April 6, 2016
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA ̶ Mohamed Anasdeen was a three-wheeler tour guide earning about 3,500 Sri Lankan rupees ($23.85) a day when he learned about PickMe, a mobile app-based taxi service.
At the time, Anasdeen drove his three-wheeler, a small, doorless vehicle sometimes known as an auto rickshaw or tuk-tuk, in Kandy, a religious and cultural heritage city about 26 kilometers (16.15 miles) from his home. But his work was seasonal and irregular, and he wasn’t able to save any money.
After discovering PickMe in October 2015, the 24-year-old moved to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, where the service operates. Now, Anasdeen says he earns 5,000 rupees ($34.88) a day on average – about 140,000 rupees ($976.52) a month.
“The app system has helped me to increase my income and now I have a large customer base in Colombo,” he says.
Kumala Wijeratne, GPJ Sri Lanka
The number of three-wheelers registered in Sri Lanka nearly tripled between 2007 and 2015, when the figure crossed the 1 million mark, according to the Department of Motor Traffic, the government agency that registers all new vehicles in Sri Lanka. The vehicles, which have become an integral part of the country’s transit system, also provide an increasingly popular self-employment option for drivers, transportation researchers say.
And as Uber, Lyft and other app-based taxi services, which use automobiles, spread globally, similar apps are connecting people with three-wheelers in Sri Lanka.
PickMe, among the first of Sri Lanka’s locally-developed mobile app taxi services, launched in June 2015. By January 2016, it had more than 10,000 registered users and more than a million bookings, says Portia Ratnayake, vice president of communications at Digital Mobility Solutions Lanka (PVT) Ltd., the company which owns and operates PickMe. The app allows both the driver and passenger to trace their location and calculate fare. All communication is done via the app.
PickMe offers rides from large sedans and small, fuel-efficient cars as well as three-wheelers, but the three-wheelers are the most popular, according to Ratnayake.
About 2,000 three-wheeler drivers are registered with the company, Ratnayake says. The drivers work as freelancers and pay a 75 rupee (52 cents) daily registration fee to be in the PickMe system. PickMe drivers are required to do a basic training course which covers company rules, GPS, etiquette, safety and other topics.
Three-wheeler drivers earn, on average, 3,500 rupees ($23.85) to 8,000 rupees ($54.51) per day, and some can earn as much as 300,000 rupees (about $2,044) per month, Ratnayake says.
Anasdeen, the driver who moved to Colombo, says the PickMe app, with its built-in GPS system, has transformed the three-wheeler taxi experience for both drivers and passengers. Passengers feel safer because they receive details about the driver through the app and a SMS text, and drivers can navigate more effectively through busy streets and traffic conditions using the app’s GPS guide.
Three-wheelers have been common in Sri Lanka since they came from India in the early 1980s. But PickMe and other apps that offer rides with three-wheelers, including TukTuk, which also launched last year, are an extension of the use of three-wheelers as taxis.
One in six vehicles in Sri Lanka is a three-wheeler, according to government figures. They are the second most popular vehicle in the country after motorcycles.
It’s not clear how many of those three-wheelers are being used as taxis. Some three-wheeler taxi drivers work independently. TukTuk, an app similar to PickMe, declined to share driver numbers or other information with GPJ.
More than 400,000 three-wheeler drivers were registered with the All Ceylon Three Wheelers Association, a trade association of three-wheeler drivers, as at February 2016, according to Sudil Jayaruck, the president of the association.
Kumala Wijeratne, GPJ Sri Lanka
Fair Taxi (Pvt) Ltd, which was established in 2007 and provides a call-up service, now has about 700 three-wheeler drivers registered. The drivers undergo a weeklong training, says M. M. Jayaratne Bandara, chairman of the company, in a phone interview, and they must adhere to a dress code that requires short-sleeve shirts with collars, black trousers and specific footwear.
That’s a shift, Jayaruck says.
“There is a change in the social trend as there is a visible change in drivers who originally ran in shorts, earrings and the like,” Jayaruck says in a phone interview. “The profession is being taken seriously, as it offers employment without many qualifications.”
It’s not yet clear how PickMe and other mobile apps will ultimately impact the three-wheeler industry, says Yapa Mahinda Bandara, of the Department of Transport & Logistics Management at the University of Moratuwa.
“As a trend, the market is now slowly adopting the mobile phone technology to book a three-wheeler, and it is at the infancy stage,” he says. “Up to now all the dynamism is as a result of free market operation and no regulation, and as a result, the market responds to the customer requirement.”
The demand for three-wheelers in Colombo has attracted drivers from other areas.
Mohamed Faizal Salahudeen, 41, a three-wheeler driver who does not use an app, says many of the three-wheeler taxis that work in his area are registered in other districts. This shouldn’t be allowed, he says.
Plus, he says, some drivers who have other jobs during the day add to the competition in the evenings.
“There should be some sort of regulation,” Salahudeen says. “We feel lost. Our earnings have come down and it’s difficult to survive.”
The industry could face regulation in the near future, says W. W. Harrison, director of planning at the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation.
“Regulations for three-wheelers are being discussed at policy level by the Ministry of Transport and National Transport Commission and no decisions have been taken yet by the authorities concerned,” he says. “It is still in progress.”
Since three-wheelers are used for both personal and commercial use, it’s difficult to even categorize and track the number of three-wheeler taxis in operation in the country, he says.
In the meantime, three-wheeler drivers, even those who work independently, say their jobs are lucrative, compared with other employment options.
Mohamed Aroos Ariff, 35, says his income tripled when he left his job as a server at a restaurant to drive a three-wheeler taxi. He earned 500 rupees ($3.41) a day when he worked at the restaurant. But from his first day as a three-wheeler driver more than seven years ago, he has earned between 1,500 rupees ($10.22) and 2,000 rupees ($13.63) per day. On some days, he says he can earn as much as 4,000 rupees ($27.25), he says.
Lasanda Deepthi is one of four female three-wheeler drivers registered with PickMe. She bought a three-wheeler in September 2015, and has been registered with PickMe ever since. In addition to her PickMe hires, she also has regular daily customers.
“Being a woman, people trust me to take children to school and extra classes,” Deepthi, 37, says. “This trust has built confidence in me and I do my best for my clients.”
Deepthi, the single mother of a teenager, says she has tried other types of self-employment. She worked as a goldsmith, nursing home careperson and, sometimes still makes shoes and bags at home.
“Living has been a struggle for my daughter and me. Now I have plenty of school hires,” Deepthi says, referring to the children she drops off to and picks up from school.
She takes the PickMe bookings after she finishes the school hires during the day, and often works until midnight, Deepthi says. She earns between 3,500 rupees ($23.85) to 5,000 rupees (about $34) per day, she says.
And she has the potential to earn more, she says.
“If I work late hours, I can top up 100,000 rupees (about $680) monthly,” she says with pride in her eyes.
M. Jayaratne Bandara and Yapa Mahinda Bandara are not related.
Kumala Wijeratne, GPJ, translated some interviews from Sinhala.