Courtesy of EMBARQ India

The three-wheeled, auto rickshaw should play a major role in the sustainability of Indian cities, a new report suggests.

The population of Indian cities, already more than 340 million, is projected to reach nearly 600 million by 2030. By then daily passenger trips among 87 of the country's major cities will have doubled to roughly 482 million a day. In other words, embracing sustainable urban transport will quickly become an urgent need, and a key to doing so, according to a new report by EMBARQ India, may rest not in an emerging travel mode but an old reliable one: the rickshaw.

Private vehicle ownership in India is on the rise — climbing 85 percent during the 2000s to 110 million cars and motorcycles by the end of the decade. Meanwhile public transit ridership has fallen over that same period, in part because it hasn't kept up with demand. Bicycle riding is down too, as the length of trips grows longer with urban sprawl. In an extremely crowded country, that's a transportation recipe for high emissions, poor public safety, and massive congestion, among other social problems.

It's also where the three-wheeled, auto rickshaw comes into play. The declining quality of transit has led a growing number of commuters to travel by rickshaw, according to EMBARQ's report. Since 2004 production and domestic sales of auto rickshaws are way up, and the travel mode now serves "between 10 and 20 percent of daily person trips made on motorized road transport modes," depending on the city.

Those figures are even more impressive when you consider the relative scarcity of rickshaws on the road. In Mumbai, for instance, auto rickshaws make up just 11 percent of motorized vehicles, but capture 20 percent of the road transport share. In Bangalore, Pune, and Rajkot, the situation is largely the same:

The authors of the EMBARQ report believe auto rickshaws can have their biggest impact on two aspects of urban transport. The first is as an extension of to the struggling mass transit system. If rickshaws can become reliable transit feeders, serving the first and final mile of a trip, they will enhance the desirability of public transportation and reduce the demand for private cars. In this way they can mirror the role of taxis in New York City — complementing and expanding the transit system, rather than competing with it directly.

Rickshaws might also serve as an alternative to car travel for occasional door-to-door trips, like going to the airport or visiting the doctor. For this role to increase, however, the rickshaw industry will have to improve its organizational structure, according to EMBARQ. Right now rickshaws are primarily run by individuals, not fleets. If they acted as wide-reaching services with a central dispatch — say, as a dial-a-rickshaw — they could prove more attractive to city residents in need of a quick ride.

The auto rickshaw is not without its social drawbacks. The report raises questions about the sustainability of the rickshaw, pointing out that most of them — more than 80 percent in some cities — have a "two-stroke engine" that produces a high level of emissions. Until the fleet converts to a cleaner four-stroke engine, these environmental problems will remain.

There is also the matter of public safety. An analysis of rickshaws, cars, buses, and two-wheeled motor vehicles found rickshaws to be the second safest form of transport, to buses, as far as pedestrians are concerned. However safety hazards exist for the occupants of rickshaws themselves, particularly when it comes to collisions with larger motor vehicles. The report suggests a number of improvements to improve rickshaw passenger safety: seat belts, vehicle padding, and infrastructure upgrades like dedicated rickshaw lanes or general urban speed reductions.

For a look at auto rickshaws in action, check out this video by EMBARQ from late 2010, which covers many of the points addressed in the new report:

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