This month on the ‘Women In Shared Mobility’ series, our CEO Sandra Phillips interview, Divya Kalia, the CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER at Bikxie. Divya was born and raised in Delhi, India. She earned her master’s degree in economics from the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune and began her career as an analytics and consulting professional for Genpact, then the Royal Bank of Scotland, before working in consumer-finance strategy for Boston Consulting Group. Kalia is now currently, the chief operating officer of Bikxie, an app-based bike-taxi service that she co-founded in Gurgaon in 2015.
Women in Shared Mobility: why two-wheeled vehicles are trending in india and how to provide safe shared mobility options for women and other minority groups.
DIVYA KALIA, chief OPERATING officer, BIKXIE
Sandra Phillips, chief executive officer, movmi
My name is Divya Kalia Sherma, I have a masters in economics and I started my job in the world of analytics and worked briefly with BCG before I quit my job and decided I wanted to do something else. Create my own entrepreneurial journey. My husband joined this journey and is the co-founder with me, along with one of his friends and together we are the three co-founders, to a startup in India called Bikxie – an intelligent mobility solution on a digital platform. We realised that in a day-to-day commute, we are spending a lot of unproductive hours on the road, because of the traffic congestion in Delhi. We realized that we needed to think about a more efficient way of mobility in the city because we were facing this problem and one million other people were facing this problem of long with us, every single day.
That is the reason that we started thinking on these lines and we started with a bike taxi service, which is basically an on-demand, motorized, two wheel taxi on a combustible engine. That service started in January 2016 with ten men and five women. We decided died we wanted to have a gender distinguished service to ensure safety for women in this particular mode of transport – which hailed from the ground or ordered online just like Uber, expect on two wheels instead of four wheels and this is what Bikxie is all about.
1. IN YOUR AREA, What HAVE BEEN THE BIG INDUSTRY DEVELOPMENTS WITHIN THE LAST 12 MONTHS?
We will pick up on the question around safety again, because that is a very interesting topic, but before we dive into that, maybe we’ll just look a little bit at the changes in the industry within the last maybe 12 months and what you’ve seen in your particular area. How the developments have moved and what is the most unexpected development for you, in your area?
I think the most unexpected development in recent times has been the shift from the usage of a four wheeler to a two wheeler. A lot of developed, developing and many other economies in the world realised that there was a large movements towards urbanisation. Somebody mentioned a while back a statistic that by 2030 a large part of the world’s population will be residing in urban cities. That essentially means the needs for more efficient mobility solutions will be higher because there will be a lot of traffic congestion on the road otherwise.
What happened was, going back a few years, there was an influx of on-demand mobility solutions that came on four wheels, like Uber, Lyft, Ola etc. These four wheelers became a part of the solution and also part of the problem in itself. While they were catering to a solution of on-demand, readily available mobility solutions, they were also creating the problem of congestion. Cities started to realise that there were far too many cars, far too soon on the roads and the public infrastructure wasn’t able to handle it.
People started looking for alternative means of transport – getting stuck in an Uber or even public transport, was not good for anybody. When looking for alternative means of transport that’s when two wheelers came in, because they were efficient and there was more optimization of occupancy on the road – because the roads were being utilized more effectively. They became popular and that is why we launched a two-wheel taxi service.
2. SHOULD THERE BE SEPARATE ROADS FOR DIFFERENT MODES OF TRANSPORT?
On that note, I just want to go into one of the discussion points that we have here in North America right now. The two wheelers are becoming more popular on our side, with kick scooters and the electric kick scooters and electric mopeds. One of the discussions is, ‘should they be used on the same road or should they be separated for safety reasons?’
I don’t know, I mean it’s a luxury to build specific roads for every type of vehicle. Is this something that you think would be beneficial? If maybe a part of the road system in Delhi is dedicated to these two-wheelers, would it be more safe? Or do you think ‘no actually’ it makes more sense to keep it as it is and to not build more roads for vehicles?
That is an interesting question because recently, there was a particular plan, launched by the head of an initiative from the Indian institute of technology and the Delhi government, which was called the BIT, which was basically separate road systems for buses compared to cars.
I don’t know, I mean it has been claimed as a success in many other countries but it did not meet with success in India, at least. it was a huge failure. It was launched at least thrice in three different areas and it did not meet with success. It had to be taken down because the congestion was only easing in the dedicated lanes for buses and two-wheelers were not allowed in those lanes. I feel that having dedicated lanes is not going to solve the problem.
