What Accounts for the Difference in Autorickshaw Driver Behavior in Mumbai and Delhi?


A reader named Abhishek Rawat writes in to describe, and then solve, a puzzle he has noticed in his native India:

In India all major cities have public transport vehicles called autorickshaws. They are mounted on three wheels, operate on very low horsepower, and have a center of gravity that allows them to swivel in impossible twists around the traffic. In short, they’re the perfect transportation vehicle for people who do not have a personal transport and do not wish to take the bus.

The case I point to is the curious behavior of autorickshaw drivers in Mumbai and Delhi, or rather the difference between them.

According to law, autorickshaw drivers must only go by the meter reading that is reported after a commuter’s trip is finished. However in Delhi, there are hardly any autorickshaw drivers who go by this law, and instead they quote nefariously high prices. In Mumbai though, no matter what the time of the day or night, the drivers go by the meter.

I am from Delhi and live in Mumbai now, and I just love the Mumbai driver way that is honest and forthright. The reason that I came up with for explaining the difference is that it can not be a cultural phenomenon. Since autorickshaw drivers consist of the mix of race, class, and caste in both Delhi and Mumbai, cultural upbringing can be nullified as a reason. What can be the reason, though, is the number of people who use rickshaws in Mumbai compared to Delhi. Mumbai’s prime mode of transport is public services, of which rickshaws form a major component. So you would find Mumbai overpopulated with not only people, but also rickshaws. Delhi, though populous, is far greater in size, and alternatives always exist for rickshaws; hence their numbers pale in comparison to those in Mumbai.

I figured that since competition in Mumbai is so high, if all rickshaw drivers compete with each other to quote low prices, they all will make losses. Hence, they all follow the government mandate and quote only the meter-reading prices. However in Delhi, where there is not such huge competition, drivers actually “play the customer” with the customer and quote high prices and attract the ire of the public.

So in essence, the same pool of people in the same line of business behave differently under different economic conditions and are therefore perceived differently by the public. Is it then that economics can shape human behavior, which in turn can later shape business practices? For example, if tomorrow the metro is introduced in Mumbai, cutting hundreds of autorickshaw jobs, would the rickshaw drivers still go by the meter reading? Something to ponder about!

I like Abhishek’s theory just fine. I’d also consider at least three more possibilities:

1. Difference in enforcement of the law and associated penalties in Mumbai vs. Delhi.

2. Whether drivers are independent or belong to fleets, and if perhaps those fleets have strong relationships with enforcement agency/ies.

3. Although Abhishek discounts “culture” since “autorickshaw drivers consist of the mix of race, class, and caste in both Delhi and Mumbai,” this doesn’t mean that one city’s professional culture doesn’t differ entirely from another. Many things happen in New York — jaywalking, e.g. — that don’t happen in other U.S. cities.

But I’m sure there are many other possible explanations. For those who know, or care to guess, please illuminate us. Do recall that not all transportation in Mumbai reeks of such honesty; earlier, we learned that some train travelers who ride the trains without tickets buy insurance against the possible penalty of getting caught riding without said ticket.


I've had to haggle with rickshaw drivers in every Indian city I've visited, and Mumbai is no exception. It's definitely something you just get used to over there (especially as a white guy).

But more importantly, how do you explain the crazy driving those guys do?!? Some of the most frightened moments of my life have been in the back of an Indian rickshaw.

(and yet, I never experienced an accident...)


I've read a few books about the different types of 'underworld' controls or Mafia activity in Indian cities on various industries.

Perhaps we also need to consider this?

Isn't Mumbai famous for having an almost charitable Mafia system?


The culture aspect is probably not limited to the drivers, but extends to the customers. I do not know what each city is like, but in America a customer would be more likely to be swindled in a city like NY than in a quieter large city such as the Twin Cities.


i too am a delhi guy now living in mumbai.

regarding your points 1. & 2., i dont think there is much difference between delhi and mumbai in terms of enforcement agencies (or the lack of them) or autorickshaw driver unions.

though as mentioned in point 3, i do think there exists a difference in the professional culture of mumbai and delhi which must contribute to this phenomenon. after a certain point, anyways, its all about what the others are doing - since in delhi, nobody goes by the meter, and even the public seem to have resigned to the fact, therefore it perpetuates.

