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Rickshaws in South Asia

Introduction to the Special Section

M. William Steele

The rickshaw, invented in Japan in 1869, helped to produce a revolution in mobility for millions of people in Asia and Africa. By the 1930s, the everyday mobility offered by the hand-pulled rickshaw gave way to several of its off spring: the cycle-rickshaw, trishaw, pedicab, cyclo, becak, and the auto-rickshaw. The three articles in this special section describe how these “primitive” non-motorized vehicles continue in the twenty-first century to play a valuable and irreplaceable role in urban and rural transport in South Asian cities. The authors are traffic experts, geographers, and urban planners who live and work in contemporary rickshaw cultures. Despite the reality of urban hazards, the articles describe cultural, economic, and environmental reasons to keep rickshaws on the road, now and in the future.

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Mobility on the Move

Rickshaws in Asia

M. William Steele

The rickshaw initiated an explosion in personal mobility in Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Invented in Japan in 1869, by 1872 there were forty thousand and by 1875 over one hundred thousand of the new two-wheel vehicles on the streets of Tokyo. The number reached a peak in 1896 with 210,000 countrywide. The rickshaw (in Japanese, jinrikisha) quickly spread to Asia, to Shanghai and Hong Kong in 1874, to Singapore and Calcutta in 1880. By 1900, the rickshaw had spread throughout the continent, bringing with it new mobility to an emerging urban middle class. Moreover, for many people in Asia, the rickshaw alongside the locomotive, came to symbolize modernity. This article will explore routes of diffusion, focusing on the role played by Akiha Daisuke and his adopted son, Akiha Daisuke II, Japan's largest exporters of rickshaws, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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A Journey with Cycle Rickshaws

Identity, Respect, Equality, Space, and Sustainable Futures

Rajendra Ravi

I met a cycle rickshaw puller whom I had known for a few years and asked my old question, “Why do you not look for a better job instead of pulling a cycle rickshaw?” He asked me if I was free to have a chat with him in a nearby park.1 After settling down he said, “You have been asking the same question for many years, but you never asked us a question which mattered to us the most. Th e questions that you raised refl ected a limited perspective and did not provide us a scope to place our perspective. I would like to explain this to you.”

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The Role of Cycle Rickshaws in Urban Transport

Today and Tomorrow

Geetam Tiwari

Cycle rickshaws continue to play an important role in meeting the mobility demands in South Asian cities. Current transport policies, however, do not support their use. Rickshaws are viewed as a cause of congestion and a profession in which rickshaw owners exploit poor people. This article presents data from published studies to argue against those views. Data from Delhi metro users suggests that as cities expand their public transport services, rickshaws will continue as an important feeder mode in the future. Recent studies also suggest that if separate lanes are created for non-motorized vehicles (which can be used by bicycles as well), then rickshaws and motorized vehicles will experience less congestion and non-motorized vehicles will be exposed to lower traffic crash risk. This article advocates the collection of relevant data concerning rickshaw trips and the number of rickshaws in future travel surveys and that appropriate infrastructures should be designed to facilitate their movement.

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Rickshaw Pullers and the Cycle of Unsustainability in Dhaka City

M. Maksudur Rahman and Md. Assadekjaman

Rickshaw pullers are key to sustaining urban mobility in Dhaka city. Yet they are among the most marginalized members of society. Pullers live in precarious urban environments and struggle to rise out of a chronic poverty trap. In their work they face the daily challenges of restrictions on their activities, harassment from passengers and the traffic police, traffic jams and accidents. This article explores the factors which contribute to the unsustainable lifestyles of rickshaw pullers in Dhaka city. It suggests that rickshaw pullers might be supported better through licenses, economic incentives, and by prioritizing their contribution to improving Dhaka's traffic system.

