Back in 1998, ITDP began its journey in India, in Agra. The vision to develop a modern cycle rickshaw—to counter the growing threats of motor vehicular pollution—gave way to the India Cycle Rickshaw Improvement Project.
What started off as five prototypes has become sustainably embedded as the standard design in cities across North India—Agra, Ghaziabad, Lucknow, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Bharatpur and Mathura. Today, around half a million of these modern cycle rickshaws serve 4-5 million zero-carbon trips daily and offer dignified livelihood to over a million people, transforming the lives of their families as well.
The project started in Agra to address the damages caused to the world heritage monument, Taj Mahal, by motor vehicular pollution. ITDP New York, along with other Indian organisations, initiated the project to simply modernise the humble cycle rickshaw to counter the growing menace of air pollution in the city. Shreya Gadepalli, the first member of the India Programme and current ITDP South Asia Programme Lead, led the project with ITDP Vice President and human-powered-vehicle designer, Matteo Martignoni, and Executive Director, Walter Hook.
Why modernise the age-old cycle rickshaw? While the West looked for sustainable transport solutions, most Asian countries already had the solution—cycle rickshaws plied in every nook and corner of the city. Unfortunately this is a mirage of the past, as despite their massive modal share Indian cities continue to undermine the value of cycle rickshaws by increasingly banning their use from streets.
Modern cycle rickshaw
Cycle rickshaws are non-polluting and provide cost-effective means for last mile connectivity. They don’t just provide employment to the driver; the local production of almost the entire fleet benefits manufacturers too.
The design of the traditional cycle rickshaws came with a set of challenges. One, they were heavy to pedal, primarily because basic bicycle parts were just strengthened for the production of a rickshaw; strengthening of parts resulted in significant increase in weight (80 kgs). Two, drivers had to put in extra effort while pedaling due to misalignment of the basic bolt-on unit. Three, passengers experienced extreme discomfort as the rear passenger seats were made of thick planks of wood nailed together. Often, cycle rickshaw wallahs complained of fatigue and adverse impacts on their health.
Beginning in 1999, path-breaking work was done by the ITDP team to advance the cycle technology and increase the income of rickshaw wallahs in Agra. After extensive research, real-life testing of prototypes, and public participation for over a period of three years, a modernised Indian cycle rickshaw was created.
Modern cycle rickshaws in production at the workshop
These new rickshaws are revolutionary in terms of safety and comfort, for the rickshaw wallahs as well as the passengers. The weight has been reduced by more than 30% (at 55 kgs compared to 80kgs) by means of an integral tubular frame that has excellent structural qualities, and the provision of a multi-gear system specifically designed for rickshaws.
Shreya Gadepalli and Matteo Martignoni testing modern cycle rickshaws on ground
The impact—the drivers could ply them for a third longer—increased their earning by close to 50 %. The increase in earnings can also be attributed to the comfortable passenger seat that is woven with nylon strap on the tubular frame. It provides comfortable and safe seating with adequate suspension, hence giving a bump-free ride.
Since the implementation of the project, rickshaw drivers have enjoyed a new economic status with improved earning. Passengers are enticed by these new rickshaws due to their comfort, safety and a brand new image. Many five-star hotels in the city of Agra now allow these new cycle rickshaws on their premises and also promote them amongst their guests!
Modern cycle rickshaws being used at tourist attractions across North India
Today, what started as five prototypes at a small workshop in Agra has turned into a fleet of over five hundred thousand rickshaws spread over cities of Northern India. They provide zero-carbon mobility and provide a dignified livelihood to millions. This is tangible transformation at scale, one of ITDP’s commitment to not just it’s donors but to society at large.
In this regard, should Indian cities not revive cycle rickshaws across the country and make them an integral part of urban transport?