Over the last few months, city officials have focused on the evolution of public transit, ride-hailing services and autonomous vehicles as key mobility modes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But another mode that has widely been left out of such conversations could hold the key to safe and sustainable transportation: open-air rickshaws.
Often associated with Asian and Latin American countries, rickshaws (or tuk tuks) are joining pedicabs as a niche transportation option in some U.S. cities. By keeping passengers and drivers in the open air, they’re also gaining traction as a mobility option for the social distancing era.
Last month, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) announced a partnership with local company Go Tuk’n for a pay-to-ride shuttle service through two downtown neighborhoods. The Tuk’n Ride partnership will allow passengers to reserve rides on the three-wheeled electric tuk tuks to neighborhood businesses and restaurants.
JTA spokesperson David Cawton said the partnership adds a "door-to-door, on-demand service" to the agency's mobility options, as public transit faces a "difficult moment" due to riders' fears of crowds and enclosed spaces, and overall reduced use for commuting.
Go Tuk’n has operated in Jacksonville since early 2018, offering point-to-point trips and special events like history tours. The partnership with the JTA, however, cements the company as more than just a tourist attraction or special events business.
"If we can show how to move people around urban areas, we might have people saying, 'I don’t have to bring my own vehicle downtown,'" said CEO Stephanie Dale. "We cover distances that aren’t walkable, and we can get onto the roads that buses can’t do very easily."
Bringing tuk tuks to America
The use of rickshaws and tuk tuks in Asian and Middle Eastern cities dates more than a century, originally introduced as human-powered carts. In the 20th century, manufacturers produced motorized versions that spread across Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East; one model, the Mazda-Go, marked Mazda's first foray into automobiles.
Stable and compact, they've functioned as taxis, delivery vehicles and alternatives to sitting in traffic jams, but have also been blamed for clogging up bus lanes and for contributing to air pollution for running on dirtier gasoline. But in 1998, India required its tuk tuks use natural gas, and more electric models have emerged in recent years.
The vehicles have had limited appeal in the U.S., however, in part because of regulations that have kept them out of car-centric city roads. Existing tuk tuk services have mostly held a novelty status, and are often decorated to attract tourist attention.
More electric tuk tuk services have emerged in recent years, especially after Denver-based eTuk introduced a street-legal, electric tuk tuk service in 2017 and started distributing vehicles to other cities. Advocates now say that the move to open streets and open-air transportation may help rickshaws compete with ride-sharing, scooters and bikes as a true first-mile, last-mile solution.
"We think that when people are getting back to work or are out in public when it is safe to do so, that having this kind of service established will be better for us and for our riders," JTA’s Cawton told Smart Cities Dive.
Pedicabs as 'ambassadors to the city'
Similar to rickshaws and tuk tuks, pedicabs are often three-wheeled, pedal-powered vehicles that have addressed the transportation needs of U.S. cities for a number of decades.
Steve Meyer, founder of Denver-based Main Street Pedicabs, first encountered pedicabs on a trip to India in his 20s and was struck by how "cute" they were. A self-described "big guy," Meyer said he and a friend practically collapsed the first one they sat in.
Later in life, while living in Colorado, Meyer started thinking about the vehicles in the context of urban planning, and how they could fill space that most cities dedicated to cars. In the early 1980s, he borrowed a pedicab to shepherd people around an urbanism conference in Boulder, which led to the creation of his company.
Meyer designed several pedicabs, launching fleets nationwide as an early alternative to short-haul taxi trips. He also targeted the emerging LoDo (“Lower Downtown”) neighborhood in Denver, where sidewalks were sparse and cabs weren’t always running.
"We’d do a lot of work taking people where taxis didn’t want to take people. We don’t want to make airport trips, we want to take people a quarter mile or a half mile," Meyer said. "The pedicab industry really depends on people not wanting to walk short distances, or at least short from the standpoint of what we think of for automobiles."
Decades later, pedicabs and motorized alternatives have found a foothold in a handful of cities, especially those with dense nightlife blocks or festival scenes. Austin, TX, for example, has a fleet of pedicabs that help circulate hundreds of thousands of attendees to the annual South by Southwest and Austin City Limits events.
