Philip A. Stephenson, November 12, 2013
In crowded emerging markets like China and India, rickshaws, especially
the motorized kind, have gotten a bad rap with governments fretting
about congestion and smog. But there is hope that a greener motorized
rickshaw could turn official opinions, since the primitive vehicle often
provides needed jobs for the poor and a cheap form of transport for small businesses.
As motorized rickshaws (also called "auto-rickshaws" or "tuk tuks")
have become more popular, they have assumed an integral role in the
transportation systems of emerging economies. They’ve been introduced in South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, and France in
recent years, where they have become a major (and at times,
controversial) alternative to more expensive full-sized taxis. They’ve
also been in use for years all over Asia, including in China, Thailand,
Vietnam, and India, where they handle a significant portion of local
For example, in India, since bus routes, trains and full-size taxis can
only handle so many of the passenger miles required to keep the
country’s urban centers connected to their labor force, tuk tuks take up
the slack. While a bus line may take a worker most of the way, often
the "last mile" of the commute, from the bus stop home, necessitates a
trip in a tuk tuk. Auto-rickshaws perform up to 20 percent of the 229 million motorized trips
taken every day in Indian cities. The total number of trips is expected
to increase to around 482 million by 2031. Altogether, in Asia, there
are 200 million two and three-wheeled vehicles on the road. Current
projections estimate that number will reach 550 million by 2035.
Growing populations and more vehicles mean even more trips, and that
makes the pollution from these vehicles increasingly problematic. Too
many auto-rickshaws feature two-stroke engines, which burn oil and lack
catalytic converters, making them up to 13 times more polluting than low-emission four-stroke and compressed natural gas models.
That’s why officials in Thailand, China and the Philippines are pressuring owners and operators of
the popular motorized rickshaws to cut down on congesting city streets
with pollution and traffic. The affordability and versatility of the
machines makes outlawing them altogether unrealistic. But there are
other ways to lessen their impact. On November 7, Thai police announced
that tuk tuks could no longer crowd the streets of
Phuket to compete for tourist passengers. In San Fernando, a city in
the Philippines, two-stroke tuk tuk drivers are offered cheap loans and
free healthcare in exchange for upgrading to four-stroke machines. The Chinese government recently expressed new concerns about the effect of air pollution on citizens, passing a pollution protection act regulating emissions for vehicles including tuk tuks. The act limits carbon emissions across the board and will outlaw high-emission vehicles by 2017. India mandated a switch from gas to natural-gas powered rickshaws in 1998 to lessen pollution. Unfortunately, researchers have found that the carbon footprint of newer CNG models may not be much better than the gasoline models.
Fortunately, there are even cleaner options than CNG or four-stroke upgrades: electric, hybrid, and solar tuk tuks.
Recently, the Mövenpick Resort and Spa in Thailand introduced electric
tuktuks at their Karon Beach location in Phuket, replacing their entire
fleet of gasoline tukuks. The resort touted the initiative on its
Facebook page as its latest sustainability initiative as a Green Globe certified resort. Dubai’s Anantara Palm Resort and Spa introduced electronic tuk tuks as well with similar fanfare, and tour groups from Bonaire to Amsterdam feature electric tuk tuk service in hopes of grabbing the attention of "green" tourists.
Many firms want to extend the trend beyond limited government action or eco tourists. A Japanese firm, Terra Auto, has begun producing electronic tuk tuks for markets in China and the Philippines. Solar models from Australia are coming onto the market. A Dutch engineer has set up production of similar electronic versions in Thailand, and a Thai inventor is doing the same with his own solar tuk tuk models.
But for now, adopting greener rickshaws is an expensive endeavor, for
both governments and rickshaw owners. Electric tuk tuks can cost between
$3,000 and $5,000 more than conventional models—which go for as little
as $2,000. Many drivers don’t own their own tuk tuks, and it’s an open
question whether taxi stand bosses would be willing to invest in the
expensive technology upfront, even if it means significant gas savings
in the long-term.
India, which implemented a successful ban on two-stroke engines and
a switch to natural gas versions in the 1990s, is a model for top-down
government bans. The San Fernando initiative illustrates what can be
accomplished with incentive programs: local Filipino officials doled out
medical care and loan swaps for old engines, which incentivized all its
drivers to replace every two-stroke vehicle on the road in just 11