i would like to point out one thing that although autorickshaw travel is much better for the average guy in mumbai rather than delhi, its not perfect. even in mumbai, the autorickshaw driver will ply to the destinations he wants to ply to, and not to any destination desired by the traveler. now, there are some enforcement agencies that can be contacted, both in delhi and mumbai, if the autorickshaw driver refuses to ply or does not go 'by the meter', however, hardly anyone actually bothers to contact the enforcement agency, instead choosing to go to one of the other plying autorickshaws

overall i do buy the theory, the lesser competition in delhi, could have been the reason for the start of this phenomena in the two metros, and then status quo continued in both




It would be interesting to learn the percentage of tourists using the rickshaws in both cities. If the ratio of locals to tourists is higher in Mumbai, that may help explain some of the difference.


Isn't more types of transportation still competition?

I suspect it might have to do with tourism as well, but I don't have those numbers.

Eric M. Jones

The presumption that cities are the same is some regard is probably fantasy. Even the presumption that the same city is the same in all its burbs or over a long period of time is probably fantasy.

Delhi is like a nightmare NYC. Mumbai is like LA in many respects AND 20 degF cooler to boot. Why shouldn't they be different.

Boston and NYC are quite similar in most respects, but I'd rather get run over and have my wallet stolen in NYC. People in NYC are human, people in Boston are wannabe humans, or maybe not even that high out of the dirt. They'd drive around you if you were lucky and it wasn't rush hour. Ahhh...civilization is a such delicate flower.


I would say, Culture and Legacy, plays major part in behavior of the people.

Chennai and Bangalore or typical examples, equivalent to Delhi and Mumbai. ( in the same way)


Bangalore auto drivers charge whatever they please because there is no competition. You will often have to negotiate with the driver prior to getting. Also, heaven forbid you don't speak Kannada - 70% of Bangaloreans don't.

In Mumbai you have taxis, bus, metro, etc, so the auto drivers are well behaved.

In Kolkata, auto drivers are restricted to a pre-determined route and take multiple riders (like a tiny bus). This is an inefficient use for an auto, and is likely done to increase employment in the state.


There is plenty of jaywalking in other large cities. In most cities, jaywalking is more dangerous because they allow right turns on red lights.


I can tell you as a foreigner that has lived briefly in both cities, that I didn't think those meters served any purpose at all - anywhere. I have had to haggle over every rickshaw ride I have ever taken. Good to know if I ever go back to Mumbai, that I can demand they use the meter.


Although variations in law enforcement and competition may account for this difference, I wouldn't dismiss local custom or cultural variations. They can be powerful.

I've spent a lot of time in NYC, and lived almost a year in West LA. Pedestrian behavior in these two cities couldn't be more different. In West LA everyone -- and I do mean everyone! -- always obeys the lights. In many months of walking almost everywhere, I can count on one hand the number of jaywalking events I saw there. People will stand stock-still, waiting for the light to change, even where there's no car in sight. And the few times I saw jaywalking, it was raining (yes, it rains in LA, and it rains thunderously), which explains the change in behavior.

NYC is not this way, as I'm sure many readers of this blog already know.

I'm not sure law enforcement practice accounts for this difference, since I've never seen law enforcement ticket anyone for jaywalking in either place. It's possible that there may have been strict enforcement in West LA prior to my arrival, which changed people's behavior (maybe they fear another wave of enforcement) ... but I have no idea if this is the case.

Given that there are many other cultural differences between NYC and West LA -- and the fact that I never heard about any past strict enforcement of walking laws, which suggests that there is no "memory of enforcement" encouraging people to obey walk signals -- I suspect that law enforcement practices are not the cause.



As a native from Pune, a city south of Mumbai, where rickshaws are the best mode of transport, I have this to offer. In Mumbai, the rickshaws are not allowed to ply in the South Mumbai district. They are restricted to the "suburbs"and are mostly serving people who are beyond walking distances from the train lines.
So I think that Abhishek has it right that its the competition for customers in a restricted market that is enforcing the meter discipline.


What about the crime rates in one city vs another? Frequency of pick-pocketing?

I come from a third world country where taxis play a major transportation role in big cities. Unlike in NYC, the taxis have designated routes; they don't move until they have full occupancy; their fare is set by the government and it goes up once every couple of years. You can however pay extra in advance (they call it a contract which costs about 10x) to convince the driver to
1) ride with less than full occupancy
2) take any route of your choice
People rarely resort to the latter unless they need taxi services at night, have security concerns or need to get somewhere fast.


