The role of three-wheelers in sustainable urban transport

Three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, or tuk-tuks, are a common form of transport in many parts of the world. Designs vary across continents, with large fleets serving the streets across Africa, South America and Asia. India has 3 million of them, providing 20% of all motorised passenger rides. As Anumita Roychowdhury argued in a Down to Earth article last week, they could play an important role in reducing air pollution and providing sustainable urban transport.

This is not how they have traditionally been viewed. A quarter of Chennai’s air pollution is from three wheelers. Delhi had to cap the number of them in 1997 to try and control air quality. At the time many of them were diesel powered. Others ran on petrol, and it was common practice to dilute fuel with kerosene – a money saving trick that capitalised on government kerosene subsidies, but that caused toxic air pollution. Many three-wheelers are still very inefficient and dirty, but it doesn’t need to be that way.

Today many of them run on natural gas, and efficiency standards and emissions performance has improved dramatically. Gas driven tuk-tuks are 13 times cleaner than the two-stroke versions. The real potential lies in electric auto-rickshaws. They are now available and growing rapidly in popularity. It’s early days, but with support for purchasing, charging and licencing, they are likely to make a significant difference to air pollution.

Here we see an interesting contrast between electric vehicles in India and in the West. In Britain and in the United States, electric cars are expensive. Manufacturers have served the top end of the market first. There are a number of high profile electric luxury cars or sports cars, with affordable electric cars for the masses yet to make a breakthrough. In China it’s been all about e-bikes and electric buses, and India has the e-rickshaw and a growing fleet of scooters. As Roychowdhury writes, “it is the poor person’s vehicle that is steering the electric mobility revolution in India.”

Auto-rickshaws fill a particular niche in urban transport, taking people shorter distances and often to their front doors. They can feed in to other forms of public transport, covering the ‘final mile’, and they are cheap enough to be widely accessible. And I like the idea that as they electrify, it will drive a sustainable transport revolution from the bottom up.

Last week I dropped in a video from Fully Charged, a UK based Youtube show on electric cars. This one’s from a similar show called Plug-In India, and their videos feature all kinds of electric vehicles that aren’t available in Britain.


  1. Yes and no. Two front wheels and one rear are more stable, I believe. I would have thought bicycle style wheels ie large diameter with small cross section and higher pressure tyres would be more efficient due to lower rolling resistance.

    But why just for the third world. It makes no sense to move the best part of a ton of stuff around to carry a couple of people; and eight ton bus can carry seventy, or could in the old days before they started to put on weight.

    1. That’s possible, although if the passengers are in the back it may be easier to balance it with two wheels at the rear. As wiith cars, I suspect that many manufacturers will start with adapting existing designs to be electric, and then begin to develop new designs in future. All of them will have to balance lighter weight and efficiency measures with road safety and the stipulations of road legality – already a problem in India, as the video describes.

      Rickshaws aren’t a substitute for buses, so it’s not an either/or. They tend to serve shorter journeys at the fringes, and the ‘last mile’ to the front door. Great for coming back from town, getting off the bus with heavy shopping bags.

      And yes, no reason why we shouldn’t see more of these in cities in the West. There are a handful of operators in Britain, but they tend to be a bit of a tourist thing rather than a considered part of our transport systems.

  2. There’s a good chapter in this book ( about the “Safa Tempo” (clean three-wheeler) market in Nepal — how it got off to a strong start and established a market in Kathmandu for indigenously built electric vehicles. It was then sadly derailed by policies that prioritised imported micro-buses, because the government of Nepal benefited more from the high tariffs on imported vehicles than it did from the in-country production of Safa Tempos.

    Good book in general if you can get your hands on it — lots of insight into successful development measures and the policies that have enabled/derailed them. Also funnier than most books on development; the authors have a good eye for the ironies and absurdities of the system.

  3. With the methane leaks at natural gas production sites in the US being at 2.4 % ( and methane being a 30 times more potent green house gas than CO2 I personally would stay away from advocating natural gas as propellant. From global warming point of view that equalizes all benefits of natural gas for transport (

    1. All good points, though the situation may be different in India – I don’t know enough about India’s LPG imports to know how the methane emissions would compare.

      In the long term, obviously renewable powered electric vehicles are where this needs to go, but gas has served as a bridge technology towards it. Ultimately it will be phased out, since electric is already cheaper anyway.

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