Can Indian rickshaws survive in a green and Uber-ised world?

Tuk tuks in Delhi. Image: Getty.

The three-wheeled auto rickshaw – nicknamed ‘tuk tuk’ after the judder of its two-stroke engine – has come to be a symbol of modern Indian city life.  Around a quarter of a million of them putter about the streets, mostly painted in bright yellow and green and decorated inside, often garishly, with photos, stickers and religious iconography.

Rickshaws have existed in some form or another for almost a hundred years, and employ thousands. But despite their cultural popularity, tuk tuks are facing their biggest challenges yet – and they’re of a distinctly 21st century variety. 

The crisis has its roots in India’s environmental problem. Tuk tuks make up about 4 per cent of national traffic, but are concentrated in India’s cities, many of which are among the most polluted in the world. The capital, Delhi, exceeded national pollution standards on 95 per cent of days in 2015. The problem is getting worse, with year on year figures showing a worrying escalation in both greenhouse gas and particulates, leading the government to declare Delhi’s pollution level an “emergency situation”.

In an attempt to bring road traffic pollution down, many state laws now require tuk tuks to run on greener fuel. In Mumbai, India’s most populous city, they must use compressed natural gas (CNG), which emits around 25 per cent less carbon dioxide than petrol. In recent years, tuk tuks have been one of the major drivers of the shift from petrol to gas-based fuels in Asia, spurred by cheaper prices and fuel efficiency. 

Nevertheless, carbon emissions have continued to rise. State and national government willingness to regulate tuk tuks as a source of emissions in the past suggests they are likely to be a target again, especially since they operate only where pollution is the worst. 

The international pressure to cut greenhouse gases is higher than ever, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s laudable declaration that India will go “above and beyond” the Paris Agreement will see regulation skyrocket in coming years. Already, government investment in projects such as the sparkling Delhi metro have earmarked city transport as a hotspot of Indian environmental policy, and tuk tuks stand between regulators and a greener India. 

Technological innovation could be the tuk tuk’s saviour. The adoption of battery-powered electric rickshaws has brought about a seating redesign, with golf buggy-style vehicles offering much more space than their CNG counterparts and spurring ride-sharing and efficiency gains. And, like their cycle-powered predecessors, e-rickshaws don’t kick out any Co2, nitrous oxide or particulates into cities.


Yet, for the time being, battery replacement costs make e-rickshaws more expensive than those with engines, and a culture of passengers bargaining down prices means that e-rickshaw drivers stand to make far less money from fares. Everywhere but Mumbai, the meters that tuk tuks are required to screw to the railings between driver and passenger sit unused: fares are instead established through fierce roadside haggling, and most don’t work anyway. A series of safety concerns have led to the banning of e-rickshaws in some cities, including Delhi, and the imposition of a speed limit of 25km/h elsewhere makes them much slower on busier roads and less attractive to prospective passengers. 

At the same time, electric and CNG tuk tuks alike face competition from that mortal enemy of taxi drivers: Uber. Ride hailing apps undercut tuk tuk prices by as much as 50 per cent, and offer air conditioning, card payments and a far more comfortable ride. 

Uber launched in India in 2013, and now sees millions of rides per year there – only the US uses the app more. An attempt at an Uber-ised tuk tuk in 2015 was eventually abandoned, along with attempts to mimic Indian “rickshaw culture”; but the new UberMOTO service has customers riding pillion on their driver’s motorbike for as little as 35 rupees (40 pence) for a half-hour trip.

Everywhere, tuk tuk drivers complain about the fall in prices since Uber’s arrival, and worry about the scarcity of passengers, especially for longer journeys. Although Uber vehicles are also required to use CNG in some cities, regulation has thus far targeted the various forms of rickshaw more than their techy competitor.

The tuk tuk sits at an uneasy crossroads. It is neither green enough to satisfy regulators, nor cheap enough to satisfy thrifty customers who can easily summon a cheaper ride on their smartphones. With the launch of environmental action under the Paris Agreement set for 2020, and fares being squeezed dangerously in the meantime, the familiar noise of the tuk tuk on Indian city streets could soon be facing extinction. 

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.