I remember reading that the official fares in Delhi were too low for the drivers to make any decent profit with it, which makes it quite understandable that - in Delhi at least - Riskshaw drivers don't use their meters.

I remember being surprised by the different situation in Bombay. Drivers won't always be willing to take you where you want to go but when they are, you usually just have to jump in the vehicule and pay by the meter without having to negociate anything.
I guess that if it is the case, that means that the fare in Mumbai is high enough for the drivers to accept it.

If the difference in the profit allowed by official fare is verified, it looks as a solid enough explanation for me.

Back to Delhi, I also remember that there were some short periods where Rickshaw drivers behaved very differently. They would all wear the -supposedly- mandatory uniform and the meters would work. But a few months later it would be back to business as usual : endless negociations with rags-wearing drivers. Enforcement can do something, but only a sustainable regulation can be sustained.



different reference groups.


When I visited Bangalore as a western woman, I never got an auto rickshaw driver to turn on the meter. I had to bargain pretty hard to get the price down to reasonable, but I always paid more than my indian counterparts. However, given that I was just visiting for work, and I was making US wages, I rarely found reason to argue over that last 50 cents or a dollar.

I even took a picture to document for my friends back home:


On that ride, I had walked out of the mall, loaded with bags, and was swarmed, but politely. I found one guy who said he'd use the meter, but of course, didn't. However, he did give me a reasonable price back to my hotel.


I don't know about the rickshaws, but as far as jaywalking goes, I'm guessing that it's not the enforcement that counts, but the danger. In NY traffic is heavy and slow, from what I've seen, making it safer to cross the street anywhere, while in other cities drivers are more reckless, especially cities situated in less urbanized areas where a good bit of the traffic is commutters used to highway speeds and minimal foot traffic.

Kevin H

from my experience in Nepal and Thailand, I would say Dubner's alternative explanation #2 is the first thing that came to my mind. Collusion that prevents fair competition that would otherwise give people what they wanted (metered taxis). Although this makes Abhishek also partially right, because the economic conditions of one city have made the fleet smaller and there fore easier to collude.

Also, the idea that economic conditions shape human behavior that then in turn shape other business practices is nothing new. Family business would probably fall into that cycle pretty easily. I think a decent argument could also me made for check cashing buisnesses and a lot of other interesting aspects of economics that get mentioned on this blog.

Axel Molotov

Having spent some time in both, Mumbai and Delhi, I would accept Mr. Rawat's explanation and offer my own.

I think something else that might explain the disparity in charging behavior is the gap between the rich and the poor and the sophistication of the rickshaw passengers. The economic disparity between the classes is much greater in Delhi than Mumbai. Delhi seems to primarily consist of two groups: the rich politicians and the really poor (there are remarkably few shops and restaurants in Delhi). Partially due to the vast distances involved in traveling in Delhi - think a combination of LA and DC - neither of these groups tend to take rickshaws - the rich have private cars and drivers or take taxis, and the poor can't afford it. Thus, it seems that it is the visitors who play the most important role in determining rickshaw charging preferences in Delhi.

There are mainly two type of visitors in Delhi: government officials, either foreign or from other Indian States, and tourists. Government officials enjoy the same benefits as the rich Delhiites, i.e., they take cars and taxis. That leaves the tourists. The tourists have no clue about Delhi rickshaw laws and customs. Thus, the rickshaw drivers have a relatively easy time charging high prices and getting with it.

On the other hand, Mumbai has a middle class. It's home to merchants, small business owners, as well as to various industries and their respective workers. While this group may have enough money to take rickshaws, it is more price conscious. In addition, the city is an economic epicenter and receives a vast amount of business visitors. I would venture to say that business people tend to be more negotiation-savvy. As a result, the typical rickshaw passenger in Mumbai is more sophisticated in the ways of haggling than his counterpart in Delhi.

One final note. As an American, I would compare Delhi to a combination of DC and LA (the filthy rich here are entertainers, rather than politicians) and Mumbai to a mix of New York and Chicago. I think the disparity in taxis' charging behavior in DC/LA and New York/Chicago is similar to what Mr. Rawat describes in Delhi and Mumbai, respectively.