The role of three-wheelers in sustainable urban transport


Photo credit: Atharva Tulsi. 

By Jeremy Williams


Photo credit: Malhar Garud.

Three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, or tuk-tuks, are a common form of transport in many parts of the world. Designs vary across continents, with large fleets serving the streets across Africa, South America and Asia. India has 3 million of them, providing 20% of all motorised passenger rides. As Anumita Roychowdhury argued in a Down to Earth article last week, they could play an important role in reducing air pollution and providing sustainable urban transport.

This is not how they have traditionally been viewed. A quarter of Chennai’s air pollution is from three-wheelers. Delhi had to cap the number of them in 1997 to try and control air quality. At the time many of them were diesel powered. Others ran on petrol, and it was common practice to dilute fuel with kerosene – a money-saving trick that capitalised on government kerosene subsidies, but that caused toxic air pollution. Many three-wheelers are still very inefficient and dirty, but it doesn’t need to be that way.

Today many of them run on natural gas, and efficiency standards and emissions performance have improved dramatically. Gas driven tuk-tuks are 13 times cleaner than the two-stroke versions. The real potential lies in electric auto-rickshaws. They are now available and growing rapidly in popularity. It’s early days, but with support for purchasing, charging and licencing, they are likely to make a significant difference to air pollution.

Here we see an interesting contrast between electric vehicles in India and in the West. In Britain and in the United States, electric cars are expensive. Manufacturers have served the top end of the market first. There are a number of high profile electric luxury cars or sports cars, with affordable electric cars for the masses yet to make a breakthrough. In China it’s been all about e-bikes and electric buses, and India has the e-rickshaw and a growing fleet of scooters. As Roychowdhury writes, “it is the poor person’s vehicle that is steering the electric mobility revolution in India.”

Auto-rickshaws fill a particular niche in urban transport, taking people shorter distances and often to their front doors. They can feed into other forms of public transport, covering the ‘final mile’, and they are cheap enough to be widely accessible. And I like the idea that as they electrify, it will drive a sustainable transport revolution from the bottom up.

First published on Make Wealth History.

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