An Island of a Million Tuk Tuks

Walking down a road in Colombo is no longer a lonely experience when you are sure to encounter half a dozen tuks driving by you, hoping you will hop in. By the 4th tuk you will probably start thinking to yourself, ‘for God Sake can you people let a person enjoy a walk down these newly paved roads of Colombo’. I enjoy my walks and the number of times I’ve said that, has increased exponentially. For men it can be a simple nuisance, but for a woman walking down a road, it can also be close to harassment. One could say, the tuk drivers are being customer friendly. But this behaviour is emblematic of a broken tuk market.

No, I am not referring to falling sales of Bajaj, Piaggio or TVS tuks. David Peris, AMW and Ideal Motors are earning good revenues selling countless tuks every day. I have no idea what the official number of tuks roaming the country at the moment. (Probably not many since it’s five in the morning.)

According to government statistics, a total of 929,495 trishaws (officially called motor tricycles) were registered in Sri Lanka at end-2014. Along with the PM, lets put it around 1 million tuk drivers. In this article I would like to talk about (I) how we ended up with this many tuks or trishaws in an island of 20 million souls, (II) the lack of regulation and (III) the economic impact of this offsetting of one million from the workforce and how it helps prove to some, we need Indian workers.

When I was young (I still am, I actually mean when I was a kid), it was not very easy to find a tuk in the suburbs of Colombo. There were no tuks at every junction. Tuks were not a cheap option even back then especially when you had to haggle over the price at the start and end of the ride. Those who needed a regular tuk at reasonable rates, usually had someone on speed dial. It is probably why there are about 3 tuk drivers who I’ve ended up knowing better than 80% of my relatives. But as I went through secondary school, I saw how the number of tuks on the streets began to explode. Every junction was becoming occupied by a tuk stand. Local governments began to regulate these stands to prevent conflicts breaking out between tuk drivers for spots at lucrative junctions.

Market economics would theorise that the increase in the supply of tuks should reduce the price of a tuk ride per unit of distance. But there was no such effect. Prices remained at the same level thanks to the communal instincts of the tuk drivers to protect each others’ income. In essence, tuks have not become a proper commodity in the market. They have remained an economic anomaly. Things started to improve with the advent of meters for taxis. Finally some elite tuks offered us the ability to know the price of the ride without having to haggle.

Meter taxis now form the majority of tuks in Colombo and its suburbs. But beyond the urban areas, meters are a rare sight. Yet meters have been abused to charge exorbitant prices from people. Rates for a tuk can go from Rs. 32 per km on a Fair Taxi to as high as Rs.50 per km on tuks near Majestic City. The underlying factor here is not that tuk drivers are cheats. They are people struggling to make a living in a country where low skilled labour have few socially recognised well paying jobs. The underlying fact is we never created a regulatory structure for tuk tuks at least within the Greater Colombo Metropolitan region.

Around 2010, the government did call for all trishaws to have meters for consumer ease, but it was never strictly implemented. Trishaws are frequently stopped by the Police to check their papers and are usually asked to remove some of the fancy accessories fixed on them. But none of them ever check the meter or whether the hire rate is too high. The removal of fancy accessories must be through the banning of such items on private buses as well. But the sheer lack of regulation with regard to the taxi rates means the police have no right or need to check the meters. And we consumers have no basis on which to complain.

Yes, the whole trishaw market has come up without any government support. It is mainly courtesy of David Peiris of David Peiris Motor Company, the importers of Bajaj trishaws since 1978. Apparently at that time, trishws didn’t sell like hot cakes and David had to drive them from the Port to his company yard himself. But today, the trishaws are mainly assembled in Sri Lanka with components parts imported from India, by both David Peiris and Ideal Motors (Bajaj and TVS). There is now significant value addition within Sri Lanka. Hence, the fancy nature of our trishaws as compared to those in India; comfy seats, chrome sidebars and good looking roof canvas.

But that does not warrant the government taking no action to regulate the whole industry. The sector is academically termed the Informal Public Transport (IPT) has been proved to be filling the void left by the inadequecies of the formal public transport sector – buses and trains. Kumarage et al (2007) assert that the lack of transport to small roads from the main roads is filled by the trishaws; in all about 1/3 of all passenger trips. Knowing the failures of our bus network, its no wonder we ended up with a million tuk drivers. Imagine travelling in Colombo in a hurry without tuks around.

The tuk market has recently taken a very positive growth spurt, thanks to a number of start ups ranging from Fair Taxi to PickMe. It is adding in market oriented discipline to the industry. Since we can now at least complain to the company about the tuk or the tuk driver, there is some accountability. Hope is in the air. Lets find ways to better the market. If we like it or not, tuks have become a symbol of Colombo and Sri Lanka. Our city would not be the same without them.

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