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Why Auto-Rickshaws Matter for India
This nighttime scene from Bangalore exemplifies India's struggle to define the auto-rickshaw's place in modern India. Photo by lecercle.

This nighttime scene from Bangalore reveals an opportunity to define the auto-rickshaw's place in modern India. Photo by lecercle.

With rapid population growth in Indian cities and a rise in private car ownership, it is critical to reassess the role of auto-rickshaws in the urban transportation landscape, not only from the perspective of providing an integrated and affordable public transport system but also in terms of the socio-economic imperative of encouraging auto-rickshaws as a means of livelihood for low-income, uneducated, or migrant populations.

Akshay Mani and Amit Bhatt from the Centre for Sustainable Transport in India (CST-India), a member of the EMBARQ Network, which produces this blog, discussed this topic with experts Dr. Dinesh Mohan and Dr. Geetam Tiwari from the Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme (TRIPP) at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi to gather their inputs on why is it important to have a renewed policy focus on the auto-rickshaw sector in Indian cities.  Here, we cover some of their key anecdotal insights.

According to Dr. Dinesh Mohan, who has been a strong proponent for this sector, the importance of auto-rickshaws is evident based on an analysis of the following aspects:

Integrated Public Transport System

  • Promoting auto-rickshaws in a city is a key part of developing an integrated public transport system and stalling the growth of private cars.
  • Discouraging Intermediate Public Transport (IPT), such as auto-rickshaws, would eventually result in increased private car ownership, since the service provided by auto-rickshaws, such as access, point-to-point connectivity, and privacy, may not be matched in many cases even by an excellent bus system.

Space

  • There is a strong rationale to promote intermediate public transport (IPT), such as auto-rickshaws instead of private cars, as it would lead to freeing up land in a city.  For every new private car in a city, a minimum of two additional parking spaces are required in the city (one at home and the other at the destination).  An auto-rickshaw, on the other hand, only requires one parking space in the city.
  • Since there are typically no parking fees for private cars in urban areas, current policies significantly subsidize car owners.
  • An auto-rickshaw should be promoted over a private car as it carries on average the same number of people, while taking one-third the parking area and occupying half the space as a car while moving.

Costs

  • Auto-rickshaws, owing to their smaller size, consume about one-third the national resources in their production, compared to private cars.
  • Lower capital costs also imply that auto-rickshaws serve as a low-cost mode of transport for low- and middle-income populations.
  • Due to their lower weight and slower speeds, auto-rickshaws cause less wear-and-tear of pavement compared to cars and other heavy vehicles, thus lowering highway maintenance costs.

Environmental Benefits

  • On a per passenger basis, auto-rickshaws produce lower emissions compared to private cars, due to their smaller engines (around 175 cc compared to over 800 cc for cars).
  • With the conversion of auto-rickshaws to compressed natural gas (CNG) in Delhi and conversion of 2-stroke engines to 4-stroke engines, emissions from this sector have been addressed to a large extent.  Similar opportunities exist in other cities to make auto-rickshaws more environmentally friendly.

Safety Benefits

  • Auto-rickshaws are safer compared to private cars for non-motorized users of the system such as pedestrians and bicyclists, since they are smaller in size and travel at lower speeds.

Dr. Geetam Tiwari further points to the following safety benefits of auto-rickshaws:

  • The three-wheel design of auto-rickshaws make them easily maneuverable in traffic, so they are better able to avoid conflicts with other users of the system compared to 4-wheeled motor vehicles.
  • Research has shown that the presence of auto-rickshaws on the road reduces speed variations in traffic flow and helps maintain traffic flow within a particular speed range.  This would mean that the presence of auto-rickshaws in the traffic mix creates safer travel conditions (since speed variations in traffic can be a major cause of accidents)

What do the above insights mean for the future of the auto-rickshaw sector in India?  From a policy standpoint, there seems to be a lack of awareness about these issues in the eyes of public officials.  Auto-rickshaws are seen as a mode of the past, with little or no role to play in the urban transportation landscape.  Clearly, the events that transpired in Delhi last month with the Chief Minister Ms. Sheila Dixit’s statement on banning auto-rickshaws in Delhi pointed to this fact.  It is critical to bring exposure to the benefits of auto-rickshaws so that it can bring about positive changes in the urban transport policy agenda.  For example, if auto-rickshaws are seen as polluting, the answer is not to phase them out but to find ways to make them environmentally friendly.

In light of the focus on improving public transport in Indian cities as per the National Urban Transport Policy guidelines, there is an opportunity to align our resources to promote this often neglected sector, which would have far-reaching effects in terms of providing affordable transportation choices and associated social equity benefits, promoting public transportation usage, and stalling private car ownership in our cities.