A new SMS-based carpool service may reduce Mumbai’s traffic woes
- Rashmi Bansal
(this piece appeared in Businessworld, issue dt July 31, 2006)
AFTER the recent hike in petrol prices, Hema Deora, wife of petroleum minister Murli Deora, advocated: "People driving long distances should try carpooling." Coming from a person who doesn’t use them herself, this sounds a little like Marie Antoinette on the virtues of cake. Carpools are good for your city — but best used by someone else.
But seriously, traffic snarls and rising fuel costs have made the average car owner open to the idea of a shared ride. The trouble is finding someone to share the ride with. Someone whose schedule matches yours and will not intrude into your space. To enable this, motoring portal www.indimoto.com recently launched free carpool classifieds. However, there’s more to carpooling than just matching schedules. Here’s why.
Normally, people opt out of public transport because they want a vehicle at their beck and call. Hooking up with a daily carpool partner means adjustment, and that’s something auto fiends resent. So, is there a practical solution to the too-many-cars-on-the-road problem? The Mumbai Environmental Social Network (MESN) believes there is.
MESN is a public policy think tank committed to enable Mumbai’s efforts at a better environment. But it is doing more than just thinking. MESN will launch Koolpool, India’s first SMS-based carpooling system, in the next two months. Says Rishi Aggarwal, COO, MESN: “There will be two kinds of users: ride givers, who take their cars on the network and ride seekers, who prefer to leave their cars behind.”
An SMS- as well as web-based interface would allow Ride Givers and Ride Seekers to hook up with each other on a dynamic basis — each day you could get a ride with a different person in a different car! “There are pre-defined routes created by Koolpool and by the members, each with a unique route number and pool stops,” explains Aggarwal.
The economics of it works through a prepaid account. Ride givers earn 25 fuel points for every person picked up. These can be redeemed in multiples of 500 for fuel at HPCL petrol pumps. The prepaid account of the ride seeker gets debited when a member confirms via SMS that he or she has joined a pool.
Currently, Koolpool is building its member base. “Everybody is enthusiastic about it. But it takes time to convert enthusiasm to actual membership,” says Aggarwal. MESN is focusing on 40 corporates in Mumbai city. So far, Philips, JP Morgan, Lintas, Castrol and HLL have shown interest.
The locality that has shown most interest is Andheri (East), which faces some of the worst traffic problems in Mumbai. Focusing on corporates also reduces the problem of ‘who am I sharing my ride with’, which could be a concern if the system were open to everybody from day one. Photo ID cards will be issued as well.
There are successful working models abroad, such as www.carpoolworld.co.uk (with 600,000 registered members across Europe), US-based www.carpoolworld.com and www.greenride.com. But none of them seem to be as flexible as Koolpool, which even allows ride seekers to share a taxi or an auto.
“Koolpool has been developed indigenously,” says Ashok Datar, chairman, MESN. The idea was conceived by Joshua D’Souza, chief executive, MESN, who met his wife through an SMS-based dating service. A similar system for a carpool service may work, he thought. But the idea, conceived in 2003, took close to three years to bear fruit. “indiatimes was sold to the idea and enabled the backend,” says Datar. Thus, without spending any money, Joshua had the system ready by 2005. In MESN, he found a platform to turn the prototype into reality.
Koolpool estimates that if 6,500 vehicles pick one member for an average 15 km a day on two trips for 22 days a month for a year, it would reduce 51.48 million km of travel per annum. But they’re not going to sell you carpooling as a way to ‘save the world’. They want to make it work for you.