Fuel Prices Boost Cause of S. Asia's Maligned Rickshaw
By Emily Wax Washington Post Foreign Service Saturday, June 28, 2008; A01
NEW DELHI -- The bicycle rickshaws that weave through New Delhi's narrow lanes have long been scorned by authorities here for congesting the city's already fierce traffic. The creaking carriages crawl alongside luxury sedans, book hawkers, horse-drawn carts, hulking buses and cows.
In this city and the other quickly modernizing capitals of South Asia, governments have called the rickshaws backward, embarrassing symbols of the Third World.
Now, however, in a time of $7-a-gallon fuel in New Delhi and growing concerns about pollution, environmental activists and transportation experts are pushing back against rickshaw critics. And rickshaw cyclists are seizing the moment to tout the virtues of their trade.
"My rickshaw is my life. It's very cheap for my passengers," said Saurabh Ganguly, a 27-year-old rickshaw cyclist whose shirt was sticky with dirt and grime.
He proudly observed a knot of traffic where about 50 rickshaw cyclists were jangling their bells, pressing their horns and zigzagging past lumbering buses belching plumes of black soot. "We don't even pollute," Ganguly said. "We should be allowed to survive."
Not a viable idea for American cities? Why not? Smacks too much of class distinction? Okay for a cab-driver to eke out his living and more than okay for the homeless to sleep in doorways, but a 'bicycle rickshaw' is just not egalitarian enough for us. We like our worst work to be out of sight.
An international nonprofit group, the Initiative for Transportation and Development Policy, challenged the ban in India's Supreme Court this month, saying current economic and environmental conditions have made rickshaws more necessary than ever.
"We must save the cycle rickshaw drivers. Look at the soaring fuel price hikes," said Nalin Sinha, program director for the group's New Delhi office.
"These bikes are wonderful alternatives. They provide an affordable, smog-free choice," Sinha said. "But unfortunately, when the whole world is talking about the environment, we in South Asia are talking about 'development.' We somehow think we are better if we have hordes of swanky cars."
Ah yes, here in Prague as well, we copy the worst of the West's ideas--increasing the costs of an excellent tram and metro system while building more and more underground garages to lure automobile traffic into an already jammed 18th century street system. Perhaps the third-world will infiltrate our Czech second-world and (eventually) bring some viable ideas to the first-world.
"We should be building bike lanes to provide the cycle rickshaws a humane driving area for many reasons. Let's face it, fuel prices are only getting higher, and here we have an alternative right in front of us," said Vivek Chattopadhyaya, the center's pollution researcher. "If we keep banning them, we will regret this in future generations."
Some activists in India cite the increasing number of bicycle rickshaws being used in cities such as London, Paris, New York and Washington, often in neighborhoods with high congestion and heavy foot traffic. Local governments have welcomed the rickshaws as environmentally friendly alternatives.
Mayor Bloomberg, Dick Daley, take note.
There are an estimated 600,000 bicycle rickshaws in New Delhi serving an estimated 4 million customers. Trips range from one to six miles. The rickshaws -- many festooned with flowers and tricked out with paintings of cartoonish Bollywood starlets and cricket stars -- usually charge less than 50 cents a trip. On a recent monsoon-drenched afternoon, two female college students shopping for jeans said they were taking a bicycle rickshaw as an alternative to increasingly pricey taxis and auto-rickshaws, also powered by gas.
Indian women and children tend to take bicycle rickshaws more often than men because the rickshaws are seen as safe compared with overstuffed buses and unknown taxi drivers.
"We love the peaceful and private ride and the breeze," said Shweta Goyal, 19, an English literature major, as she settled in for a ride. "I like that the price is never impacted by fuel hikes. To me, it's a lovely way to do some shopping as a woman."
The unspoken benefit of 600,000 rickshaws is the 600,000 jobs they provide. While fifty cents is more rap-singer than cab-fare in America, it's hard to doubt that three or four bucks wouldn't fly. Take away the fuel and outrageous cab-license fees and a rickshaw owner could make a pretty good living in Manhattan--at least in the seven or eight months of decent weather.
In Bangladesh's traffic-clogged capital of Dhaka, where there have been widespread protests over the rising prices of rice and fuel, rickshaw cyclist Shamsul Haque said business has never been better.
"There's been a turning point suddenly," said Haque, 25, a father of two who moved from a rural area to get a job as a rickshaw cyclist. "Our customers know we are cheap and very friendly."
Let's see now--quiet, attractive, friendly, non-polluting and relatively cheap transportation in cities where we often sit in motionless taxi-cabs, stuck in traffic and watching the same pedestrian pass us again and again on the sidewalk.
What's not to love? Or at least try.