For the past six months, I’ve had a Google alert on the word “Rickshaw.” I receive a summary of five or six news reports per day on average, and they fall into three main categories:
1) Crime, crashes, injury and death incidents involving auto rickshaws—by far the largest number of reports.
2) Technology reports about cities or companies that are transitioning to e-rickshaws as replacements for combustion engine auto rickshaws.
3) Positive reports about rickshaw drivers saving kittens or returning passengers’ wallets - by far the smallest category.
I took the headlines from these reports and a two line-summary for each to create the word cloud above. The bigger the word, the more times it appeared in the reports. This gives you an idea of the emphasis of the reporting, the majority of which is from Southern Asia.
What does media coverage signal to transportation policy makers looking to reform their city’s rickshaw transport system, while shifting it to zero emission e-rickshaws? Well, a number of things. Firstly, the signs are that the media are friendly towards transitioning to e-vehicles, and this makes it a good time to put forward supporting policies and projects. But perhaps the most important message is that to really improve rickshaw transport systems, it will be necessary to have other local government departments, including higher levels of government, as well as civil society and the private sector on board.
Merely transitioning from auto to e-rickshaws won’t make any difference to the headlines in 5 years’ time, as the vehicles are no safer in traffic. It is a good moment to ask whether there is something inherently wrong with the design of rickshaws. Does the Ministry of Transport need to review the technical specifications for what is permitted for use as a public transport vehicle? Is speed-limiting the vehicles necessary to improve safety, or is it a question of driver training? To answer these questions, it will be necessary to engage with manufacturers, academic transport researchers and the national government.
Many of the problems surrounding rickshaws require policing, but may go beyond the remit of transportation police, and again, this requires a multi-departmental approach. How does one address the issue of drivers committing sexual assaults? Or prevent drivers being robbed and murdered? These are impossible issues for a transportation planner to solve alone. It may be possible to find help with your city’s social services department, or local NGOs.
The situation of drivers is precarious. Their low income levels don’t provide them with a safety net in case of sickness. Their social status makes them especially vulnerable to violent assault and robbery. Their education levels leave them at a disadvantage when managing personal finances. The precariousness of their lives may mean they lack identity documentation. A formalization process is an opportunity to work with the social services department to address some of these issues.
How to approach this in practice? For a city like CITIIS participant, Amritsar, which is currently looking to electrify its auto-rickshaw fleet, a first step would mean calling a meeting of stakeholders to define objectives, identify key issues and knowledge gaps, and form a working group from various sectors and agencies involved. A broad preliminary study could map issues and begin to chart the way forward, detailing research and resource requirements. The City of Bogota, Colombia, with support from the World Bank, has initiated one of the world's most holistic rickshaw (bicitaxi) formalization projects in its effort to deliver a cleaner, safer and more streamlined integration with its BRT system, and can serve as a reference in process design.
Remember that whilst all of this might simply sound like too much hard work, and far beyond the job description of a transport planner, a driver who is struggling to survive is much less likely to provide a quality service than one who has a little savings, has dealt with his alcohol problem, and has better access to healthcare. If we take a holistic approach to reforming informal transport, we just might see some more positive headlines in the future.