Re-thinking the rickshaw

If you’ve been to parts of Asia or Africa, chances are a three-wheeled auto rickshaw got you from A to B.

Cheap to drive and compact enough for a driver to whisk passengers through crowded streets, they are a vital mode of transportation for billions of people around the world everyday.

But under their brightly painted exteriors, auto rickshaws have a dark side, a new UBC study has found.

With more than a million operating in India alone, and more in Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Kenya, rickshaws are a major cause of urban air pollution and contribute to climate change.

As a result, developing countries such as India—under pressure from the West to take action on climate change—have taken steps to reduce the environmental impacts of their rickshaw fleets. The problem is, the expensive programs may not be working.

“Auto rickshaws represent major potential savings in emissions that cause air pollution and can lead to climate change,” says Milind Kandlikar, a professor at UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues. “The problem is, surprisingly little research has been done on this, so some countries may be making expensive mistakes.”

Kandlikar’s team traveled to New Delhi, India, where they put rickshaws of different makes and models through extensive emissions testing at the International Center for Automotive Testing. Using real-world conditions, based on rickshaw driver surveys, they tested rickshaws idling, accelerating and at top speed—using a variety of fuel types, including conventional gas, natural gas and CNG, a clean fuel.

The decision to test CNG was no accident. In 2002, Indian cities such as New Dehli and Mumbai began requiring auto rickshaw drivers to switch to this expensive, state-subsidized clean fuel, Kandlikar says, despite scant data on
its effectiveness.

Their findings? First, they discovered that auto rickshaws produce even more pollutants than previously thought, particularly those powered by two-stroke engines. They found larger amounts of particulate matter and volatile organics which are a major cause of heart and lung disease and contribute to climate change.

More importantly, while rickshaws with four-stroke engines performed better with CNG, they found that those with two-stroke engines produce similar amounts of pollutants using CNG as with conventional fuel.

“On balance, our findings suggest the greatest savings of harmful emissions can be had by phasing out two-strokes,” says Kandlikar, who is also a member of UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES).

“Many cities in developing countries have terrible air quality, so switching to clean fuel like CNG can sound like the right thing to do,” adds Kandlikar, who was born in Hyderabad, India. “But our research suggests it might be more cost-effective to invest in programs that help drivers upgrade from two-strokes.”

That is exactly what Kandlikar and his team is now working on. Next up is exploring ways that cities and nations can implement their findings that don’t hurt drivers’ pocketbooks.

Next steps

When Prof. Kandlikar next returns from research projects in India, he plans to bring an auto rickshaw back for UBC clean energy researchers.

“I want to let our engineers have their way with it,” says Kandlikar. “The developing world needs new and more sustainable technologies. Researchers in rich countries should play a role in helping develop them.”

Learn more about Milind Kandlikar and his research at