Sunday, July 09, 2006

Auto Rickshaws in Britain

Hold on for dear life . . . the tuk-tuk has arrived

LIKE many backpackers who have whizzed around gridlocked Asian cities in tuk-tuks, Dominic Ponniah wondered whether the motorised rickshaws could be the solution for Britain’s congested streets.

Twelve tuk-tuks imported from India will operate in Brighton. Similiar services are planned for Central London and other cities. Photo: Gil Allen

The three-wheeled mopeds, named after the sound of the stuttering two-stroke engines used in early versions, are notorious for weaving at death-defying speeds through narrow gaps in the traffic. With the wind in your face and the accompanying sense of vulnerability, the top speed of 35mph feels like twice that.

Despite their poor reputation for safety, Mr Ponniah, 26, became convinced that tuk-tuks would catch on in Britain, especially if he added a few reassuring features such as roll bars, side-impact protection and seatbelts.

He has imported 12 from Pune in India and today begins Britain’s first tuk-tuk service in Brighton. A service for Central London is planned for next year, followed by others in Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh.

In Brighton, adults will pay a flat fare of £2.50 and children £1.50. They will share the ride with strangers, with up to three people squeezed into the open-sided cabin behind the driver. The service will run all year on a set route. Mr Ponniah is confident that there will still be a demand in winter, when the only protection from the cold and rain will be a plastic curtain.

The drivers, who have licences to drive cars, have had four days of training in driving and repairing a tuk-tuk. In Bangkok, Delhi and Bombay, it is common to see drivers tinkering with the engine while passengers wait.

In Asia, drivers rely on religious artefacts to protect them from crashes. Mr Ponniah, however, has had to satisfy the requirements of the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, which has tested each tuk-tuk.

Unlike the older, noisier versions in Asia, which run on petrol, the Brighton tuk-tuks have been converted to run on compressed natural gas. Mr Ponniah said that emissions of air pollutants were at least 90 per cent lower than for cars.

Achieving the equivalent of 50 miles per gallon, the tuk-tuks will be among the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. “They are as cheap as a bus and as convenient as a taxi. We will also make sure our drivers don’t drive like maniacs,” Mr Ponniah said.

Steve Webb, owner of the Tukshop in Southampton, which sells tuk-tuks as delivery vehicles, said: “You wouldn’t want to be in a collision with a Range Rover, but feeling a bit unprotected adds to the thrill. Riding in a tuk-tuk always puts a smile on people’s faces, especially if it reminds them of an Asian holiday.”

But Bob Oddy, of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, said: “They can tip over and people can get thrown out. They should not be allowed to mix with other traffic.”


# Their official name is auto rickshaws or Bajajs

# They are low geared and have a high power-to- weight ratio

# A tuk-tuk features in a car chase in the 1983 James Bond Octopussy

# Curry houses in Glasgow, Swansea, Luton, Torquay and Southampton use them as delivery vehicles

# Tuk-tuks in India can carry 20 schoolchildren



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