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 roadsofindia.com. 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.