American rickshaw

Posted by on August 19, 2014 , 13:46:59

Last month, the New York Times ran images of rickshaws in Kolkata, declaring the transportation mode “among the last in the world.”Although the photos were well-shot, the story was false. Rather than dying out, rickshaws are flourishing – in America.

Of course, anyone living in Dhaka, the Rickshaw Capital of the world, knows how silly it is to allege the vehicle’s death is near. Wherever you are in the Bangladeshi capital right now, the street outside your window is likely chockablock with rickshaws. The city has 600,000, and the rest of Bangladesh even more.

But what is less apparent from South Asia is that America is slowly following Dhaka’s lead. Walk the streets of Chicago, America’s third-largest city, for example, and you’ll see sweaty young men plying the streets in bicycle rickshaws(often locally called “pedicabs”).The drivers haul tourists up and down the Magnificent Mile, the city’s shopping district, or line up at the exits of music festivals and sports arenas to ferry attendees away to train stations. The same is true in other Western cities. The spread of rickshaws is a historical oddity – and points out a reality of development that many people miss.

As one might expect, rickshaws in the US are a bit fancy. Rickshaws in Dhaka do not have “a Shimano 21-speed drive train with a rear axle differential and indexed grip-shifting,” like the ones that a US company called Main Street Pedicab makes, for instance. Robert Tipton, owner of Chicago Rickshaw and a former wallah himself, says he bought a Dhaka-style bicycle-rickshaw as a kind of showpiece. “I wouldn’t want to get up on that thing,” he declares.

But just because a thing seems fancier, that doesn’t make it better. To start, the American rickshaw weighs over 65 kg (150 pounds) –far heavier than the Bangladeshi versions. No amount of money defeats simple physics: heavier things are harder to move, and American rickshaws are at a disadvantage. Curiously, instead of a light wooden bench and a vinyl hood, the American passenger compartment is a wide bench surrounded on three sides by heavy plastic. This seems to save riders from getting splashed by puddles, but it wouldn’t be necessary if their compartment weren’t so close to the ground. The low, heavy design makes it impossible for a driver to move a broken-down rickshaw by tilting it onto the rear wheels and carrying the hood around his waist, as the Dhaka drivers do, too. Even though the Dhaka model has been minimally updated before the 1950s, it’s tough to imagine Bangladeshis trading it in for the American version.

Even if the US rickshaw ever won on design measures, it loses on art. What does America have to compete with the hammered metal and painted vinyl of Dhaka rickshaws? Nothing but the occasional advertising sticker. Anyone who’s spent a moment in the Bengal region would class American pedicab artwork terribly disappointing.

But having no basis for comparison, Americans have a surprising reaction to rickshaws. They seem to think they’re quite cute.

Rickshaws are to America what Pizza Hut is to Bangladesh. In the US, Pizza Hut is considered uninteresting and poor quality, but easy to access. In Bangladesh, Pizza Hut is so nice a friend told me she hoped to celebrate her engagement to her fiancé at one. In Bangladesh, rickshaws are grubby and mundane, but easy to find. In America, they are so special that Tipton says a significant part of his business comes from rickshaws being used in weddings.

Defenders point out that rickshaws are ecologically friendly, as they do not use gas or emit pollution. This is correct, of course, and an American vogue for environmentalism partly explains their taste for rickshaws. (Meanwhile, Dhaka’s huge supply of non-polluting rickshaws is one of the few things keeping its air reasonably breathable. We should thank the rickshaw drivers.)

But the American love of rickshaws, on the other hand, is an odd throwback made possible by ignorance of uncomfortable class divisions. A 2002 book on the history of bicycling remarks that the elites in several Asian countries tried to ban rickshaws “…in part because they were symbolic… of a feudal world of openly marked class distinctions. Perhaps the seated rickshaw passenger is too close to the back of the laboring driver, who… is a draught animal harnessed between shafts.”(A draught animal is one who pulls a cart or a plough.) It is a situation Bangladeshis might admit is familiar.

In contrast, Chicago Rickshaw’s Tipton rejected my question on whether rickshaw-drivers in Chicago are “mostly people without strong professional resumes.” “We get all kinds of people,” he insists.

Actually, the two countries’ industries work on the same business model. Drivers, who are always male, lease rickshaws by the day and live off whatever profits they earn. They work on fares negotiated between the riders and driver, a pricing model used almost nowhere else in America. They ply their trade by waiting around street corners as Dhaka rickshaw-drivers do, rather than using the radio or cellular dispatch most US transport services favour. Overall, the situation imposes an uncertainty that relatively few American workers face, but that rickshaw-pullers in Bangladesh would know well.

The hardest parts seem to be the same, too: the work is physically demanding, and the riders are often rude. A 2008 monograph on the health concerns of rickshaw pullers outside Natore, Rajshahi Division, listed heat exhaustion and body pain as common. It included a comment on abuse from riders from an old man everyone called Chacha: “I am sixty-five year old man, but these people call me tui….” In the West, rickshaws are heavy and temperatures can reach extremely hot – but Tipton says dealing with clients is the hardest part of the job.

The rickshaw-drivers in Chicago do have one historical situation that has never taken hold in Bangladesh: they are being banned by elites. Two months ago, the City of Chicago invented new regulations for rickshaw drivers, including expensive licenses and a ban on rickshaws on two of the three largest shopping district streets. Chicago Pedicab Association organized against the law, publishing a statement saying “The ordinance…. was introduced ‘in the interest of preserving public health and safety or avoiding traffic congestion.’ However, no collisions or injuries were cited or traffic studies conducted.” Nonetheless, the law limits rickshaw licenses to 200, which will end local industry development. Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.

Overall, the situation reverses a common pattern. Most of the time, Dhaka perceives itself as trailing the West – aiming at replicating its successes, but sometimes mired in difficulties that come from misunderstanding imported innovations. With rickshaws, the pattern has perfectly reversed. The West is importing a good idea, but imperfectly imitating its successes, forgetting its history, and replicating its shortcomings.

It makes clear that Westerners are not superior to people in the developing world. When their positions were switched, the outcomes are just the same. That is a fact of international development well worth remembering.

Stopping to watch a young man ply his pedicab illegally down Michigan Avenue on a hot summer day, I feel homesick for Dhaka. I wish my native city would have a better sense of history, an appreciation of the moments when Asia does better than us – and also, much better rickshaw art.