India’s auto-rickshaws: blessing or curse?

People travelling in a auto-rickshaw

Yes, we’ve all seen one of these before: the auto-rickshaw - this wondrous little piece of engineering so imperative to the business mobility of many people in Asia. To some it may be an adventurous ride when on holidays; for many others, however, it defines business mobility. The auto-rickshaw connects home to work quickly and relatively cheaply. Let’s take some numbers to clarify this importance: in urban India, 16 auto-rickshaws serve 1,000 people on average. Accordingly, in a city like Mumbai (18 million inhabitants [1]) you will see, hear, and smell more than almost 300,000 of these motorized three-wheelers. Within six years, auto-rickshaw production has doubled in India, from 400,000 in 2004 to more than 800,000 in 2010 [2]. A real market has emerged with a handful of Indian rickshaw producers competing for customers.

Borne out of necessity

But why do the Indians appreciate this form of transport so much? The answer is multifaceted. Yet, before we delve into an analysis we should note that it is solely the middle-class Indians who go to work by auto-rickshaw. The majority can’t afford it, while the country’s wealthy travel more comfortably. Auto-rickshaws are particularly successful in cities that have no public transport network. With no tram, underground or train it is the auto-rickshaw that enjoys an unrivalled monopoly. In cities with public transport, the auto-rickshaw’s prevalence is only slightly dimmed: many Indians only reluctantly take the train or underground for business mobility. The reason for this is that public transport has gained a reputation for very poor overall service – always delayed, always breaking down, and always completely cramped. The large number of people trying to make their way from A to B is simply too much for the public transport network to handle. Reliable and flexible, the auto-rickshaw is therefore more than just an alternative. On the other hand, many Indians live far away from their working place. They are dependent on taking the train or far-reaching modes of public transport. This is when the auto-rickshaws again come into play: they act as a feeder service picking up people from home and taking them to the next train or underground station from where the journey continues.

All that glitters is not gold – the future of auto-rickshaws

Its high demand also comes at a high price: with more and more auto-rickshaws in service, road fatalities have increased over the years. And because the engines are produced extremely cheaply, there is very little consideration for the environment. Public transport on the other hand is safer and more environmentally friendly. What to do? Well, in order to challenge the auto-rickshaw’s reign, investment in other modes of transport is pivotal. This year, the first car sharing company [3] moved to India. Only time will tell whether or not this mode of business mobility will be as successful as it is in the US and Western Europe. For now, however, the auto-rickshaw as a convenient, yet risky, alternative to public transport is enjoying ever-increasing popularity.

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