Electric and Improved Cycle Rickshaw as a Sustainable Transport System for India

Published in Current Science. Vol. 83, No.6, 25 September 2002

By Dr. Anil K. Rajvanshi

The Author is Director of the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in Phaltan - Maharashtra, India. He has concentrated his efforts over the last twenty years on how to use modern technology to achieve rural development, and has received the award for the year 2001 by the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation.   → See also:

Most cities in India have very high air and noise pollution caused by transport vehicles especially petrol/diesel-powered three-wheelers. An improved and electric cycle rickshaw can provide a non-polluting and very silent transport system for urban and rural areas of India. It can also provide large-scale employment to millions of urban and rural poor. NARI has therefore developed two types of rickshaws; a) Improved pedal cycle rickshaw (IMPRA) and b) Motor assisted pedal rickshaw (MAPRA). The details of these rickshaws are given in this paper. It is shown that these rickshaws can provide a safe, environmentally friendly, energy efficient and cost-effective transport system in cities and towns of India. Commercialization, technology, social and policy issues are discussed for large-scale introduction of these rickshaws.


Most of the cities and towns in India are highly polluted. The main reason is the air and noise pollution caused by transport vehicles, especially petrol and diesel-powered two and three-wheelers. In India there are presently close to 18 million petrol-powered two wheelers and about 1.5 million petrol and diesel-powered three-wheelers and their population is growing at rate of about 15% per annum¹. Besides being a major hazard to people´s health, these machines are guzzling huge amounts of petrol and diesel for which the country has to pay dearly in foreign exchange outflow. It is a common sight in India and in other developing countries that during traffic jams in congested areas of cities these vehicles produce tremendous air pollution¹.

For example three wheeler diesel tempos in Lucknow city (capital of Uttar Pradesh) produce close to 70-80 decibel noise at a distance of 1-2 m, besides belching out huge amounts of particulates into the air. These diesel tempos have been recently banned in certain parts of Lucknow and have been replaced by equally polluting Tata Sumos. Similar data exist for almost all major towns where diesel/petrol three wheelers are being introduced. Recent incident of banning of six seater diesel tempos in Pune attests to this pollution problem². Even in rural areas in taluka/tehsil towns the spread of diesel/petrol three wheelers has started affecting air quality¹ .

There is therefore an urgent need to introduce in cities and towns of India an environmentally sound transport system which is cost effective and which provides large scale employment for urban and rural poor. An electric cycle rickshaw can provide a non-polluting, point-to-point and a very silent transport system for urban and rural areas of India. Besides it is a very energy efficient and cost effective vehicle. Work done at our Institute has shown that improved cycle rickshaw powered by an electric motor and batteries has a potential to provide an attractive alternative to petrol and diesel-powered three-wheelers. They can also provide large-scale employment and extra income to the rickshaw puller.

Existing cycle rickshaw scene

It is estimated that close to 2 million cycle rickshaws ply on the Indian roads carrying about 6-8 billion passenger-kms/year¹. The exact number could be even greater since there are no reliable records available. In some cities and small towns they are the major means of transport. They provide employment to more than 2 million rickshaw pullers, are very maneuverable, completely non-polluting and hence environmentally friendly means of transport. In the narrow lanes of towns and cities probably they are the only transport system to provide point to point travel. It is however very unfortunate that deliberate policies in most of the urban towns of developing countries have been made by the concerned authorities to phase out these rickshaws. These non-polluting vehicles are being replaced by polluting (both air and noisewise) petrol and diesel-powered three-wheelers.

However, the existing rickshaws are so poorly designed that running them takes a heavy toll on the health of a rickshaw puller. The existing cycle rickshaw has hardly changed since it was introduced in India in the early 1920´s from far east (rickshaw is derived from the Japanese word jinriksha, which means hand drawn cart). Apparently in early 20´s a Jesuit priest in India put a cycle wheel and pedals in front of the original rickshaw and this is the design which has been used since then³. The gearing and the mechanical advantage of the pedal is very poor. Hence the rickshaw puller has to work very hard while climbing even a slight slope. A common sight is of the rickshaw puller getting down and pulling on foot the rickshaw with passengers. The braking system is also very poor with only front brakes on the rickshaw. Thus when going downhill at high speeds sudden braking produces a catapult effect which results in overturning of the rickshaw. Similarly the seating arrangement is very uncomfortable and the aerodynamic drag of the system is very high. It is therefore humanly degrading to pull the existing inefficient cycle rickshaw. Yet because of poverty and no other source of income, migrant laborers do become rickshaw pullers and suffer adverse consequences to their health. There are estimates that rickshaw pulling is far more stressful than even hard labor. The rickshaw manufacturing presently is an unorganized footpath industry with no quality control and there are as many rickshaw designs as cities in which they ply. These rickshaws are so poorly made that they have to be replaced completely in about two years. Thus there is a need to improve the existing rickshaw to make it user friendly and bring quality control in its manufacture.

