Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Bicycles for the Last Mile





I am a Delhi Metro fanboy. Over the past few months, with the opening of the new Magenta Line, I have found it a lot more convenient to use the metro instead of driving a car.  The rising cost of petrol and parking charges, combined with the daily hassle of crawling through the traffic are factors that make public transport a more attractive option. However, one problem remains - last mile connectivity.

In my case the 'last mile' is about 5km (3.1 miles). So far, I have been covering this distance using buses, autos or the app-cabs (Uber/Ola). Recently, an interesting new option has turned up on the horizon.

A few weeks ago, I exited the Okhla Bird Sanctuary (OBS) Metro station to see an array of bright green bicycles lined up in the parking lot. An attendant at the car-parking lot looked blank when I asked him about the bicycles. There were no boards either to explain why ~20 bicyles were lined up there. 

Just as I was about to leave, a lady rode in, left the bicycle in the vicinity, checked something on her mobile and hurried into the station. This is when it occured to me that I was seeing the first batch of dockless, IOT-enabled "smart bikes" in NCR Delhi, from a company named Mobycy

A quick search on the internet tells you that Mobycy is a venture launched last year by Akash Gupta, the former vice president and marketing head of digital wallet firm Mobikwik. The smart-bikes are currently available in select areas of Delhi-NCR region, including Noida, Gurugram, Faridabad and Chandigarh.

Surprisingly, India is a late entrant into the dockless bicycle renting business. It seems the early bird was a German company called Deutsche Bahn which developed the first remote locking systems in 1998. A lot has happened since then:  over 30 companies operate in China, where Ofo, Mobike and oBike have become the world's largest bike share operators with millions of bikes spread over 100 cities. Ofo has 200 million users in 250 countries, Mobike has a similar number in 180 cities, and they are funded by Chinese tech giants Tencent and Alibaba respectively.

The going has been tough for many companies. Gobee - the first dockless bike operator in Paris - has decided to quit after more than a thousand bikes had been stolen or “privatised” and around 3,400 more had been vandalised. City councils in Lisbon and Melbourne have started removing their fleet of oBikes after they were found to be parked carelessly and obstructing roads, subways and staircases.

Mobycy, by launching its operations in the scrappy North Indian cities, seems to have decided to take the bull by its horns. It has made a cautious beginning by creating 'Parking Circles' - designated points where bicycles can be parked, and charging a 'convenience fee' for those that are parked outside these circles. 

This is a great new service and I really hope it succeeds. It remains to be seen if Mobycy has learnt the right lessons from the failure of Gobee and oBikes in other countries.

As for me, I am waiting for a 'parking circle' to appear closer to Sec-105 in Noida. Until then it makes more sense to depend on UberShare and UPSRTC for my last mile connectivity. 

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LINKS & REFERENCES:

* https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/small-biz/startups/newsbuzz/mobycy-launches-dockless-bike-sharing-service-app/articleshow/61961324.cms

* (05Dec17) - https://www.vccircle.com/bicycle-sharing-startup-mobycy-raises-seed-funding/
- Mobycy, has raised $500,000 (Rs 3.2 crore) in a seed round from a US-based angel investor

* (Mar2018) - https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/are-dockless-bikes-the-future/

* 25Feb2018) - https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/02/25/wheels-fall-latest-paris-bike-scheme-thefts-vandalism/

* Bicycle sharing system - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle-sharing_system


* Deutsche Bahn, Germany - https://www.callabike-interaktiv.de/en?



Sunday, June 03, 2018

One Day in the Gulag




A hot summer evening in NCR Delhi, sitting on the terrace with a mug of hot coffee, a bowl of banana-chips, and a book: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

What could be be more incongruous?

The book describes a world quite difficult to imagine  - especially on a day when the temprature touched +46C! Bleak life within the Gulag - prison camps set in the barren, icy wastelands where the teperature dips to -41C; where the inmates are mostly those who offended the Soviet politial system, and are condemned to spend 10 to 20 years of their lives.   

It is appaling to even imagine a system that destroyed the lives of more than 10 million citizens for the most whimsical reasons. Many were prisoners of war who managed to escape Hitler's invading armies and return home only to be suspected of being counter-revolutionaries or spies. One man was sent as a military attache to Western Europe. After he returned back home, his patriotism and loyalty became suspect after he received a Christmas greeting from an aquaintance. This greeting landed him for 10 years in the Gulag.

The life of the protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Sukhov, is perhaps based that of the author himself who, as a young man, was arrested on the charges of 'making derogatory remarks about Stalin', and spent the next 8 years in labour camps: first in 'general' camps (Ust-Izhma?) with common criminals, and then later in Beria's 'special' camps for long-term prisoners. This book is set in one such camp in the region of Karaganda in Northern Kazakhstan.

Most prisoners did not survive their terms, and perished in the freezing labor camps. Chances of surviving aparently depended a lot on the team-leader of your unit:

"You've only to show a whip to a beaten dog. The frost was severe, but not as severe as the team leader...More depended on the work-report than on the work itself. A clever team-leader was the one who concentrated on the work-report. That is what kept the men fed. He had to prove that work which hadn't been done had been done, to turn jobs that were rated low to ones that were rated high. For this a team-leader had to have his head screwed on, and to be on the right side of the checkers. Their palms had to be greased too.."

