JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - The engine of the tiny three-wheeled vehicle clatters like an oversized lawn mower as it warms up in a courtyard in northern Johannesburg.
“People call our tuk tuks toy cars,” says Alan Bangi, the affable 33-year-old driver of this tuk tuk who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The driver laughs heartily: “A tuk tuk would be the result if a car and a motorbike had a baby!”
The comical contraptions – named after the staccato ‘tuk-tuk-tuk’ sound of their engines – are often called “auto rickshaws.” They’re enclosed in metal and plastic and there’s a single seat for a driver in front, and another at the back of him for two or three passengers.
Bangi’s tuk tuk, sponsored by a bank and painted with its logo and blue, white and grey colors, starts with a stutter and a jerk. But it’s soon part of a sluggish snake of heavy traffic, though the three-wheeler looks as if it would be more at home rolling across golf course greens.
Tuk tuks have for decades been essential modes of transport in the congested urban centers of many developing nations, especially in Asian countries such as India, Thailand and China, and in Africa, in places like Nigeria, Uganda and Egypt.
However, when they first made an appearance in Johannesburg a couple of years ago, they were met with intense skepticism.
A comment from a reader on a South African motoring website in early 2012 reflects this: ‘These vehicles work fine in India where the traffic moves at a snail pace due to the lack of proper roads, but not in our country with people like Hummer driver(s)… I won't feel safe traveling in one of these death traps.’
Many people were convinced that the slow and small tuk tuks wouldn’t survive in Johannesburg. While gridlock is common in the city, when the roads open up its drivers are notorious for driving recklessly, and at high speeds.
Yet the tuk tuks have thrived, and there are now several firms running fleets of the vehicles as demand for cheaper short-distance transport swells in Africa’s financial hub.
Driving a bargain to Brixton
“The old-school metered taxi cabs are expensive. But tuk tuk transport over short distances is cheap and it’s what they’re designed for and are good at,” says Bruce Cowie, the managing director of Shesha Tuks, which has imported 33 of the vehicles from India and Italy. “Tuk tuks are very light on fuel, easy to repair and maintain, and they zip through traffic like no cars can do.”
Cowie’s tuk tuk drivers charge 25 rand (about $2.30) for trips of up to 3 kilometers (about 1.9 miles) or 65 rand for 10.
“A trip on the tuk tuk costs me 15 rand from my home in Brixton to work,” says Emma Wutonga, who’s been using the buzzing bees, as she calls them, for the past year. “If I was to use the metered taxi, I would pay 70 rand just to get into it. Then the meter would run up, to about 100 rand to my work.”
Cowie says his list of clients is “growing all the time.”
“We transport business people to and from meetings, train passengers from the station to their homes, school kids to school and back; people who’ve been drinking at functions safely back home; we take old, frail ladies shopping…”
“They insult and swear at us”
But, while tuk tuks are an obvious hit with spendthrift passengers, they’re often the targets of motorists’ frustration and anger ... For their mini 275 cc engines allow them to reach a top speed of a mere 45 kilometers, or 30 mph.
“The biggest dangers to me are drivers of minibus taxis and luxury vehicles. They drive fast and they think the road belongs to them. They force us off the road.
They don’t obey laws. They insult us and swear at us,” says Bangi.
Laura Mpofu, a waitress, says she uses tuk tuks because minibus taxis are “very dangerous,” although they offer even cheaper, albeit less convenient, transport.
“The minibus taxi drivers, you know they use shortcut routes. It’s not safe, because they don’t follow the road rules… Sometimes, if the robot (traffic light) is red they just go through, they don’t care. They also overload their taxis with people and use the lanes for the buses so the buses come along and hit them,” Mpofu explains.
“I also use the tuk tuk because it comes right to my door to pick me up, but to use minibus taxi I would have to walk very far to the taxi stop for transport,” she says.
Tuk tuks drive defensively
Cowie emphasizes that his drivers, like Bangi, are “highly trained” in traffic safety and are instructed to anticipate and to avoid danger.
Bangi confirms this, commenting: “The trick as the tuk tuk driver is to drive very defensively and to foretell what the other road users are going to do. You don’t only drive your car; you drive the car in front of you and the car behind you…”
Cowie adds: “We believe that it’s a real safety bonus that all of our drivers come from African countries where tuk tuks are a major means of transport, like Congo and Malawi. So they’re experienced with tuk tuks.”
Wutonga says minibus taxi operators are often “rude and arrogant,” while using tuk tuks allows her to interact with “respectful” and “caring” drivers who are focused on passenger safety.
Cowie maintains that the tuk tuks are “small, but not flimsy” and “can handle a bit of a bash” in the event of a collision.
“We’ve had someone drive into us. Luckily one of the drivers was on his own when it happened and he was hit from the side. It (the tuk tuk) kind of just tipped over. He didn’t break any bones; he went to hospital just for a checkup and he was fine…
“We’ve had a few more collisions and the passengers were always fine, which proves the vehicles do protect people very well.”
Intimidated by drivers of metered cabs
But a major threat has emerged to the ongoing survival of tuk tuks in Johannesburg: the drivers of metered taxi cabs, organized into associations to protect their interests. The little vehicles sometimes ply the same routes as the traditional cabs, undercutting their prices severely.
“The physical attacks on our tuk tuks by the cab drivers started happening soon after we began business,” says Cowie. “It was territorial fighting; police involvement. It’s only calmed down because we’ve retreated slightly and we’re not trying to take them on. We’re trying to respect the territories; we understand what it’s about… Our tuk tuk drivers could make more money but they avoid certain areas to try to avoid trouble.”
But Cowie acknowledges the policy of appeasement isn’t working as well as expected.
“The metered cab guys still form groups to gang up against the tuk tuk drivers. They’ll still intimidate them. They sometimes get as brazen as to pull the passenger out - or sometimes more gang up and they want to tip it (the tuk tuk) over.”
“One cannot reason with sociopaths …”
Shaking his head, Bangi mutters: “Every day I work in fear of my life. Seems the metered taxis want all the business. One cannot reason with sociopaths…”
He adds that a group of cab drivers has warned him twice that he’ll be killed if he doesn’t stop driving his tuk tuk.
“They sometimes (physically) attack us. (They tell us) ‘You cannot pass here; you cannot pick up (passengers) here; you cannot drop here; you cannot stop here.’ They are the ones regulating the laws on the road because even in front of the police they don’t care…”
But Bangi feels he has no choice but to continue behind the wheel of his tuk tuk.
“I must work because there’s no other job for me and I have a family to support.”
And so, the young Congolese with the ready smile guides his tuk tuk up another hill, towards another client, past another bunch of metered cabs.
As Bangi’s tuk tuk strains to reach the summit, a metallic Mercedes Benz flashes past, its driver glaring at him.
But Bangi’s eyes are fixed on the road ahead and he simply mumbles: “That’s the new C-class; very nice car. It’s in a class of its own...”
As are Johannesburg’s tuk tuks and their indefatigable drivers and passengers, as they play their parts in the rapidly changing face of the city’s transport system.