Let me be honest, you know when you start the service that there will be a few problems in this area that would be raised with our service. First of all, the fact that two-wheelers are combattively considered a less safe means of transport, in terms of being stable and if the driver does not know how to drive safely. Are we going to face more accidents that a regular car?
In our experience and it’s been about three and a half years that we have began this service, we have not faced that many issues on ground, honelsty. Other than small incidents, here and there, which could have happened to anybody on the road. It is essentially a matter of educating the drivers on how to drive properly to follow all the rules and to stick to their side of the road rather than creating a separate road for them.
Essentially, if you really make sure they follow the rules, do their job properly and are incentivised to do their job properly, we have never faced a challenge in that area.
3. HOW DID YOU MAKE THE DECISION TO CREATE A FLEET OF FEMALE DRIVERS?
Of things that don’t work the same way, one of the topics we’re really interested at the moment is ‘women and safety.’ We have a bit of a tendency, in our industry, to design or think about our typical user as, quite frankly, being male, young professionals. That’s generally who we are designing for.
So, how do we ensure and why did you decide, from the start, to have a certain portion of your drivers as female? Why did you do that and why should we do this, overall?
When you’re designing the service you have to think about the perspective of the customer instead. I was thinking from the shoes of the customer, ‘would I be comfortable in X, Y or Z format of the service?’ And I realised as a woman in India, safety is a huge issue. Public transport, whether it is last mile commute, four-wheelers, whether it is on-demand, not on-demand, everywhere and general safety is a huge issue. Unfortunately in our country, time and again, India has been ranked the most unsafe place for women, it’s very unfortunate but it is a fact. I also realized that culturally women are not always comfortable travelling with men in general. What I realized was that women will not be comfortable sitting behind a man that they do not know and that you are sitting closer to the driver. There is a possibility that you might even touch him on the shoulder are somewhere when he breaks or speeds up or when something happens, like a change in the speed or speed bump.
I felt women would not be comfortable with this type of service. I would not be comfortable, so why should my female customers be comfortable. So we launched the service for females, by females so we have a dedicated fleet and driver for women customers. A lot of females customers got back to me saying they were very happy and began booking it for their kids as well. They thought their young daughters would be safer travelling with a female driver, rather that a male diver, particularly given the environment in Delhi.
4. DID YOU HAVE TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC ON THE POSSIBILITY OF TWO-WHEELED, WOMEN DRIVERS?
Do you also have to shift, essentially, the perception, and again I’m assuming and making assumptions, that predominantly it’ll be a male driver whether it’s for Ola or Uber or any other two wheel services? – (I would think it is dominantly male.) Do you have to also educate women to become drivers and shift the perception of a woman becoming a driver? Is that work that you also have to do?
Absolutely, that is a very correct assumption. This is predominantly a male dominated industry. More than 99% are male drivers. It’s extremely difficult to find female drivers on the ground. You don’t find them in Uber, Ola or any of the four wheeler mobility services. Just a handful of service providers are offering them. As far as I know, we are the first in the country to offer a dedicated fleet of females drivers on two wheelers drivers. It is happening with four wheelers, but scantily, with less than 0.001%. Just to give you some perspective, we have about 100 girls with a population of 9 millions women in Delhi alone. It’s like a drop in the ocean. That is the unfortunate case but it is much better than five.
We do have to educate a lot of women, so we tie up with some NGOs across Delhi and we ask them to bring women into a platform where our teams can go (I personally go sometimes) and visit and speak to these women, who are either unemployed, underemployed or employed in the unorganized sector earning meager salaries, usually all in cash.
When we educate about this profession, we tell them we are bringing them into the organized economy, we will open a bank account for you, your salary will go into that, you are going to get better remuneration structures and you are going to feel much better about this job. We have seen a huge increase in the level of confidence from when the join us to just six months down the line. They feel happy, empowered that they are bringing up their kids, that they are paying for their education, supporting their families or parents, being financially independent. We have also decided to provide them the vehicles, because sometimes they can’t afford – so we have a leasing partner in place.
We train them well, help them get drivers license in place, so the ecosystem is brought up hand-in-hand – they get empowered and employment and our female customers feel safe and happy that there is a dedicated service just for them.
5. WITH REGARDS TO AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES, DO YOU THINK WE HAVE TO BE CONCERNED WITH WOMEN AND CHILDREN’S SAFETY?
That is super interesting and it’s really empowering to hear that you, not only solve the customer’s problem, but you actually bring up a whole new kind of professional group. It’s a huge amount of work that you’re doing and it’s very inspiring.
