“Removing and Regulating” – Getting Rickshaws Out of Mumbai

By Sachin Desai

In most developing cities, traditional public transit is uncoordinated, unoptimized, and although gets people from place to place, creates a host of social problems doing so.  It starts to “parasite” off the expanding city.  In Bogota, local busses, old and poorly managed, not only starved new city roads and choked Bogota’s air, but also hindered BRT development.  However, “regulating and removing” these busses proved hard politically and economically.

However, can we learn from Mumbai? In a place where coordinated local action seems almost impossible (see Dharavi case), the government has had one success – regulating (and removing) auto-rickshaws.  These three-wheel motorized carts emerged to move people in the old city, but like the busses in Bogota, are today arguably more a nuisance instead of a help.  They do not follow road rules, creating traffic problems affecting all types of vehicles.  They have a high accident and fatality rate.[1] They are also hard to remove, with over 200,000 drivers and multiple unions.[2]

But auto-rickshaws have been successfully “regulated,” forcibly converted to cleaner CNG, something that would seem hard to do in Bogota.[3]  They have also been “removed”  from central Mumbai, limited now to the suburbs.[4]   Mumbai’s government is aggressively scrapping unlicensed rickshaws.[5]  This has helped modern taxis take their place, improving safety, exposure to pollution, and travel times.  Mumbai’s new infrastructure now does not suffer parasitic losses from slow-moving and wirey Rickshaws.

How is this possible?  Lessons from Mumbai can apply not just in Bogota, but any time an old transit economy has to be swapped in for new.  From my research, here are a few potential reasons Mumbai succeeded:

  • The government has challenged rickshaw economics.   Costs on rickshaws have been slowly ratcheted up.  Drivers complain of new 1-time taxes on rickshaws.[6]  The government aggressively restricts rickshaw rates, limiting profit.[7]  The government aggressively polices these rates.[8]
  • Mumbai created competition.  The government has subsidized taxis, which, unlike busses or metros, can directly compete with rickshaws.[9]
  • Sometimes, one arm of the government funds things while the other tries to stop it.  In Bogota the government appears to still give out concessions to local busses.  The Mumbai government used to give loans for rickshaws, and now they have stopped.[10]
  • Importantly, the government has gone directly on the offensive.  Multiple government reports attack the safety[11] and environmental performance of rickshaws.[12]  Their fare honesty has been challenged, despite the fact that fares are cheap and drivers complain it’s a smear campaign.[13]  Public leaders directly call for bans.[14]  There are strong government efforts to monitor and fine rickshaws, and to promote riders to complain against rickshaws.[15]Rickshaw drivers today believe the people are against them.[16]

Takeaways:  First, maybe the “regulate and remove” system is possible in developing-country democracies.  If Mumbai can win against a large, organized, populist-oriented group, ANYONE can do it.  Second, it may change whether we build a BRT or MRT in Avenida Septima.  If a major policy goal is to remove a damaging but entrenched system, the answer may be direct engagement.  A BRT can compete directly with local busses.  MRTs likely cannot stop as often, and are expensive, allowing local busses to differentiate on price.  It may be better to spend that MRT money on subsidizing the BRTs to price-parity with the local busses, on a PR campaign attacking the safety and pollution record of local busses, aggressively buying/eliminating bus concessions, and on increasing monitoring and complaint mechanisms against local busses.

Desai Rickshaw

Image: Auto-Rickshaw

[1] Mumbai Auto Rickshaws May No Longer Be a Sure Thing, The National (Mar. 13, 2010), http://www.thenational.ae/lifestyle/motoring/mumbai-auto-rickshaws-may-no-longer-be-a-sure-thing.  “However [while other Mumbai drivers have become safer], accidents involving two wheelers and auto rickshaws have shot up. While only 1,477 two-wheeler accidents were reported in 1971, the number crossed the 5,000 mark in 2008.” Mumbaikars Have Become Safer Drivers, Reveals MMRDA Report, DNA India (Mar. 19, 2010), http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report_mumbaikars-have-become-safer-drivers-reveals-mmrda-report_1361081.  See also India Unions Urge Mumbai Rickshaws Makeover, BBC News (May 17, 2011), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-13427774.

[2] See BBC News, supra note 1; Proposed Auto Rickshaw Strike Called Off in Mumbai, India Today (Nov 1, 2011), http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/proposed-auto-rickshaw-strike-called-off-in-mumbai/1/158254.html.

[3] May 31 Deadline for CNG Conversion, Times of India (Apr. 11, 2002), http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2002-04-11/mumbai/27143092_1_taxi-unions-three-wheelers-cng.  Given the strike discussed in India Today, supra note 2, it appears that most rickshaws to use CNG today.

