Friday, April 11, 2008

Phlipside’s Guide to Chennai Autos

Everybody knows that autos in Chennai don't run by the meter. What this means is that the average auto trip involves a lot of haggling. However, people who are used to bargaining and sometime even enjoy it (especially people from North India) will definitely not enjoy the experience of Chennai autos. The reason being that up in the North bargaining is a two-way thing and if you bargain well, you have a chance of ending up on the winning side whereas in Chennai, there is only the losing side for commuters like you and me.

Chennai auto drivers will refuse a ride that doesn't give them at least 1.5 times the amount they should be legitimately getting. Such stubborn bargaining is baffling at first, because it means that the auto driver wouldn't be getting many rides in a day. Auto drivers elsewhere would be looking to spend as much of their working day on rides so as to maximise their returns for the time they spend on work. It's only after you've watched them in action for some time that you begin to realize their strategy - "why work hard when I can make more money being lazy?"

Their strategy works this way. Let's say it takes Rs. 30 to get from point A to point B. The auto driver demands 60. The commuter tries to bargain, but none of the auto drivers are willing to go for anything less than 60. About half the people decide not to take an auto and look for alternate transportation (mostly a combination of walking and buses). The other half, tired and desperate, agrees to go for Rs. 60. So, although the auto driver has lost half his business, he still ends up being better-off. He has got the equivalent of 2 rides by spending the time, fuel and effort required for just one. He has also gained in terms of opportunities for getting more rides by spending more time lying idle (from which he can pick and choose the customers willing to pay more), not to mention lesser wear and tear and maintenance costs for the vehicle.

Another aspect is the distance - Chennai auto drivers prefer shorter rides to longer ones. The drivers can get away with charging Rs. 40 for a Rs. 20 ride, but they cannot charge Rs. 200 for a 100 rupee ride. Their profit percentage is higher for shorter rides than for longer ones. This was candidly admitted by an auto driver who said that he could get 3 short rides to the place I wanted to go and make double of what I was willing to give him for the full distance.

Faced with such ground realities, here are some suggestions to make the process less excruciating:

1. Know exactly where you are going. Auto drivers (AD) will test you to know whether you know the place and decide how much they can overcharge. If you sound unsure about the place, prepare to get robbed.

AD: Where do you want to go, saar?

Me: Residency Hotel.

AD: Residency or Residency Towers? (although both of them are practically next to each other on the same road and won't make a difference to the auto driver).

Me: (Trying to figure out which one) Hmm... I think it is the Residency.

AD: They are very far away from each other, saar. It's also on a one-way, so if that is not the hotel you want to go, then I'll have to go all the way around T. Nagar, saar.

[At this point, while I'm hesitating and figuring out what to do, the AD has already figured me out as a total stranger to the city, someone who can easily be taken for a ride.]

2. Find out the closest landmarks to the place you want to go to. In Chennai, that means some building or police station or hotel or obscure movie theatre that the auto drivers are familiar with. Don't worry, everybody in Chennai knows about this penchant of auto drivers for the 'landmark' thing. So feel free to ask people for landmarks near the place you are going to. Preferably, keep a list of 2-3 landmarks because the auto driver may act dumb on the first landmark (trying to figure out your rip-off factor). If that happens, go to the next one on your list, effectively sending out a clear message to the driver that you know where you are going.

[Pardon the digression, but did you know that the Landmark stores started in Chennai? I'm sure the name has something to do with this 'need' for landmarks in Chennai. Once, when my friend was trying to direct me to a Café Coffee Day in Nungambakkam, I asked him for a landmark. To this, he replied very matter-of-factedly that it is right opposite the Landmark which, incidentally, was their first store in the country (the one in Nungambakkam)]

3. Find out the distance to the place you are going. The distance multiplied by 6 (Rs. 6 per km)will give you the amount you should paying the AD. A trusted guide in this matter is The database for Chennai is pretty comprehensive and it will give you the distance and direction between most of the bus stands, railway stations, schools, parks, road junctions and the like, though I don't know how good it is for other cities. I tried checking out Trivandrum, and found that it's not as comprehensive as Chennai.

Knowing the actual distance is your trump card in bargaining with the auto driver. They work on the assumption that people generally don't know the distances. Even if you have a rough idea, it's not going to help.

AD: Saar, 100 rupees, saar.

Me: 100 rupees from here to Adyar? It's only 6 km from here!

AD: What are you saying, saar? If it is only 6 km, I'll take you there for free. Come, sit inside. I'll put the meter and we'll see. But if it comes above 6 km you have to give me 100 rupees.