I’m thinking towards the future and whether or not we will have autonomous vehicle in the future, is one question, but let’s just assume we will. From a customer’s perspective, not from the driver perspective, do you think we have to be more concerned about safety for women and children? Because you mention children as well and I think that’s a very important group that we also don’t talk a lot about. Do we have to be more concerned? If so, what are the big changes that impacts safety?
The most important thing is to know what kind of autonomous vehicle it will be. Will it be individually driven or whether it’s on a shared mobility platform? If it’s on a shared mobility platform, we need to give more control to the passenger and we need to understand who they would be travelling with.
For example if a woman is travelling alone and a perpetrator finds a pattern in it, they can take advantage of that pattern. It has to be understood that the woman is in an autonomous vehicle with no other passengers, like a driver or a conductor that could help with her safety.
There needs to be a good support environment, which means either having a camera installed somewhere or more control to the lady. She needs to understand who she travels with and maybe before travelling knows that there is an autonomous vehicle unit dedicated for women and kids and maybe she would feel safer in that.
What I really feel, is that autonomous and safety for women have along way to go in India. Where autonomous is being tested right now, safety is not really a concern for women. Safety for women is a big issue for India, where autonomous really is not. I think the worlds will need time to meet. But, I think dedicated vehicles for women and kids, would make a lot of sense.
6. SHOULD THERE BE SEPARATE DEDICATED AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES FOR WOMEN AND CHILDREN?
Just one last question that I am really curious about because I’ve heard different things. One approach is dedicating vehicles and drivers to women and then there is the additional add on that you know sometimes they’re called the pink driver or the vehicle looks different essentially. There is a bit of a debate. In some places I think that works great and in other places it draws even more attention to the fact though there is only women in the vehicle. Do you have any thoughts on that? Or what works best?
Let me just speak from my experience. When we started this project, there were preconceived notions we had for the problems we might face, for example the safety of the vehicles and another problem would be ensuring the safety of the driver, so that he or she won’t get harassed on the road.
A four wheeler is an enclosed vehicle. On a two wheeler you are on an open mode of transport, you can be affected by the weather and other people. You are more prone to interact with your environment and it could pose a threat of you. The safety of our females driver was very important to me, even more so than the safety of our customers, because if they are safe, they won’t continue with service and won’t be happy doing their jobs.
The first thing I did was give them all pepper sprays. Not one girl needed to use them in the entire time they were working with us. These women were working professionally, they knew exactly what then needed to do and when they needed to do it. What lanes to be and which way they wanted to ferry the customer. They were also travelling with female customers, so they felt more secure in their minds.
It’s all about identifying the right product design, customising it based on the audience and ensure the people operating it are comfortable, that is very important for the service. I don’t think I have come across an incident with a girl ever needing to use her pepper spray.
7. IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
I am very inspired by the work that you’re doing. Is there anything else that you would like to tell our viewers this month around shared mobility and around that the work you’re doing in India? Is there anything else you would like to add or say?
The most important thing, at the time of the conception of design of the product or service, there are two things that need to be taken into account. The first is making sure that service in designed in a manner that is use-able for all cultural and gender groups or other diverse minority groups, other than just the, as you said correctly, the bachelor who is young and male. Designing products that are able to connect everyone together and offering it to everyone.
Also, ensuring that a product is designed in a manner which has a longer mapped economic perspective. Look at what happened to Uber in India (and I’m sure this happened elsewhere), they brought so many cars on the roads that congestion increased, surge pricing increased. Public transport was not as effective as people moved to Uber and Ola, so public transport had to increase prices as well. Now you have to pay either fifty five rupees on public transport or a higher surged price on Uber. It was not a win/win for everyone.
So thinking about what kind of service they want to bring to the platform, with a long term approach, two/three/five/ten years down the line, what kind of service they are bringing to the economy and what it will do to them also. Uber and Ola have lost revenue because there are too many cars on the road and people where looking for other methods of transportation, which is why two-wheelers became the new in-thing, because four wheelers rendered themselves ineffective. A service needs to be thought through in the long term perspective and not just the short term gains they would make – which they did make – but long term it was not good for anyone.
What are your thoughts on the developments in shared mobility that occurred over 2018 and what is to be expected for next year’s developments? What about the future implementation of shared mobility within rural areas? If you would like to be interviewed or to nominate a woman working in Shared Mobility for our next series, get in touch with us here.