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. 

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.