July 22, 2013
Aligning cycle rickshaws with technology can make them more viable and appealing
Dial-a-rickshaw is turning into a reality. Source: Ashish Gumber

Urban life seems to be an ode to mobility. Communication facilities ensure we carry our world with us while better transport takes us to places. From budget airlines to express trains, metro rails, low floor buses, on-call taxis and auto rickshaws, we are almost always on the go, counting time as money and spending money on fuel. In this race against time, the humble cycle rickshaws lies ignored as nothing much has been done to streamline this ervice. But despite this indifference, these low cost vehicles still carry a large share of urban mobility. 

In Punjab, there are 2.6 lakh cars and 3 lakh rickshaws. While daily occupancy rate of cars is 1.1, 20 persons travel on each rickshaw every day which means rickshaws ferry 60 lakh people daily. Not only this mode provides node-to-node connectivity, it also takes lesser road space. Despite this, we are paying no attention to improve the viability of this green mode of transport.

In western world, rickshaw has just been left for recreational trips since the private as well as public transports there are highly motorised. In India, cycle rickshaws are para transit meaning they ply on reservation basis on non-fixed routes and can be customised according to your needs. Auto rickshaws and taxis also fall in this category but they can't manoeuvre the narrow lanes of Indian cities as a cycle rickshaw can. It is also the safest mode of transport since it's an open system unlike say a taxi in which you can be locked in and taken out of the town. Maximum speed of a cycle rickshaw is 20 km per hour. Even the Justice Verma Commission, which gave recommendations to the Union government in wake of Delhi gangrape, called for promotion of hawkers, street vendors and cycle rickshaws as women feel very secure in public spaces occupied by them. 

Find a rickshaw

As cities are expanding, it's getting difficult to find a rickshaw. Not only the roads are becoming increasingly unfriendly to non-motorised transport, we also seek quick movement. In a city like Chandigarh, 26 per cent families own a car and it has the highest number of vehicles per capita in the country. Even for short distance travel, residents prefer to use private vehicles. This need can be easily met by rickshaws as they are a recommended mode upto 3 km range. 

There are around 25,000 rickshaws running on city roads making at least 20 trips each and hence saving 75,000 litre of fuel daily. It has been estimated that the proposed Chandigarh metro rail network will cater to 3.18 lakh per day in 2018. Rickshaws are already ferrying 5 lakh passengers daily. The demand can easily be increased by 5-10 per cent through good stands, passenger information etc. 

According to recent data released by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Chandigarh has one of the highest teledensity in the country at 92 per cent. This is our real time infrastructure. If we align it with our public transport infrastructue, good results can be achieved. While taxis and autos are already organised through call centres, nothing has been done to adopt similar concept for the rickshaws. This is what Eco Cabs intend to do by addressing two issues: Make rickshaws accessible and secondly, improve their quality. The Punjab and Haryana High Court recently passed an order asking the Chandigarh Administration to get 169 designated locations of rickshaw stands vacated from encroachments.

We have now developed a website (www.chandigarh.ecocabs.org) with google maps pin pointing the location of rickshaw stands in each sector and cellphone numbers of rickshaw pullers. It's a community-run portal where any user can refer a rickshaw puller by uploading his picture, contact details and location.

Keeping in mind the high teledensity in Chandigarh, we have also developed an Android-based application for mobile phone users which can be used both for adding details of rickshaw puller as well as for searching a rickshaw near your location. Soon, the users would be able to use the service through SMS notification. Around 20 sectors have already been covered and 60-70 rickshaw pullers referred and registered in initial 20 days. We are aiming to host 25-30 pullers from each sector in next six months. The training of registered rickshaw pullers is being done collectively at their night shelters. We hope to rope in Chandigarh Police to help in the verification process.  

This concept of dial-a-rickshaw service is based on a similar model running successfully in Fazilka town of Punjab for last five years. Fazilka has 9 call centres which are actually tea shops serving the nearby rickshaw stands. Whenever a resident calls for a rickshaw, the tea vendor informs the service provider standing first in queue. This has not only helped increase the income of rickshaw pullers but also saves fuel and thus the environment.

In Chandigarh, similar model could not be adopted as it's a bigger city and people don't know each other. This is why we have gone for the community-driven platform for references. It is a not-for-profit intitiative but to tmake it viable, we are running outdoor advertisements on rickshaws in Fazilka. In Chandigarh, the outdoor advertising rules are very strong and we have to shell out Rs 1,500-2,000 per rickshaw which is not financially viable.

Suitable design

The second stage of this work will be providing rickshaws which are more comfortable, both for the puller as well as the passenger so that people prefer using it. Traditional rickshaws are heavy, have less sitting space and chance of snatching and accidents are more as the canopy is not always open and wheels are on the outer side. The 'Eco Cabs' we are going to introduce are light weight, will have 3 feet 5 inch of sitting space, 20 inch width and a 4 inch cushion. It will be low floor for easy access to senior citizens and children. A seat belt, dustbin, newspaper, tourist map and FM radio will be added features.  

Traditional rickshaws use mango wood which is not only heavy but gas no resale value as the wood deteriorates with time. Eco cabs are made of steel-pipe which helped reduce the weight by 35 kg. It will also fetche good price on resale since the price of steel is always on the rise. These rickshaws are currently running in 22 cities of Punjab. Around 100 eco cabs were introduced in Amritsar in collaboration with Punjab Tourism and within 2 years, the number has risen to 750 due to high demand from users. In Patiala, a few rickshaw pullers are also doubling up as guides taking tourists around the city. In Chandigarh, we are planning 'Rapid Rickshaw Transit', a fixed tarrif rickshaw between Sukhna Lake and Rock Garden, the two tourist hotspots of the city. It is a concept in line with the Bus Rapid Transit. This can be further expanded into 'Chandigarh Tourism Route' with help of the administration. 

So next time you plan to make s short trip to the market, consider taking a rickshaw. It's  just a call away now.

Pedal this:

  • Rickshaw was introduced first time in India around 1880 in Simla when it was a personalised vehicle for elite, pulled by two persons in front
  • After second world war, technological innovation led to addition of the third wheel and the puller turned into a pilot and could drive it through pedalling
  • In 2001, IIT Delhi started design innvoations and introduced light weight rickshaws which were also improved by other agencies.
  • Chasis of a rickshaw is made by small scale industries while body is manufactured by big industries. Amritsar body is famous in Punjab while Merrut and Saharanpur are the two hubs of western Uttar Pradesh. 
  • Art work on rickshaw changes every 100 km reflecting the local social mileu. So, while in Amritsar you will find rickshaws carrying spiritual messages written in Gurmukhi, Merrut rickshaws will feature patrioric themes along with the national flag. 
  • Though rickshaw is a green mode of transport, there are heavy taxes levied on it. Due to use of steel and copper, total tax component goes up to around 21 per cent of the cost. Eco cabs cost Rs 12,500- Rs 13,000.