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OP-ED: Moving safely in the time of Covid-19

  • Published at 05:32 pm June 1st, 2020
Ride sharing apps
The large number of bikes in Dhaka, experts say come from out of town as people are trying to cash in on ride sharing apps Dhaka Tribune

Why are ride-sharing platforms not being allowed to resume operations?

This morning, I experienced something that has become a rarity in Dhaka over the past two months: A traffic jam. The blaring horns, the aggressive overtaking, and the occasional cursing would have almost made the casual bystander nostalgic of a more familiar time. “Almost,” because as Bangladesh emerges from the lockdown, we still have work to do to make sure we are moving safely.

On May 31, the general holiday in force since March 26 was lifted; trains and launches resumed service. CNGs have been plying over the past month, while rickshaws have been on the streets for the entirety of the lockdown. On June 1, most other forms of public transportation -- intracity and long-distance buses -- became operational. Even domestic flights resumed service on June 1. 

Only one form of public transportation remains suspended until further notice, as instructed by the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA). Paradoxically, it also happens to be the most tech-enabled form of public transportation, that can ensure social distancing, has implemented meaningful safety measures, and instituted mechanisms that can facilitate corrective action. That would be: Ride-sharing platforms such as Pathao.

In the time of Covid-19, tech-enabled ride-sharing platforms offer the safest option for public transportation. Accordingly, while cities around the world have suspended or restricted bus, train, and subway services, ride-sharing platforms have been allowed to continue service. 

First and foremost, ride-sharing platforms operate using private vehicles (cars and motorbikes) that allow safe social distancing. Human interactions are limited -- no crowding at a bus stop or inside a packed bus. Two-wheelers (motorbikes) are the most popular vehicle types for ride-sharing in Bangladesh. Over the past three and a half years, a “Pathao” has offered the urban commuter in Bangladesh a safe, efficient, and affordable mode of transportation. 

This holds even truer today. Two-wheelers ensure maximum ventilation and minimum interaction with surfaces -- both of which represent best practices advised by public health organizations including the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) in its technical guidance dated May 2, 2020.

Second, as the country’s largest ride-sharing platform, Pathao has already taken significant measures to facilitate proper training regarding safety, health, and hygiene of our drivers and users. We have partnered with reputable public health organizations to have access to the best resources. We have developed training materials (videos, tutorials and communications) to enable dissemination of the health and safety precautions. 

Third, we have teamed up with leading consumer products and pharmaceutical companies to equip our drivers with safety kits comprising of hand sanitizers, face masks, and gloves. With the lifting of the lockdown, our walk-in-centers are reopening for drivers to come in and get trained and equipped. 

Fourth, we have introduced tools inside the Pathao app that will allow drivers and users to ensure compliance with health and safety best practices. Our drivers will be asked to read and accept the Covid-19 safety protocols. Our drivers and users are able to cancel rides if such protocols are not maintained. 

Users will be asked to provide feedback on whether drivers wore masks. We are the only company in Bangladesh to offer contactless digital payments on bike and car rides. We will educate and encourage our drivers and users to adopt contactless digital payments, as we have successfully with our food, grocery, and essentials delivery during the lockdown. 

Fifth, we have implemented a process for enforcement and corrective action based on continuous, tech-enabled and data-driven response. Drivers who do not adhere to the safety protocols will receive feedback and further training. Certain complaint thresholds will trigger further action, including suspension.

Now if it seems ironic that despite the inherent safety of ride-sharing and the proactive measures undertaken by the ride-sharing platform, we remain the only prohibited mode of transportation, here is one more. While the operation of ride-sharing platforms is suspended, ride-sharing is still on!

Back to my traffic jam from this morning. As my driver manoeuvered his way towards the Mohakhali Flyover ramp overlooking the BRTA headquarters, I could not help but notice the 40 motorbikes to my left, each carrying a pillion passenger, and about half of them wearing the distinctive red Pathao helmet. Pathao has switched off ride-sharing in our app, in compliance with regulatory instructions and along with our industry colleagues. But ride-sharing is quite visibly on, by way of “offline trips”: Street hail bike rides negotiated by drivers and commuters. We estimate that thousands of drivers provided offline trips over the past month.

We understand the imperative of offline trips. With offices reopening, our users need transportation options to get back to work. Our drivers, who have come to rely upon Pathao as an earnings platform, also need to get back to work. What both are deprived of, however, is the efficient marketplace of the Pathao platform that matches a user that needs a ride with a driver that can offer a ride, when they need the ride, where they need the ride, and at a fare that is transparent and reasonable.  

Even more importantly, drivers, users, and the entire community are denied the robust mechanism we have developed to enforce the health and safety measures that are so critical in curbing the spread of Covid-19. 

We conclude with a simple message. To the urban commuters in Bangladesh: We are ready to serve you again. To the daily earners who rely on Pathao: We are ready to offer you a safe, efficient, and reliable earnings platform again. To our regulators and policy-makers: We are ready to build Digital Bangladesh again. We await your instructions to resume our operations.  

At Pathao, we believe that we are only alive when we are moving. Let’s ensure we are moving safely. And let’s keep moving Bangladesh.

Fahim Ahmed is the Chief Financial Officer of Pathao.

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