Banned in Delhi for a decade, smog-spewing combustion engine–powered rickshaws are fading away in India and in many other countries, thanks not only to inroads by minivans, but also to improved rickshaw motor designs coupled with laws to mothball dirtier models. In January, for example, Jakarta officials seized 30 unlicensed rickshaws.
Because such transport often lacks catalyticconverters and is poorly maintained, lightweight two-stroke gasoline-powered three-wheelers (also known as tuk-tuks and tricycles) cough up roughly 13 times more lung-damaging particulates than other engine types. Such soot kills across Asia—both ending and shortening the lives of those most exposed.
But three-wheelers are a valuable cog in the sustainable transit chain: Provided older makes go green, according to a new analysis from Embarq, the transit unit of the World Resources Institute, an environmental group. Their merits include affordability, maneuverability in snarled cities—after accidents they often serve as ambulances—and accessibility for the disabled, elderly and women. Most important, their role thwarting auto use as “last mile” feeders by ferrying multiple passengers helps improve the planet’s health by curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, because rickshaws have less mass and smaller engines, their CO2 emissions are about one third those of private cars, the latter of which consequently contribute as much as 90 percent of India’s total urban road passenger transport emissions. Moreover, “Since [rickshaws] wear out the road much less and use less materials in construction and operation, their contribution to global warming will be much less than that of a heavier car,” explains Dinesh Mohan, a transportationexpert at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.
Today, rickshaws make up 20 percent of urban trips in India but comprise less than 11 percent of all vehicles because they are shared by multiple riders. So what can be done to make the rickshaw cleaner? Several things, as it turns out.
Cleaning the air
Because air quality in half of India’s cities suffers from particulate pollution 1.5 times global standards, a shift to greener rickshaws could help dent emissions there sizably. Despite nationwide car ownership predicted to soar 40-fold by 2050, rickshaw production in India doubled between 2003 and 2010 thanks to growing affluence and urbanization.
This growth suggests that the rickshaw could also play a similar emissions-cutting role elsewhere with better engine and communications technologies like Global Positioning System and cell-phones. Suburban Delhi’s Radio Tuk Tuk, for example, is popular for its “dial-a-rickshaw” four-stroke fleet. So are electric tuk-tuks and pedicabs in Bangkok and Kathmandu.
“Regulatory reforms, technology, finance and operational improvements can help entrepreneurs scale up, so that cleaner rickshaws meet their full environmental and economic potential,” says Embarq’s Akshay Mani, the report’s lead author. Embarq’s rickshaw framework argues for “avoid-shift-improve” principles: avoid unnecessary trips, shift to more sustainable modes and improve performance in all modes—through policy, services and technology.
“If you want cleaner [three-wheelers], you have to introduce new technologies and eliminate polluting rickshaws,” explains Sophie Punte, executive director of the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities, from Manila.
But scrapping older models isn’t easy. Today, five million rickshaws ply India’s streets with roughly 80 percent of these iconic open-air taxis still boasting two-stroke engines in midsize cities such as Pune, Rajkot and Surat; many of the rest either run on two-stroke compressed natural gas (CNG) engines or the larger and cleaner-burning four-stroke gasoline or CNG engines.