Can a country run on three wheels?

Sri Lankan society sees three-wheelers as both a problem and a solution. Only careful analysis can determine which it really is

The name varies. Indians call it an auto rickshaw, Pakistanis just rickshaw, Indonesians Bajay (a distortion of Bajaj, after the famous company that manufactures them) and Thais call it tuk-tuk. The list of other names used in different countries includes trishaw, autorick, bajaji (in Madagascar and Tanzania), Maruwa (in Nigeria), rick, tricycle (in the Philippines), mototaxi, baby taxi, lapa or tukxi.

We Sri Lankans call it mainly a three-wheeler, a three-wheel or simply a ‘wheel’, and sometimes ‘auto’ or ‘aata’.

Like it or not, a three-wheeler is now a key component of Sri Lankan urban and rural culture. We cannot just eliminate it from our day-to-day life – even if one were not a regular user. There are multiple ways a three-wheeler makes your life comfortable and, yes, difficult too. Three-wheelers can be a solution, as well as the source of the problem. There aren’t any comparable commodities in our country.

Let’s start with some figures. Apart from motorcycles, three-wheelers are the most common type of vehicle in Sri Lanka. By end-2016, there were 1,062,447 registered three-wheelers. Of course, we have more than thrice that number of motorcycles on roads (3,391,726 at end-2016), but the figure is significant compared to the numbers of cars (675,982), dual-purpose vehicles (366,831), motor lorries (319,001) and buses (101,655). Growth in the number of three-wheelers is greater than in any other category. It has increased 261% since 2008. The number of cars has grown 177%, motorcycles 192%, dual-purpose vehicles 187%, lorries 121% and buses 126%, all far lower. Without doubt, Sri Lankan society has chosen the three-wheeler as its proffered mode of transport. This is a fact.

There are provincial variations too. The highest number of three-wheelers up to end-2016 – one third of the total – was registered in the Western Province (352,540), followed by 140,823 in the Southern Province and 135,791 in the Central Province. The least number of three-wheeled vehicles registered (1,331) was in the Eastern Province.

The question: Is this widespread phenomenon a good or bad thing? Do three-wheelers contribute positively or negatively to the development of Sri Lanka? Should this method of transport be encouraged or discouraged? Should policymakers plan for more or less three-wheelers on roads in the future?

Three-wheelers can be a solution, as well as the source of the problem. There aren’t any comparable commodities in our country

This, of course, has no easy or straightforward answer. Multiple factors must be considered to inform such a conclusion. The following is a quick attempt to evaluate the phenomenon.


They provide an affordable means of travel. In a country with poor public transport (no MRTs or LRTs; limited trains that are almost always late; buses that run ad hoc and are often overcrowded) and expensive private transport, having a relatively affordable alternative is a relief. This should be taken with a pinch of salt though. While metered auto-rickshaws charge Rs40 per km within Colombo city limits, unmetered ones demand relatively higher rates outside. Sometimes, an air-conditioned taxi is cheaper.


They generate sizable employment in a country with a high real unemployment rate. Sri Lanka’s official unemployment rate is closer to 5%, but that means little. We live in a country, where a large number of young school-leavers find it hard to secure a job. Many end up driving three-wheelers. In addition to employing 1 million people directly (a reasonable assumption), there could be at least another 250,000 indirect jobs. Even a very reasonable dependency ratio of 1:1 means that 2.5 million people make a living because of three-wheelers. That is big – nearly one out of every eighth individual.


They are the poor and rural folks’ ambulance too. Not kidding.

While no concrete data exists, obviously for the difficulty in collecting, it is common knowledge that three-wheelers are probably the most common mode of transport in an emergency. This happens for multiple reasons. Among others, their ready availability, low cost and the consent of three-wheeler drivers to transport patients as a social service have made it the most popular ambulance for the rural and poor. This mode of transportation is also seen as the reason for the rapid decrease in deaths due to snakebites.


Three-wheeler parks add to the city’s traffic congestion. A recent paper by K S Weerasekera and U A Gopallawa of the Department of Civil Engineering at the Open University of Sri Lanka studies the consequences of parked three-wheelers on approaches to busy road intersections.

It notes that, although three-wheeler drivers obtain legally designated parking areas from the municipal councils or urban councils, the practice had led to negative effects on traffic flow. The results, based on information collected from police stations, showed a clear correlation between the number of accidents and the presence of three-wheeler parks near road intersections.


Three-wheelers contribute an exceptionally higher number of road accidents. Supporting data for this exists too. A paper by N Amarasingha of the Department of Civil Engineering at the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology in Malabe analyses the situation comprehensively. The paper highlights the characteristics of motor crashes involving three-wheelers, using data from 2004 to 2013. This long time span has enabled a detailed analysis of trends for different characteristics of three-wheeler related accidents. It reports a total of 46,435 three-wheeler involved crashes (average about 4,500 a year).

The question: Is this widespread phenomenon a good or bad thing? Do three-wheelers contribute positively or negatively to the development of Sri Lanka?

Interestingly, most clashes occur in rural areas (against urban) and during weekdays (against weekends). It also shows that newer vehicles contribute to more crashes, while older three-wheelers are less likely to be involved in accidents.


Three-wheelers support the tourism industry. Or do they? The tourism industry naturally assumes that three-wheelers are good. They provide a flexible and affordable mode of transport for local and foreign tourists. Foreign visitors love them. Does it mean they help tourism? Not necessarily.

Overcharging and deception by three-wheeler drivers are common. This often leads to foreigners being discouraged to visit the country again. Unfortunately, the short-term gains hurt the local tourism industry’s sustainability.


They contribute to social issues. A stranger to a town looking for drugs would approach whom? Mostly, a three-wheeler driver. Three-wheeler drivers are known to have access to illegal substances.

This quick and brief analysis may still not resolve whether three-wheelers are good or bad. It is too complex an issue. So, any national policy on the subject should be devised with care. A black or white solution can have repercussions.