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Cycles of Cathay

A History of the Bicycle in China

Edward J.M. Rhoads

Introduced into China in the late nineteenth century, the bicycle had to compete with a variety of alternative modes of personal transportation that for a number of years limited its appeal and utility. Thus, during the 1920s and 1930s it took a back seat to the hand-pulled rickshaw and during the 1940s to the pedicab (cycle rickshaw). It was only in the 1950s that the bicycle became the primary means of transportation for most urban Chinese. For the next four decades, as its use spread from the city to the countryside, China was the iconic “bicycle kingdom.“ Since the 1990s, however, the pedal-powered bicycle has been overtaken by the automobile (and motorcycle). Nevertheless, with the recent appearance and growing popularity of the e-bike, the bicycle may yet play an important role in China's transport modal mix. This overview history of the bicycle in China is based on a wide range of textual sources in English and Chinese as well as pictorial images.

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The Future of Rickshaws

Concluding Thoughts and Wider Issues

Peter Cox

The contributions to this special section, together with the Introduction, serve a valuable role in bringing to attention a frequently overlooked mobility practice. Particularly welcome is the presence of scholarship from local perspectives within the Western academic context. Between them, these papers begin to put fl esh on what is all too easily framed from European perspectives as an exotic practice of the “other.” Yet it is this very possibility of “strangeness” that should alert us to a number of important issues for further consideration. My own perspective here is as an interdisciplinary scholar, working day to day as a sociologist and a researcher into cycling practices, both historical and contemporary. Th e considerations range between the conceptual and practical, the historical past and the imagined future.

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Retracing Mobilities on Land in French Colonial Indochina and Beyond: Cars, Trains, Rickshaws, and Motorbikes

Stéphanie Ponsavady

In his famous 1925 travelogue, Roland Dorgelès writes about his first encounter with the Mandarin Road in Indochina:

When you have dreamed for years of the Mandarin Road, the very name of which evokes all the splendors of the Orient, it is not surprising that you experience a flash of annoyance if you are suddenly held up at a corner, between a street-car and an autobus, by some numbskull who triumphantly announces, with the idea that he is delighting you:

“Well, there it is, your Mandarin Road!”

And then he shows you a guidepost with a blue sign, executed in the purest style of the Department of Bridges and Highways, whereon you read simply, “Colonial Road No. 1.”

Disappointment resides in the resemblance with metropolitan roads, signified by a generic blue sign. Dorgelès laments the lack of exotic experience, even though his presence is only permitted by colonial modernization and administrative uniformity. This tension between the desire for alterity and the rationalization ofspace is characteristic of the French experience in colonial Indochina.

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Mobility in the Margins

Hand-pulled Rickshaws in Kolkata

Gopa Samanta and Sumita Roy

This article examines the marginal mobilities of hand-pulled rickshaws and rickshaw-pullers in Kolkata, India. It traces the politics of rickshaw mobilities, showing how debates about modernity and the informal economy frequently overshadow the experience of the marginalized community of hand-rickshaw pullers. It shows how the hand-pulled rickshaw rarely becomes the focus of research or debate because of its marginal status—technologically (being more primitive than the cycle rickshaw); geographically (operating only in Kolkata city); and in terms of the social status of the operators (the majority being Bihari migrants in Kolkata). Drawing upon both quantitative and qualitative research, this study focuses on the backgrounds of the rickshaw-pullers, their strategies for earning livelihoods, the role of social networks in their life and work, and their perceptions of the profession—including their views of the state government's policy of seeking to abolish hand-pulled rickshaws. The article concludes by addressing the question of subalternity.

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Art on the Move

Rickshaw Painters in Bangladesh

Gopa Samanta

Art in the form of decorating rickshaws, a very popular mode of mobility in Bangladesh, especially in Dhaka city, was developed in the 1950s to make the rickshaw more popular so that it could compete with the horse-drawn “tomtom.” Syed Ahmed Hossain, a rickshaw artist more commonly known in Dhaka as Ahmed, was a small boy then, living in a small house located on a narrow by-lane of old Dhaka city. He used to draw things on his school copy book with a small eroded pencil. Ahmed never had any formal training in painting because his father could not afford that. By the time Ahmed grew up, however, there was a growing demand for people who could decorate rickshaws and Ahmed found that job suitable to earn a livelihood for his family.