on our demand to decrease commission, they increased the fare. As a result, the ride-sharing businesses that had a lot of potential and promise in Bangladesh could lose it all."