[4] Taken from personal experience.  See also Public Transport in Mumbai, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_transport_in_Mumbai#Auto_rickshaws (last visited Feb. 10, 2013).

[5] See Small Four-Wheelers To Replace Three-Wheelers In Mumbai, The Automotive Horizon (Nov. 9, 2010),  http://automotivehorizon.sulekha.com/small-four-wheelers-to-replace-three-wheelers-in-mumbai_11_2010_postedby_jayashankar-menon.

[6] Audi, Move Interviews – Two Auto-Rickshaw Drivers, The Challenges of Navigating Mumbai 3-4 (Jan. 3, 2013), available at http://audi-urban-future-initiative.com/mooove_cms/resources/media/pdf/auto-rickshaw-drivers.pdf.

[7] Id.

[8] 97 Of 150 Rickshaw Meters Tampered With: Andheri RTO, Hindustan Times (Sep. 19, 2011), http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/Mumbai/97-of-150-rickshaw-meters-tampered-with-Andheri-RTO/Article1-747445.aspx.

[9] The Automotive Horizon, supra note 5; Mumbai Not So Cool Cabs Air Conditioned Taxis, Mid-Day.Com (Oct. 2012), http://www.mid-day.com/news/2012/oct/031012-mumbai-Not-so-cool-cabs-air-conditioned-taxis.htm.

[10] Audi, supra note 6, at 5.

[11] See e.g., The Automotive Horizon, supra note 5, DNA India, supra note 1.

[12] The Role of Auto Rickshaws in Modern Indian Cities, The City Fix (Mar. 24, 2010), http://thecityfix.com/blog/the-role-of-auto-rickshaws-in-modern-indian-cities/.

[13] Hindustan Times, supra note 8.

[14] The National, supra note 1. See also Dehli Plans Ban On Autorickshaws, Guardian UK (Mar. 18, 2010), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/18/delhi-plans-ban-autorickshaws. This forces strikes, which erode public support for rickshaws.  Auto Drivers Face Sena’s Wrath, NDTV (Oct. 5, 2011), http://www.ndtv.com/article/cities/mumbai-auto-drivers-face-sena-s-wrath-138945; Audi, supra note 6, at 4.

[15] Is the Auto Rickshaw strike justified?, The Complete Mumbai Guide, http://www.in-mumbai.com/2011/09/is-auto-rickshaw-strike-justified.html (last visited Feb. 10, 2013).

[16] Audi, supra note 6, at 5.

One thought on ““Removing and Regulating” – Getting Rickshaws Out of Mumbai

  1. Sachin,

    This is such an interesting post, and it raises a question that is critical for the evolution of public transportation in countries like India: What is the key problem auto-rickshaws were originally designed to solve?

    You note in your post that rickshaws create traffic problems for vehicles because they do not follow road rules. There is an argument to be made that rickshaws are in fact the public transit solution to these congestion issues. In many Indian cities, driving a car is akin to getting on a kiddy rollercoaster at the state fair – great if you want to move incredibly slowly through a morass of interesting sights and sounds, miserable if you want to actually get anywhere. There are simply too many vehicles for the road, none of which stop at stoplights. In the older parts of many cities (e.g., Old City, Ahmedabad), rickshaws are truly the only way to get around.

    In addition, I would bet that rickshaw fatalities are far higher in places like Mumbai and Delhi where drivers have adequate space to pick up speed, and where there are already a lot of cars sharing the road. Rickshaws are only dangerous in collisions with bigger vehicles. When they hit each other or a motorcycle, the worst that might happen are a couple bumps and bruises.

    For cities like Mumbai that have traffic laws observed by most, it might make sense to push all the way towards to elimination of rickshaws. Though to be clear, Mumbai’s actions with taxi subsidies are ANTI-competitive, from a free market standpoint. The city is subsidizing taxis to make them more affordable. One could argue that this money would be better spent on other mass transit options, vs. eliminating rickshaws, the naturally more affordable option for poorer citizens.

    Mumbai is home to some of the worst traffic on the planet. Parking is a nightmare. If most people instead drove to work on a bike, motorcycle, or rickshaw (as they used to) these bottlenecks might disappear. We might also strike a dramatic blow against increasing GHG emissions.

    Which raises another question: What is the right way for urban infrastructure to evolve? Automotive transportation is the bedrock of American transit, at great cost to the functioning and layout of many cities (which could be the subject of a much longer post). Do Indian, African, Asian, and LATAM cities have an opportunity to do something different? Will the smart city of the future eschew cars altogether?

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