Not an easy world to imagine while munching banana chips...  :(

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LINKS

* Book - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17125.One_Day_in_the_Life_of_Ivan_Denisovich
*

Saturday, June 02, 2018

A Closer Look at Eyecare: Lenskart vs. Titan Eye+


I needed a new pair of spectacles desperately. The one I have been using for the past three years was in bad shape - both the lenses are full of scratches, one of its arms broken, and I felt my eyes had now reached the dreaded zone of bifocals or progressive lenses.

My search began in Kolkata early this year. I thought I was quite clear about what I needed: A sturdy pair of glasses that I could wear comfortably, both outdoors (mostly distance running or trekking) and while working at my laptop. Anti-glare lenses would be a useful feature while driving, and above all they had to be affordable. 

At Himalaya Opticals on near the Dhakuria flyover, I was greeted by salesmen wearing formals and fake smiles. Within a few minutes they figured out that I was not looking for expensive frames or fancy lenses with 15 coatings, and their attitude changed. Fake smles gave way to sneers. I realised their 'target market' was different and that this was not the shop for me.

Back in NCR Delhi I decided to focus on the options available in Noida. At the bustling Sector-18 market  there are at least 10 optical shops that cover the whole spectrum. Just on the street leading to the metro station there were four - Himalaya, Spectica, Titan Eye+ and Lenskart. 

Having scaled the heights of condescension at Kolkata, I skipped Himalaya Opticals and headed first to Spectica. I had been to Spectica earlier and had found them to be a local business run by an elderly avuncular gentleman. It is the kind of neighborhood shop that sends you New Year greetings, where the owner sits at a counter by the door with the fragrance of puja-agarbatti wafting through the doors. 

Today they were saving on the air-conditioning. At a tiny room on the first floor the saleman patiently explained available options: Frames starting from INR790, two broad options for lenses - CR39 and Polycarbonate (PC) - in three brands (R?, Trio, Crisal) with 
prices ranging from INR1450 to INR4100+. The prices of PC lenses were about 50% higher 
than CR39 which it seems were also less durable.





The Titan Eye+ was fancy and spacious. A Tata brand had keep up some standards -  brightly lit walls and shelves lined with frames, lens promos all over and lots of staff in blue uniforms. The gound floor was was only for shades and branded sunglasses while the basement was for prescription glasses, with an optermetrist on stand-by. 

For all the investment that had gone into Eye+ the shop did not offer many choices. Even those that were available seemed rather expensive compared to Spectica - a wire-frame that cost INR79o was priced here at INR3200! Of course the gave me some spiel about 'real titanium' and 'top quality'.

I got my eyes tested. The optermetrist examined my eyes through an Autorefractor through which I saw a colorful air baloon turn from a blur into sharp focus, and within a few minutes a print emerged from the machine with the test results - a confirmation that I had a near-vision problem as well. Now came the bit about lenses. Over here, CR39 with a narrow 'corridor' was priced at INR4750/lens and a one at INR8750/lens. PC lenses were about 50% more expensive and if I were to choose Crisal lenses they cost much more than the Eye+ brand. So, at the very least, it would cost about INR12,000 to get one pair of glasses. If you had deeper pockets you could opt for a custom made lens that would cost over INR29,000. Not my cup of tea.



Final stop: Lenskart. Located a few meters away from Eye+ this outlet was much smaller but the space was designed much better - plenty of choices with additional options shown on tabs, and a better equipped optermetrist. Unlike Spectica and Eye+ this place was also teeming with customers, most of whom had come here after checking out the Lenskart website. Also unlike any of the outlets I had seen so far the staff was better trained - much better on customer focus, with excellent coordination within the team.  

I was guided through available options, and to my delight they had quite a range within my budget and a "buy one, get one" option to boot. I selected two pairs and headed for my second eye-test of the day. Surprisingly, the autorefractor here gave a different set of readings though it did reconfirm that I needed bifocals/progressives. Now came the second surprise - the cost of two pairs of spectacles, one with progressive lenses (Kodak, wide transition) and the other one PC (Tokai Lutina), was less than the cost of a single pair at Eye+!

Lenskart did leave me puzzled though with items in the final bill. It had listed a 'Gold Membership'  fees (I never asked for one) for INR500 which was cancelled out by a 'Gift Voucher' of the same amount. It also takes much longer to deliver - the bills says 14 days but the sales team said it would arrive within a week.

On the whole Lenskart seemed to offer much better 'customer experience' and value for money, compared to its main competitor Titan Eye+ as well as the local opticals. Now lets see if the quality of the final products lives up to expectations... 

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LINKS & REFERENCES

* (9Dec17) - Lenskart news - https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/venture-capital/lenskart 
* Machines with the Optermetrist 
- http://www.goldenvisionclinic.com/vision-tools/
- https://www.verywellhealth.com/eye-examination-equipment-4020398
* EndMyopia on CR39 lenses - https://endmyopia.org/cr-39-vs-polycarbonate-lenses/