Tootle and Pathao make commute easy, but many women express safety concernsRide-hailing services are are fast and reliable, which is why most people like using them. But increasingly, uncomfortable situations and incidents of harassment have tainted the experience for many women.
On April 17, Shefali called for a Pathao ride from Jawalakhel to Durbarmarg at around 2 in the afternoon. The rider who showed up was a middle-aged man, possibly in his 30s. During the ride, the man kept asking Shefali to sit closer to him, because she was “making the bike unstable” by sitting away from him.
“There was hardly any space between us to begin with and when he put on the brakes, the whole of my front would be against him,” said the 26-year-old, who asked that she be identified only by her first name. “Every time I would try to move away, he would tell me to move closer. He even touched my leg telling me to move closer. It was extremely uncomfortable.”
Panic-stricken, Shefali hurriedly got off the bike as soon as they reached her destination. She gave the rider a bad review but only decided to report the incident after thinking it over for a day. Two days later, she made a formal complaint to Pathao through its app. As per Pathao’s company regulations, customers are contacted within two working days after a complaint is made. Shefali said she has yet to hear back from Pathao.
For young women like Shefali, Pathao and Tootle have become life-savers, as these ride-hailing apps make it easy for them to commute in a city where taxis are expensive and public transport vehicles are almost always crammed. The services are fast and reliable, which is why most people like using them. But increasingly, uncomfortable situations and incidents of harassment have tainted the experience for many women. And even though Pathao and Tootle say they have systems in place to discourage—and penalise—riders for their untoward behaviour, women riders say harassment has not stopped.
Yukta Bajracharya’s ride from Jawalakhel to Thamel started pleasantly enough. The rider was complaining about nothing in his life going right and Bajracharya empathised with him. Then, she said, he started to get intrusive, asking her personal questions and for her Facebook profile. She refused, but he demanded that she open the Facebook app on her phone.
“His tone was rude and edgy. I was intimidated, and I panicked which is why I immediately asked him to stop the bike,” said Bajracharya. “The way he was talking and behaving, I think he was intoxicated.”
As soon as she got off, the bike sped away. Bajracharya, 26, reported the incident to Tootle via a phone call but didn’t get a satisfactory answer from the customer service representative. She ultimately decided not to pursue the incident further, and she received no updates from Tootle.
For Kriti Adhikari, 25, the harassment went further. Her rider asked for her social media, which she refused, and then messaged her later on WhatsApp. She ignored him but didn’t report the incident, except for giving him a bad rating.
Tootle and Pathao have rating options for both the rider and the customer after the ride is completed. These ratings are reviewed and monitored by administrators, according to representatives from both ride-hailing companies.
“If the rider or customer gives a bad rating, then we follow up the issue immediately via a phone call,” said Sixit Bhatta, Tootle’s CEO. Riders or customers who constantly receive bad ratings are red-flagged, which means their accounts are either temporarily or permanently blocked. Tootle temporarily blocks the riders’ account for crossing the speed limit and being late, and permanently blocks rider who get complaints about harassment.
“After we get a report, we immediately block the rider’s account so that he or she won't be able to take any more rides,” said Bhatta. “Then we investigate the case.”
Depending on the severity of the case and consent from the customers, Tootle helps lodge a police complaint, said Bhatta. According to Sagun Pradhan, operations manager at Tootle, approximately 12 complaints have been received by the company so far, and two police cases filed. In such cases, Tootle acts as the medium and presents the rider to police to take part in the investigation.
“We leave the resolution to the police and the customer,” said Pradhan. “But we do everything possible to aid the investigation.”
For users of Pathao, which operates a 24-hour service, things can get even more dangerous. Mellvie Rai, 19, recalls an uncomfortable Pathao ride that she took two weeks ago, during which the rider took a longer route despite her suggesting a shortcut.
“The rider was very invasive, asking where I was going, my address, age and if the name on the account was my real name. He didn’t physically touch me or speak rudely, but his probing questions made me uncomfortable,” said Rai.
She ignored his advances by putting on headphones and ignoring him altogether. Rai said this wasn’t the first time she had encountered such a situation. Previously, a rider sent her a friend request on Facebook.
When a Pathao rider accepts the ride, their photo, name, number and licence number all appear on the app. In addition, the rider is required to call the customer within a minute.
“However, the customer needs to be alert and confirm all the details before getting on the ride,” said Saksham Thapa, assistant manager at Pathao. “If something happens in between the ride or after, they need to report it to our office immediately.”
After Pathao receives a complaint, both rider and the customer are summoned to the office for investigation, said Thapa. After the investigation, Thapa said the rider is made to apologise if they’re found at fault, and either banned or suspended, depending on the severity of the incident. Pathao has so far banned four riders permanently because of complaints from customers regarding verbal harassment and intrusiveness. The company also facilitates the filing of a police complaint at the customer’s request.
Tootle and Pathao both claim they monitor their riders in real-time to trace any suspicious activities. But they both said they cannot ensure the conversation or activity the rider undertakes while en route or after dropping off customers. Reporting such incidents, thus, is of the utmost importance.
Bhatta urged users to immediately report unwanted instances so Tootle can take action and resolve such issues. A new update to the app now allows customers to report an issue while giving the rider a rating.
“Our company’s goal is to provide smooth, hassle-free and safe transportation. Reporting such cases makes this task easier for us,” said Bhatta. Tootle also allows customers to send an SMS with a tracking code and the rider’s information to family and friends. The code allows family and friends to track the ride status by entering it on the app.
To become a Tootle or Pathao rider, all one needs is a valid licence and renewed blue book. After submitting these documents, they go through an interview, attend orientation and they are good to go.
“We verify their licence, blue book and insurance papers, but we do not have the access or the right to check their criminal record and history as a rider,” said Thapa.
Bhatta of Tootle also made a similar statement.
“Most reported cases are caused because the customer’s phone number is exposed to the rider. We are trying to develop a feature to keep the customer’s phone number under wraps,” said Bhatta.
Both Tootle and Pathao, however, provide their riders with sensitivity training to prevent such cases, they said. Bhatta said that last year, Tootle partnered with UN Women and the UN Capital Development Fund to support 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. Pathao too provides sensitivity training to their riders, said Thapa.
However, such training doesn’t seem to have had much effect. All of the customers that the Post spoke to agreed that ride-hailing apps like Tootle and Pathao had made their daily commute easier, but because of such incidents, they now think twice before booking a ride.
“Pathao has made my life easier,” said Rai. “But such encounters ruin the whole experience.”