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. 

 
 
 
 

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.