When confronted with this, normal people become slightly apprehensive and start doubting - "after all, the AD has offered to take me to my destination free of cost if my info is correct. He wouldn't do it if he wasn't confident that the distance was more than 6 km, would he? Besides, the AD would have a better idea of distances than me."

The only way to call the bluff of the ADs is to know the actual distances. I've done it twice - I waited for the guy to say the line and as soon as he said it, I jumped inside the auto and said, "Ok, set the meter. Let's go. But no cheating - go via Panagal Park." In both cases, the AD realized that I'd called his bluff and revised his demand to a more reasonable one.

4. Flag down the running autos and not the ones lying idle in the auto stands. The running autos are normally the ones looking for a ride (probably returning after making a killing) and hence are more amenable to reasonably priced rides. The auto drivers lying around idle in their autos will refuse a ride if it's not going to fetch him at least double the meter rate for reasons explained in the beginning.

5. If you are in a position to take a bus or train, please do yourself a favour and take the bus/train. Buses in Chennai are very reliable and cover every nook and corner of the city. If not for the peak-hour rush and the slightly rickety nature, buses in Chennai are a joy, not to mention incredibly cheap. Trains are even better, although the coverage is lesser than that of buses. However, be warned – bus services effectively stop by 10 pm.


Mathew said...

Very comprehensive, I admit. But I think you have written this on the assumption that the person involved speaks Tamil, right? If not, then?

philip said...

mathew van kalip: I do agree that this guide is for a person with at least a rudimentary knowledge of Tamil. And I'd say that anybody who knows Malayalam falls in that category.

People who don't know Tamil can still manage to follow the guide, but it will involve a lot nodding of head and gestures. You say Residency and 6 km in English, and shake your head when he doesn't agree to your offer of 40 rupees.

silverine said...

Two months back when I landed at Chennai airport on a personal visit I was told by a kindly cop to take the Govt pre paid taxi. Whatay ride!! The Black and Yellow Ambassador taxi was at least 100 years old and held together by several prayers to Paliappan and Band Aid!

I have fond memories of Chennai when my cuz sis was studying at the Christian college. I would drop in during weekends and we would go all over in those trains and green buses. Never had a chance to sit in those autos though I read so many posts on them like this and this!! The Chennnai AD's seem to be a legend!

philip said...

silverine: Reading the posts that you linked,one of my suspicions have been confirmed - that Chennai ADs are more 'human' than auto drivers in Bangalore. I don't know how such these guys manage to reconcile such opposing behaviour.

You are missing one the greatest experiences Chennai by not travelling in an auto. Make sure you do it next time ;)

Karthik said...

I think the auto drivers in Chennai are far better than those in Coimbatore!

It's much worse in Kovai.

g-man said...

good post! have lotsa experience with the ADs in chennai, but the situation in coimbatore used to be even more deplorable. i've had the experience of being asked for 40 bucks for a 2 kilometre journey! that was quite a few years back, dunno wat stuff is like now. trivandrum is getting to be screwed up as well. nowhere near as much as in tn tho

philip said...

karthik: It's hard to imagine worse auto drivers than in Chennai!!

g-man: One more about Coimbatore ADs! They seem to be really rotten men ;)

I just hope Trivandrum doesn't go the Chennai/Coimbatore of the few places on earth where you could take an auto ride for 10 rupees.

g-man said...

ummm...10 bucks? wow, the only case where i've been asked for 10 bucks was a ride from thycaud hospital to the railway station :| (too much luggage to walk there!) but still way better than tn

scorpiogenius said...

10 Rs in Trivandrum!!! Philip, since we r Trivandrumites and we know the anatomy of the city, we survive the assault!

Just replace your title with "Marthandan's guide to Trivandrum autos" and I'm sure you wont find any

There is a famous story of a hapless Malabari wondering if there were 4 Secreatariates in Trivandrum when he was 'taken for a ride' by one of our autowallas..:)))

philip said...

g-man: The 10 bucks ride that I talked about is from KDpuram to Marappalam which I did a few months back.

scorpiogenius: I agree that people find it difficult in Tvpm autos. However, the ADs run by the meter, even though reluctantly. So even if you are 'taken for a ride', you need to pay only by the meter - you can at least rest in peace in the knowledge that the AD had to burn more petrol to get that money.

The story about the guys from Malabar is funny. Autos in Calicut are the best in the world, without doubt. They will never 'take anyone for a ride' and are such nice ppl.

Pushp Deep Pandey said...

Funny post dude.. nice blog... keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Just random googling for Sidin landed me here. Good post. Any way, for those who don't know enough Tamil, like me, there is Madras bashai on Wikipedia. Check it out.