Who’s Afraid of Humble Trishaws?

There are at least three post-1977 introductions that have transformed our society across all social and economic levels. They are trishaws or three wheelers (introduced in 1978); broadcast television (started small in 1979 and went nationwide in 1982) and mobile telephony (1989).

Due to their novelty and ‘foreign’ nature, each one elicited mixed reactions from Lankan society. I still remember some self-appointed ‘guardians of culture’ proclaiming how TV could herald the ‘end of our proud heritage’. Well, some of them have evolved into ‘TV pundits’ now… Two-wheeled and four-wheeled motorized vehicles had been on our roads for decades, but there was something odd about one running on three. In fact, the original importer of Indian-made Bajaj trishaws – David Pieris Motor Company (DPMC) – struggled to sell the first consignment because nobody here knew how to drive them! At first, most drivers had tried to balance trishaws like motorcycles. As the company’s Founding Chairman David Pieris recalled in a media interview in 2002: “It was a hell of an experience. The drivers couldn’t balance them and I had a real problem on my hands teaching them how to drive.”

To show that it was not rocket science, Pieris became the first trishaw driver in Sri Lanka. He personally drove dozens of trishaws from the Colombo harbour to DPMC’s head office at Hyde Park, often working well into the night.

We have come a long way since then. In next to no time, Lankans mastered the art of driving, servicing, repairing and even modifying trishaws. Today, the vehicle has become ubiquitous in most parts of the country. It also symbolizes a quiet revolution.

Three-wheeled solution
The motorized three-wheeler was originally invented to cope with hard times in Europe following World War II. The concept is credited to Corradino D’Ascanio, an aircraft designer at Italy’s Piaggio company (who also invented the Vespa scooter). He designed this compact, versatile and fuel-efficient vehicle that soon became the Piaggio Ape (Italian for bee).

The formal transport system often cannot sufficiently serve local trips away from main roads. The trishaw has helped fill many such gaps, while responding to changing economic activities, land use patterns and travel pattern

The design has gone through many improvements over the decades, but the Ape can still be seen on Italian roads where the small size allows it to negotiate narrow city streets and park virtually anywhere. Other motor manufacturers (such as Japan’s Daihatsu) also adapted versions of it, but it is India that now dominates the market.

Bajaj Auto Limited is the world’s largest producer, making around half a million new trishaws each year (known in India as auto-rickshaws). Half of it is exported — a good many of them turn up on our island.

According to government statistics, a total of 929,495 trishaws (officially called motor tricycles) were registered in Sri Lanka at end-2014. That makes it the second most common type of motorized transport (there were 2,988,612 motorcycles by end-2014). In comparison, there were 97,279 buses and 566,874 motor cars. (Source: http://goo.gl/IwV7Av)

With 2015 additions to this fleet, we can say one million trishaws are running on our roads as of today. They have become the leading provider of informal public transport (IPT) services, carrying passengers and goods (sometimes well in excess of its intended capacity). Trishaws are not universally loved, however. Some erratic drivers risk lives and limbs of their passengers, and exasperate other motorists, as they break many road rules. Concerns about rising levels of air pollution led to a ban on the import of trishaws with twostroke engines. Also, the whole sector operates with minimal regulation – except for basics like driving license, revenue license and insurance.

Notwithstanding such concerns, it is difficult to imagine managing our daily commutes without this service today. Importantly, trishaws – entirely a market phenomenon without any state subsidies — are the lifeline of income to a large number of families in Sri Lanka.

Three Moratuwa University researchers, Amal S. Kumarage, Mahinda Bandara and Darshini Munasinghe, have studied the economic and social aspects of trishaw services in Sri Lanka.

According to them, IPT services arise when the formal transport sector fails to meet all types of mobility that people need. While buses and trains provide around two thirds of all passenger- kilometres in Sri Lanka, there are big mismatches between demand and supply.

The formal transport system often cannot sufficiently serve local trips away from main roads. The trishaw has helped fill many such gaps, while responding to changing economic activities, land use patterns and travel patterns.

Speaking at the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) annual research symposium in November 2015, academic Mahinda Bandara shared the findings of a survey involving 342 randomly selected trishaw drivers in certain urban and sub-urban centres in the Western province. These included Nugegoda, Moratuwa, Negambo, Ja-Ela, Nittabuwa, Awissawella, Horana, Mathugama and Veyangoda.

In his sample, 67% owned andoperated  their own trishaw, while the rest paid owners a daily rental (ranging from Rs200 to Rs500). Some 65% of drivers have been doing this for over five years, and 25% for over a decade; 95% of them are engaged in this on full-time basis.

This means driving a trishaw for hire “is no longer a transitional job for a considerable fraction of the driver community”, Bandara notes. Four out of 10 drivers told him that they like being self-employed; another 22% said it was difficult to find another job.

Either way, most trishaw drivers are not clamouring for the limited number of jobs in the public and private sectors. So how much do they make? That depends on many variables, and findings
of a limited survey should not be generalized. Bandara found that, on average, a driver earns around RS1,500 a day, or Rs45,000 a month.

But with that, they must cover annual operation and maintenance costs that add up to about Rs60,000, as well as the cost of fuel. After setting these aside, a driver is left with about Rs25,000 per month.

While that isn’t much these days, the income keeps them out of poverty and gainfully self-employed. More insights on the trishaw economy would emerge from a larger sample survey Bandara is planning, involving 5,000 drivers.

Meanwhile, “Future transportpolicy directives aimed at d eveloping mass transport systems need to account their impact on this market segment and provide adequate provision for their operation,” he says.

Better regulation?
A 2010 research paper co-authored by Kumarage, Bandara and Munasinghe looked at not only transport logistics and economics, but the socio-cultural ones of trishaws in Sri Lanka.

They wrote: “Even though (trishaws) have become a significant part of the vehicle fleet over the past three decades, Sri Lankan society by and large considers it a nuisance. Its contribution to traffic congestion, noise and air pollution, frequent association with illegal activities, and price irregularities are primary negative public perceptions. On the other hand, they are becoming a popular mode of para-transport due to their availability, provision of door-to-door service, ease in contacting and perception of being affordable.”

Even though (trishaws) have become a significant part of the vehicle fleet over the past three decades, sri lankan society by and large considers it a nuisance

Can better regulation streamline the industry and improve the drivers’ social status?

The recent introduction of metres has helped standardise trishaw fares, but it is not mandatory. The arrival of the PickMe mobile app service for taxi and trishaw hailing (http://pickme.lk/) is also helping to streamline the driver-passenger interface. (The combination of mobiles and trishaws has been working well for many years.)

More can be done – and the informal industry has recognised the need. In June 2015, the All Island Three-Wheeler Drivers’ Union and its President Lalith Dharmasekera Vithanage filed a Writ Petition in the Court of Appeal, urging authorities to “draft new laws and regulations for the betterment of the industry and the interest of the general public of Sri Lanka in using three-wheelers.”

According to news reports, the Union seeks such laws and regulations to cover the safety of road users; discipline and service standards of drivers; safety of passengers; rights and duties of drivers, owners, users and passengers; and a reasonable, rational and consistent fare system. At the time of writing (mid-December 2015), the case is still pending.

Let’s hope regulations, when they arrive, would strike a healthy balance between protecting passenger rights, road safety and trishaw owner/driver welfare.

At the CEPA symposium, Dr Geetam Tiwari, a civil engineering professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), New Delhi, noted how such regulation can sometimes place an unfair burden on the owner/driver community. For example, Delhi megacity has limited their number to 90,000 and severely restricted where they may park.

“Such regulation increases the cost to passengers, so striking the right balance is very important,” she said.