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November 14, 2012

Autorickshaws Venture into Car-Crazy Johannesburg

by Anita Powell

Car-crazy Johannesburg is about to get its first fleet of auto-rickshaws, the distinctive three-wheelers that dominate streets of the Indian subcontinent.

For residents of South Africa’s most populous city, the cart-like, combustion-engine pedicabs carry the promise of an economical, eco-friendly solution to urban transportation demands. With more than 900,000 cars for its 3.8-million inhabitants, Johannesburg, says a 2010 report by the International Association of Public Transport, boasts the continent’s highest vehicles-to-people ratio.
 
According to Rina Jeyakumar, co-founder of e-Tuk Tuk, the group leading the green-transit initiative, the low-emission, tiny 3-passenger vehicles promote an environment where some of those drivers can leave their cars at home.
 
“[It means] less congestion, increased safety, less drinking and driving on the road, et cetera,” she says, describing it as an affordable alternative for the millions who rely on public transportation.
 
Slated for a February 2013 launch in the city’s trendy Melville suburb — home to many of the University of Johannesburg’s 30,000 students — the vehicles will stick to a five-kilometer range and cater mainly to the central enclave’s targeted clientele of academics, journalists and creative types.
 
Imported from Indian automaker Bajaj for $4,000 each, the vehicles, restricted to speeds of 40 kilometers per hour, will stick to smaller streets that connect key destinations and mass-transit hubs.
 
Although Jeyakumar’s team is still working to establish fares, which are expected to be comparable to other public-transit options, she says her group is hoping to see the initiative expand to neighboring regions.
 
Form, function and performance (sort of)
 
What tuk-tuks lack in speed is made up for with the riding experience.

“It’s like being on a safari in the middle of Jo’burg,” says e-Tuk Tuk co-founder Deon Fourie, explaining that the open-air, windowless vehicles afford passengers an immediate integration with the passing landscape.

In a way, he’s right. After a 20-minute ride on the tuk-tuk, one understands how South Africa’s exotic animals feel: Normally stoic inner-city residents stop, gawk, wave, honk and even take photos of the curious car.
 
Along Melville’s main drag, some restaurant-goers hold their beers aloft as the tuk-tuk passes.

At an auto shop in the historically South Asian suburb of Mayfair, 25-year-old Louis Groenwald sneers at the little red vehicle as he makes a few custom modifications to his Mazda sports car.

“I’ve seen it but I don’t like it,” he says. “There’s no doors to it… There’s no style.”

Others, however, appear to welcome the newcomer.
 
One taxi driver named Thabo brings his 3-year-old son over to take a look. He points proudly to his blue Toyota van, saying that he thinks the two vehicles can co-exist.

“Oh, nice, very nice this thing. I like it,” he exclaims. “It’s very nice and it’s very small, this thing.”
 
Like similar auto-rickshaw initiatives that have found success in Kenya, Nigeria, and Ethiopia, the e-Tuk Tuk team hopes to carve out its own (small) space, and see its South African fleet of three vehicles expand in both number and efficiency.