Professor Rickshaw

If you didn’t get your three-wheeled fix from “Wheels of Fortune,” here’s even more of everything you wanted to know about pedicabs but were afraid to ask.

I would've been remiss if I’d written the story without trying to interview Tony Wheeler, one of the global authorities on rickshaws. While Wheeler is best known as the co-founder of the Lonely Planet line of travel books, he also has a bit of a rickshaw fetish. In 1998, he authored Chasing Rickshaws, a guide to the rickshaw industry and culture in various Asian cities from Agra, India, to Yogtakarta, Indonesia. The beautifully illustrated guide is a kick even for those with no interest in pedicabs; the book delves into the sociological and economic complexities of these ubiquitous Asian taxis and even provides graphic schematics of the different vehicle variations. Unfortunately, Wheeler was so busy in his never-ending globetrotting that he couldn't respond to the questions I e-mailed him in time to be included in the story. Instead, you can find his answers below.

Westword (Joel Warner): Why write Chasing Rickshaws? What, for you, is the attraction to rickshaws?

Tony Wheeler: I’d always been interested in cycle rickshaws from my Asian travels. And as an engineer they always intrigued me, in part because they never reached that stage which so many devices come to when one design predominates (i.e., cars all have four wheels, mostly with the engine in the front, usually driving the front wheels, etc., or jet airlines above a certain size generally have their engines slung beneath the wings). In contrast, cycle rickshaws have widely varying designs. Plus it was an opportunity to record a disappearing tradition before it did finally go.

WW: What factors led to the adoption of the rickshaws in the 1870s?

TW: At first they were a replacement for the sedan chair, a means of private transport which was relatively popular in many cities at one stage but required two people to move one person. A regular walking rickshaw halved the labour requirement but moved the passenger more comfortably and faster. Adding a bicycle further improved the efficiency.

WW: Why have many municipal authorities long harbored distrust for rickshaws, even from its first use?

TW: Well, any new device is distrusted by the owners of the device that are going to lose out. So sedan chair people and horse carriage people automatically distrusted the rickshaw. And later the taxi [people did the same]. Similarly movie theaters distrusted TV. Landline telephones distrusted cell phones. Etc!

WW: What is the rickshaw’s role in society? Does it help suppress an underclass, or can it be used as a means to improve one’s lot?

TW: It was, and is still in some places, an entry-level employment. It’s interesting in places like Dhaka in Bangladesh, where cycle rickshaws still play a big part in urban transport, that the riders are generally rural guys, who’ve come to the big city and are trying to get a foot on the first rung of employment. Same thing with taxis today, isn’t it? In lots of big cities around the world (New York for certain, and Melbourne where I live), finding a taxi driver who isn’t a first generation arrival is a pretty rare.

WW: Why do rickshaws still flourish in some countries, while they have been dying out in others?

TW: The survivors are really places where they’re either still a big form of transport (because other forms of transport are too expensive for many people) or they’ve found a particular niche. That is often tourism today.

WW: Some countries and cities are now actively trying to eliminate the rickshaws. Do you think this is a good development?

TW: Well, they’re environmentally and ecologically wonderful. On the other hand, there may well be some safety concerns and in some cities they may disrupt other traffic patterns. But getting in the way of cars is often a good thing!

WW: About how many rickshaws in use today, if you know?

TW: I really have no idea, although looking at the rickshaw history in my book I seem to have given quite a few figures. Since Dhaka in Bangladesh had over a quarter of a million when I did the book 10 years ago, I assume it’s probably still the number one place. I’d guess figures in western cities where you find them are generally only in the hundreds. Or less.

WW: When and why did we start seeing the adaptation of cycle rickshaws in Western countries?

TW: I’d like to say the current worldwide first world craze kicked off when my book came out, but I think it was coincidence rather than cause and effect. But curiously cycle rickshaws did suddenly start to appear on the streets in much larger number right around that time, the late 1990s. I guess partly because there started to be more people around some of these city centers in the evenings and kicking around on a cycle rickshaw was fun. And any craze like this just develops its own impetus. One city has them, then somebody thinks, “that would be interesting in my city” and it would go no further if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s now somebody selling the things, so getting started is easier.

WW: What are the differences -- such as in use, design, and societal role -- between these newer breed of rickshaws in Western countries and the ones you wrote about?

TW: The design is often not very different in its essentials, but the technicalities (having gears, for example) and the materials (lightweight, higher tech) are far superior. One of the interesting engineering defects on the Asian traditional cycle rickshaws is that they often have no differential (the device in a car which allows the wheels to go through more revolutions on one side of the vehicle than the other, as it goes around a corner). So they only drive a wheel on one side, which is simple but not very efficient or in an engineering sense very aesthetically ideal. I imagine that modern western cycle-rickshaws have some high-tech diff. Societal use? Well, I don’t imagine western cycle rickshaw riders see it as a first stepping stone into regular employment; it’s more likely to be something that’s fun to do for awhile, like a college vacation job.

WW: Can these rickshaws be a viable form of transportation in Western cities, as they are in some Asian ones? Or are they just tourist attractions?

TW: Well, they move people from A to B, so in some respect they are viable transport but that’s only a small minority of usage. I assume most of the time it’s just fun/amusing/part time occupation.

WW: Is the backlash to rickshaws in American and European cities similar to the backlash against rickshaws we’ve seen over the ages in Asian countries?

TW: Same thing, with a big dash of déjà vu. When taxis came in a century or more ago, they would have been resented by cycle rickshaw riders, horse carriage drivers, whatever. Everything goes full circle. Rickshaws appear again and now it’s the taxi drivers opposing them. Of course city officials always hate anything which isn’t documented, registered, controlled, licensed, etc. etc. So it’s no surprise they’re unhappy about them.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner