Technically Navi Mumbai but I didn’t want to disappoint you so fast. The point is two months after I celebrated my 3rd work-from-home anniversary, my employer sensed I was enjoying my life and sent an email asking me and everyone else to work from its office three days a week. Typical. The fact that the office is in Pune and I live in Navi Mumbai was not its problem. It was my problem.
The fact that the monsoon was approaching was also my problem. For me, rains rule public modes of transport out. Pick any mode and try commuting to work unscathed, unwet, and I’ll bow to you. Since umbrellas and other rainwear have been unanimously found to be useless, the only decent option that remains is to roll yourself in plastic and carpool. Or buspool. Yes, Cityflo and Mylo.
I don’t own a car and perhaps never will, and since I’ll have to procure a personal loan to pay for Uber Intercity, I choose BlaBlaCar for my intercity commute. It’s a nifty app-based service that allows you to carpool with car owners and travel between cities. Simply enter your source and destination, choose from available rides, and bam! It’s the perfect solution for people like me and it was very evident right from my first ride because there are hundreds of people like me who make the commute between Mumbai and Pune. Navi Mumbai, I know, but you get the idea. According to its founder, BlaBlaCar is exploding in India, with over 40 lakh users in 2022.
So far I have carpooled using BlaBlaCar five times, and like always, I have a few observations.
The first time I used BlaBlaCar was to go from Navi Mumbai to Pune on an afternoon to meet my work colleagues outside of work. The host came about 30 minutes later than the scheduled time. Punctuality is a rarity among my five BlaBlaCar hosts so far. The host on my way back that day took longer to reach the pickup point but thankfully he had informed me a few hours prior. Another one cancelled his plan at the last minute, forcing me to cancel my trip too.
BlaBlaCar is not as reliable as Indian Railways’ Mumbai-Pune express trains like the Intercity and Indrayani but it’s far better than the MSRTC buses. It’s also cheaper than taking MSRTC’s Shivshahi or the electric Shivai buses. A major disadvantage with MSRTC is last-mile connectivity. Ask any Punekar how they travel in the city and the answer is always a private vehicle. Public transit is hopeless in Pune despite its inventive dedicated bus lanes that turned out to be a colossal failure. These days I see fools riding scooters in those lanes.
For this reason, I prefer a BlaBlaCar trip that drops me within a 100-metre radius to my workplace. It doesn’t matter to me much where I have to board from because intracity travel in Mumbai is a piece of cake. The local train connectivity is fantastic.
This is why I didn’t think twice before booking a trip from Pune to Navi Mumbai even though I knew the journey was only till Kamothe, a place that sounds and looks like it’ll always stay underdeveloped. My pickup was from the road next to my workplace building in Pune and it doesn’t get better than that. Though after reaching Kamothe, I had to take a shared rickshaw to Mansarovar railway station, take a local train to my destination station, and then walk to my house. I should perhaps send this to my employer for some sympathy.
I know of people at work who moved from Gurgaon and Lucknow to Pune to meet the three-day-a-week-in-office mandate, so my employer’s sympathy will evade me.
Another advantage of using BlaBlaCar is that you make acquaintances. I now know a musician in Vashi whose partner works in Mastercard, a financial risk analyst with Maersk who moved from Vashi because he wanted his daughter to study at a reputable ICSE school, another fintech guy with UBS (who looked older than he was, so I know he was involved in the Credit Suisse acquisition), a businessman who was to get married the following week, and a developer who thinks it’s okay to stuff three people in the middle seat of a Maruti Suzuki Ertiga and take a detour through Pune’s arterial roads to get a CNG refill.
Nothing has come out of these acquaintances but if I had to believe those networking pundits, I might soon bump into one of them and they may end up improving my life in some manner. Can’t wait for it.
It was the musician who told me that BlaBlaCar got its name from the idea of chitchatting during the commute. If he’s to be believed, the app’s internal rating system in Europe is categorized as Bla, BlaBla, BlaBlaBla, and so forth to signify how talkative the hosts and the passengers are. It’s an interesting concept and I already know who I might have given a ‘Bla’ rating to if the app’s Indian version had the system.
My biggest concern with BlaBlaCar is safety. A woman’s perspective is going to be far more worrisome because the idea of travelling with a stranger does not instil much confidence. One can never be too cautious with BlaBlaCar trips as there are several life-threatening possibilities stacked against you. Travelling with only the host as other passengers cancelled or travelling with a host who’s asked his chums to book other seats so that they can corner you. This second one seemed like a real possibility to me on my last trip. The host and the three people sitting in the middle seat of his Ertiga knew each other, and despite the inconvenience, the trio seemed jolly throughout the ride. I was almost sure I would be murdered by the quad if I was not killed in a crash by then.
And it’s not just the other passengers who pose a risk. You are entirely dependent on your host’s vehicle and driving skills. Since Indian roads leave it up to you to be safe, there is not much for you to do in a BlaBlaCar trip other than yell “shotgun”, occupy the front passenger seat, put on the seat belt, and pray to your favourite god. If you don’t have one, like me, you are doomed. Alternatively, pray to that god whose idol will be on the dashboard instead of an airbag inside.
Two out of my five BlaBlaCar trips saw reckless driving. And both of them were trips past evening. Somehow I feel the desire to reach home early – most users in BlaBlaCar live in Mumbai and drive to Pune for work – drives the hosts to drive faster and recklessly. These hosts had no respect for the traffic rules and some of them had the Waze navigation app installed in their phones that alerted them of incoming traffic enforcement cameras, which are common in the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. The host with the Ertiga was the most reckless, and it sort of reinforces the efficacy of my rule to never book a BlaBlaCar trip with a Maruti Suzuki car. Global New Car Assessment Program (GNCAP) confirms it too. By those standards, I should rather walk to Pune than get in a Maruti Suzuki S-Presso, the worst-rated car in India by all parameters.
Still, I find myself relying on carpooling for my commute to Pune until my employer decides to mandate all five days a week in the office. That will be the end of fun for me as well as my relationship with BlaBlaCar.