Hey, #SXSW !— Movemint Bike Cab (@movemintbikecab) March 15, 2019
Look for a #Samsung #pedicab for a free ride to free swag! Samsung is exhibiting their new #SamsungGalaxyS10 at 701 Trinity Street, and they'd like to show y'all a good time.
And so would we. #LetsRide#SXSW2019 #SamsungExperience #SamsungGalaxy #Austin #ATX pic.twitter.com/pR54bL580I
"I think of ourselves as ambassadors to the city and to events. It’s outdoors, you get the sights and sounds of the city," said David Knipp, co-owner of Austin’s Movemint Bike Cab, which operates a fleet of more than 60 vehicles. "We don’t always take the main thoroughfare, we go through the alleys and trails and show the road less traveled."
In 2019, the City of Austin started a pilot of e-assist motors on pedicabs, allowing the vehicles to go up to 30 miles in a shift (compared to 15), and helping drivers get up the city’s notorious hills. That pilot was made permanent last year, and the city expanded the operational boundaries for the vehicles to become a more reliable mobility option.
A safer alternative?
The use of rickshaws, tuk tuks and pedicabs is far from ubiquitous in U.S. cities due to a lack of regulations or beliefs that the vehicles clog sidewalks. New York City has had a particularly tense relationship with pedicab operators, especially in regards to fare regulation.
But the vehicles can fill a role as a "complement to transit," said David King, an assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning at Arizona State University.
"They won't work to replace commuting, for instance, but perhaps as more cities and suburbs create ‘lifestyle centers’ rickshaws can be part of a ‘park once’ strategy, where there are fewer, but shared, parking lots rather than each business having its own lot as is currently the norm,” King said in an email. "Anything that helps reduce parking coverage will contribute to better places that are more walkable."
That’s the thrust of the Jacksonville program, where the tuk tuks will help replace a fleet of smaller shuttles that became too expensive to run. The new vehicles offer a more boutique experience that can go from a bus stop directly to a business, utilizing side streets that wouldn't fit a fixed route bus. Dale said the new routes will help draw attention to local businesses.
"Jacksonville is not some cookie cutter environment. I really want people to see the things about the city that I love,” Dale said. "It’s so rewarding to hear people say ‘I didn’t know this was here,’ that’s the experience we want on any shuttle ride or tour of any kind."
The tuk tuks also offer an advantage over those common forms of transit including ride-sharing and shuttles: they are in the open air at a time when air flow is more important than ever.
As Naperville, IL, a 150,000-person suburb of Chicago, began reopening after months of social distancing, the owners of Tuk Tuk Naperville tapped into its social media following to see if customers would be interested in getting back on one of the company’s five vehicles. Most people said they would still use the service as a way to get to downtown restaurants, company president Bill Hamik said, and even though sales remain "way down," there are still enough point-to-point rides to stay afloat.
Though drivers still require masks and offer hand sanitizer to riders, the open-air feeling has helped put people at ease, Hamik said.
"I think that somewhat deflects concern about the spread of the virus," he said, adding that the company will follow all state and federal guidance.
In many cities, pedicabs and rickshaws are inextricably linked to nightlife culture, at a time when officials are trying to limit crowding at bars and restaurants. Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced last month that the city would shut down "pedicabs, pedal carriages and limousines" as part of an extended closure for bars through the end of the month.
Other cities, however, have made efforts to support the industry. Austin has offered the industry fee deferments and allowed fleets to keep non-operational pedicabs in suspension without forfeiting licenses, which are capped. The moves to open up streets for active transportation and the addition of temporary bike lanes have also boosted the industry, according to city spokesman Jacob Barrett.
Changes to street layouts — if they survive beyond the pandemic — could offer a prime opportunity to rickshaw and pedicab drivers. As parking spaces get turned into outdoor dining and entire streets shut down to vehicle traffic, tuk tuks or pedicabs could help people get around in ways ride-hailing vehicles can't, said Main Street Pedicabs's Meyer.
That is, if cities open up again.
"When are people going to go back to a theater? That’s a question that affects my business a lot more than the disease," said Meyer of Main Street Pedicabs. "If people aren’t downtown, my vehicle’s not even going to be on the street."