Friday, May 31, 2013

Op-Ed: Saving the Cycle Rickshaw

Growing up in India, I’ve used about nine different modes of transportation to get to school every day. My favorite was the Cycle Rickshaw (or the pedicab), as the operator (the rickshaw cyclist?) would sometimes let my friends and I take turns driving it back home. With the advent and subsequent monopoly of motorized and faster modes of travel on Indian roads, the Cycle Rickshaw population is dwindling. Increasingly, they are being banned from cities due to their poor integration with motorized traffic and deteriorating public image. In this post, I’ll talk about the problems faced by this mode, why they are a critical component for the Indian city, and some innovative grassroots initiatives focused on bringing back the Cycle Rickshaw.

Cycle Rickshaws on a busy road

The Declining Public Image

Cycle Rickshaws are quickly losing public and government favor as they are often associated with backwardness and are deemed to reinforce the growing rural-urban migration. They are often perceived as a deterrent to the modern image every Indian city wants to present on a global stage. Despite investments made to make major improvements to the traditional design, the Cycle Rickshaws continue to have a poor public image. The traditional vehicle can have uncomfortable seating and may offer no protection against the harsh tropical sun. Moreover, with traffic getting faster and more aggressive, they can be very unsafe and their growing accident rate, due to their slow pace, has caused the traffic police to be very hostile towards them. Lastly, many customers feel guilty hiring rickshaws due to the manual labor involved in pulling their weight, especially as these rickshaw-pullers are very poor, often starving and unable to make ends meet.

Battery Powered Cycle Rickshaw in Agra

Benefits of Cycle Rickshaws

However, rather than banning them, there is much to be gained in continuing to invest in Cycle Rickshaws as a mode of transportation. They are a cleaner, pollution-free mode of travel, especially in tourist areas. In fact, according to Whitelegg and Williams in their paper on Cycle Rickshaws in Calcutta, there are severe environmental consequences of banning them. Their model suggested an astounding increase in Carbon Monoxide levels by about 75,000 metric tons per annum.

Additionally, Cycle Rickshaws are an important component of the informal economies of developing countries, providing an informal transport system for both people and goods. They provide basic mobility options for short distances and provide income opportunities for low-income households. They are a major source of employment for very low-income households, especially those who have recently migrated from rural areas. Moreover, they are shown to improve the health of the cycle rickshaw operators and promote the shift back to active transportation in Indian cities.

Banning Cycle Rickshaws from Indian roads could increase poverty and deepen the income gaps existing in Indian cities. Yet, continuing with the current system is hardly a step in the right direction. Without proper regulations in place and better integration with changing traffic patterns, it would be difficult to ensure a better outcome for Cycle Rickshaw operators. In describing policies associated with such informal transport in developing countries, Dr. Cervero very poignantly points out, within policy−making circles, the sector is often ignored, and when recognized, it is often maligned.”


To promote their usage and to better integrate the Cycle Rickshaw into India’s complicated transport system, several non-profit organizations are coming up with innovative solutions. The GreenCAB or Dial-a-cycle rickshaw service is a concept that looks like New Delhi’s answer to the last mile question.

The dedicated cycle rickshaw lanes, now implemented on certain roads in Delhi, were pioneered by the Initiative for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP, India). The Cycle Rickshaw ban in New Delhi was followed by protests and rallies against the move. After much awareness was raised on the benefits of continuing Cycle Rickshaws on roads, they were included in the 2021 New Delhi Master Plan.

Cycle Rickshaw lanes are now a common sight in New Delhi

The Aap Ki Sadak (literally, your road) project, on urban design and transportation interventions in Delhi, was launched earlier this month, which integrates both these concepts and several others to pedestrianize Delhi’s roads. This design concept comprises the dial-a-cycle rickshaw cabs plying on segregated Cycle Rickshaw lanes from the Metro Station to surrounding neighborhoods. These segregated lanes are often carved out of exiting roads or shared with existing cycle tracks or out of neighborhood collectors running alongside major arterials.

I think, if implemented properly, these ideas can really solve a lot of traffic problems in India. The Cycle Rickshaw provides a cheaper and cleaner alternative to get to one’s home or office from the BRT Station or the Metro Station. The Dial-a-Cycle rickshaw idea also saves the passenger from being heckled to choose one among the long queues of auto-rickshaw drivers outside the stations. Cycle Rickshaw lanes provide a safer and probably faster environment for the rickshaws to operate. However, such a service would need to be supported by strong implementation policies targeted at safety and reliability, along with an aggressive marketing strategy.

Special thanks to Arlie, Arthur, and Brenda for their insights!

  •  John Pucher , Zhong ren Peng , Neha Mittal , Yi Zhu & Nisha Korattyswaroopam (2007): Urban Transport Trends and Policies in China and India: Impacts of Rapid Economic Growth, Transport Reviews: A Transnational Transdisciplinary Journal, 27:4, 379-410
  • John Whitelegg & Nick Williams (2000): Non-motorised Transport and Sustainable Development: Evidence from Calcutta, Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability, 5:1, 7-18

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