One of the things that really puts me off is when people land in Chennai and launch into a litany of the problems they faced at the hands of insensitive, racist rogues who also masquerade as auto drivers. They invariably blame their inability to speak Tamil as the chief reason for being taken for a ride (ha ha. What a pun) and crib endlessly about the non-existence of auto meters in this city. I say ‘Nay, my friend, that is not true’. The reason you assume your linguistic limitation as an excuse is because you are under the merry picture that the minute you start talking in Tamil, auto drivers queue up to take you to your destination at cut throat prices. Not true. There are only two ways in which you can ensure you get a fair price
1. You are already familiar with the acceptable fare from point A to point B
2. You are around 6 ft and 90 kgs and have a steely glint in your eye
Point no. 2 is based on strict empirical evidence. One late night when I was trying to unsuccessfully find an auto using my local language skills, my bulky non-Tamil friend stopped an auto guy, fixed his eye on him and then informed him that he would be taking me to point B at XYZ fare. In less than two seconds I was seated in the auto.
Wow. Does this mean this write up is about how to do one of the two above?, you ask. Fear not. I do not for a moment suggest the futile and mindless method of mastering the knowledge of fares on all possible routes. I also assume that if the good Lord has not endowed you with the appropriate physiology, you do not plan to go for surgery or try the Jessica-Lange-in-Kingkong route of having a giant monkey following you around so that you can use intimidation as a tactic. This piece is to build a deeper understanding of the environment as I see it.
Firstly, appreciate the situation. Everybody raves about the efficient auto system in Mumbai where there is a fixed meter to tell you how much to pay. Grow up people. Chennai auto guys are much more advanced in economics than what you give them credit for. I cannot think of anyone who salutes the spirit of free enterprise more than they do. When you want liberalistion and free markets in the rest of the world, why do you shudder at the thought of your auto guy fixing his fare based on the current demand-supply situation! Mark my words when I say this is an indication of which city is likely to be the next financial capital of India, if not the world (A Big Ha to you Mumbaikars)
Secondly, the fare situation is a fairly simple Game Theory problem. Here are the situations you can possibly be faced with
a. Plenty of autos. You are the only customer around. If all these autos are parked together in a stand, leave. They are obviously a cartel and no one is going to step out of the line. Go to the main road where you can get more autos.
On the other hand, if you are on the main road and there are a lot of empty autos slowly wandering on the road, you start negotiating. Show me an auto guy who is wandering on the road and I will show you a guy who is ready to close a business deal. The first auto guy sidles up to you and quotes a fare enough to buy his vehicle. You ask him 30% of the price. If he rolls his eyes upwards and leaves, you know you quoted too low. If he sidles some more and begins to negotiate, you know you are nearer to the fair price mark. In case he has left, you can face the second auto guy armed with the knowledge of the upper and lower price bands. You will probably be on your way home by the third or fourth auto.
b. Plenty of customers One auto. Face it. The auto guy has choice. Unless he is really naïve or really wants to go to the area you are headed, it is unlikely you can get away without paying a premium
c. Plenty of customers. Plenty of autos. Shop around a bit. You usually can find a guy who is naïve or headed towards where you are going. At any rate, you discover the market price.
d. No customers. No auto. Hey, this one does not need a solution since you are already at your destination
There are of two key factors that make a difference to the situation, namely
a. time of the day – if it is pretty early or pretty late, you both need each other. Peak hours offer more choice to both of you. Anytime in between means you are down and out
b. place – if you are standing in a remote street of Madipakkam, then let us get this clear. It is a miracle there is an auto there and not a cycle rickshaw. Take it or take the bus
All clear with Economics 101? So we move on to behavioural fundas now. Remember that emotional blackmail is a key and a grossly underutilized skill that can tackle any situation. A usual one is where neither you nor your auto driver knows the way. Having fixed the price upfront, he hates having to wander around aimlessly while you get your bearings right. A uniformed customer will of course feel so guilty that by the time the third wrong turn has been taken, he/she is ready to bequeath his/her property to the auto guy as fare. The informed customer will however, at the first sign of the auto guy getting restless, glare at him and point out that being an auto guy it is assumed he will know all routes in Chennai. No auto man can handle this affront. Hell, you are practically declaring him unworthy of his trade. It is like asking your mom if she knows exactly what the word salt means (My mom knows by the way. Hi Mommy). All you need to do is to think how you can move from the defensive to the offensive at any point in time.
So with this we come to the end of fundamental principles driving (ha ha another pun) the auto fare market in Chennai. As you can see, it is economics and not Tamil that is required to take an auto in Chennai. So, next time you crib about taking an auto in Chennai, remember people think you are stupid not unfortunate.