As one of the most widely used forms of intermediate public transport or paratransit – services that connect users to mass transport systems like buses or metro – auto-rickshaws are ubiquitous in Indian cities. The electric rickshaw (e-rickshaw), however, emerged as an even cheaper alternative in 2011. E-rickshaws are similar to a motorcycle combined with a rickshaw, and have immense potential to provide low-cost mobility to many of India’s residents. However, cities need to create safety regulations and build appropriate infrastructure to make sure this transport mode is simultaneously affordable and safe.
E-rickshaws serve as an important form of transport primarily around the expanding Delhi metro area. Over 1,500 e-rickshaws reportedly hit Delhi’s streets in 2013 and an additional 90,000 have been added in the first half of 2014.
E-rickshaws are cheaper to buy and operate than auto-rickshaws, and rising fuel prices have made them even more attractive compared to vehicles that run on petrol or natural gas. E-rickshaws cost about half as much as conventional rickshaws at about RS 85,000 (around USD 1,400), while conventional auto-rickshaws cost about RS 1.68 lakh (around USD 2,750).
E-rickshaws cause safety concerns
The rapid emergence of e-rickshaws on Indian streets, coupled with a lack of regulation of their use, has made them quite the safety concern. E-rickshaws generally carry 6-8 passengers, though their aluminum body is designed to hold only 4-6 passengers. Additionally, the braking equipment has not been checked by any government authority, making it unreliable. The sharp turning capability of e-rickshaws coupled with its high speeds also raises questions about its stability when making turns.
E-rickshaws run on electric batteries and need to be charged, which can put extra strain on the already overused electricity grid. According to media reports, manufacturers equip e-rickshaws with batteries capable of more than 750W of power to achieve higher speeds and carry more passengers – a clear violation of the non-motorized criteria under the Delhi Motor Vehicles (MV) Act of 1993. E-rickshaws take about 6 to 8 hours to charge, and dozens of e-rickshaws often fight over the limited street charging stations. This creates a nuisance at best and a safety problem for other city residents at worst. Because of the lack of charging stations in Delhi, many drivers tap into electric lines on streets to charge.
E-rickshaws are significantly less regulated than auto-rickshaws
Auto-rickshaw drivers must pay RS 2,000 (about USD 34) for a new, renewed, or transferred license. In this way, government officials are made aware of the number of auto-rickshaws on the streets, and can use this information to create and enforce standards that make auto-rickshaws comparatively safer. Auto-rickshaw drivers need to be tested (though minimally), and their fares are regulated – all of which is better for the passengers who use these vehicles. Since e-rickshaws are not considered to be motor vehicles, they do not need to be registered, and neither the vehicle itself nor the driver needs to be tested to see if they satisfy the minimum operational and driving standards. Drivers determine fares themselves, leaving the door open to overcharge or even exploit the passenger.
City leaders are now responding to the rise of e-rickshaws with stricter regulations, though these have been met with stiff resistance from drivers. The Delhi government recently ordered all manufacturers to get clearance and quality inspection on their products. When manufacturers subsequently failed to conduct quality inspections, the government banned e-rickshaws in Delhi in April 2014. Following political backlash and protests from the e-rickshaw union in Delhi, the government decided to lift the ban with the stipulation that all vehicles are required to undergo inspection for safety and operational capabilities. However, on July 31, 2014, the Delhi High Court directed the city government to stop the use of e-rickshaws until a law is framed to regulate them.
How to integrate e-rickshaws into cities safely
Cities can create more appropriate regulations by amending the Delhi Motor Vehicles Act of 1993 to ensure that e-rickshaws are safer, and that road infrastructure safely accounts for their use.
Making sure that e-rickshaws are safe requires starting with quality assurance, from inspecting body parts’ load capacity, tires, brake equipment, and turning radius. These inspections should be carried out for new and existing vehicles. People who drive e-rickshaws for the city should not be penalized if vehicle violations are detected, otherwise problems will never be reported. These policies will require the cooperation of drivers, manufacturers, and India’s Central Government to enforce such regulations.
Infrastructure must also change to support e-rickshaws. Proper charging stations must be installed around the city, and auto-mechanics must be taught how to handle problems specific to e-rickshaws. Charging stations can be integrated into existing fuel stations without placing a heavy burden on fuel-station owners. In fact, developing infrastructure to support e-rickshaws can help Indian cities. Batteries currently imported from China can be made locally to help bring money to India’s communities and lower the cost of batteries for e-rickshaw drivers.
Getting drivers and manufacturers to agree on policies and changing cities’ infrastructure to accommodate e-rickshaws will be enormously challenging. However, once Delhi and the Central Government tackle these challenges and improve safety, e-rickshaws have the potential to expand access to mobility in Indian cities and increase connectivity for residents.