New design of rickshaws

Our Institute has therefore designed and developed two types of cycle rickshaws:

  1. Improved pedal cycle rickshaw (IMPRA).
  2. Motor-assisted pedal cycle rickshaw (MAPRA).
  1. Fig. 1 - IMPRA

    Improved pedal cycle rickshaw (IMPRA):
    The existing cycle rickshaw has been completely reengineered for the safety and comfort of passengers and to reduce the workload on the rickshaw puller. Thus the new design of pedal cycle rickshaw has 3-speed gears, reduced length of long chain drives, back wheel shaft braking, better suspension and less aerodynamic drag than the existing ones. Fig. 1 shows the IMPRA. Tests done on IMPRA have also shown that it enables a rickshaw puller to take two passengers on a 6-10% slope quite easily and without getting down from his seat. This rickshaw is made of mild steel angles, is light in weight, sturdy, and has ample luggage and leg space. The weight of IMPRA is 85 kg as compared to 90-95 kg of the existing rickshaws. Its life is estimated to be between 7-10 years¹.

    Our data (based on interviews with more than 300 rickshaw pullers and owners) from urban towns have also shown that a large number of rickshaw pullers are migrant laborers from villages and sometimes have the rickshaw as their sole possession1 . Hence at night when they sleep, they sometimes do so on the cramped seat of the rickshaw for the fear of it being stolen. Our new design allows the seats to be arranged in such a way that a long bed results which allows a rickshaw puller to sleep properly and without the fear of his rickshaw being stolen at night. The cost of IMPRA is estimated to be Rs. 7,000/- in mass production and compares very well with Rs. 4000-6000/- which is the cost of existing cycle rickshaws4.

  2. Fig. 2 - MAPRA

    Motor-assisted pedal rickshaw (MAPRA):
    Discussions with a large number of rickshaw pullers also revealed that their drudgery will be reduced drastically if a small motor is attached to the rickshaw so that it can assist their pedaling whenever they experienced load or while going uphill. The extra power may also allow the rickshaw pullers to ply the rickshaw for longer distances to increase their earnings per day. Consequently a motor-assisted pedal rickshaw (MAPRA) has been designed, built and tested (Fig. 2).

    MAPRA has the following components :

    1. IMPRA chassis with seating arrangement and an extended hood for both passenger and driver.
    2. A 375 W, 4 pole permanent magnet DC (PMDC) motor attached to a planetary gearbox.
    3. Gear drive train so that both pedal and motor power work in tandem.
    4. Two 40 Ah, deep discharge lead acid batteries to drive the PMDC motor.
    5. A stand-alone battery charger to charge the batteries overnight.
    6. High current switches.

    All these components, except batteries, were specially designed and developed for MAPRA4 . The weight of MAPRA (with batteries) is 150 kg. Test results have shown that MAPRA can easily take two passengers at 10-15 km/hr to 40-45 km in continuous running and 50-60 km in stop/start mode as experienced in congested city traffic conditions4. Presently the cycle rickshaws ply to about 20-25 km/day since plying longer distances than this is very taxing on the rickshaw puller. Hence MAPRA can double the distance that a rickshaw puller can cover in one shift. A very simple strategy has been applied in MAPRA where the motor can be switched on by the rickshaw puller by a high current switch whenever he experiences increased loading conditions. On level roads or while going downhill he needs to only pedal the rickshaw. Another strategy could have been to use an IC electronic sensor/controller so that the motor would have come on automatically when the load increased. However that would have increased the cost of MAPRA by about Rs.10-15,000/-.5 Besides these controllers have to be imported.

    Twenty MAPRAs have been fabricated at NARI and tested under varying conditions4. Till todate they have logged more than 5000 km in trial run. Five of these MAPRAs are running in Pune University campus and a couple are running in Phaltan. Efforts are on to put them in Hampi (World Heritage site) in Karnataka and in various University Campuses in different parts of the country.

    Test data has also shown that when a rickshaw puller has no stake in MAPRA he has the tendency to mostly run it on the motor. However with stake of either ownership or of earning maximum amount, the rickshaw pullers normally pedal (with motor assist) and drive MAPRA to cover maximum kilometers before batteries get discharged. Thus data shows that some rickshaw pullers cover upto 50-60 km on one battery charge.

    The retail price of MAPRA has been estimated to be Rs. 27,000/-4. Economic analysis of running MAPRA shows that a MAPRA owner can make a net profit of Rs. 25,000/- per year4. This assumes that loan for MAPRA will be available at 12% p.a. repayable in 10 years. Such loans are available from IREDA for non-conventional energy projects. Other assumptions are that the MAPRA will run for 300 days per year, the fare is Rs. 3/km and it will ply for 40 kms/day. Presently the cycle rickshaws charge anywhere between Rs. 3-5/km and hence the assumption of Rs. 3/km for MAPRA is reasonable. With higher tariff, a MAPRA owner will make even better profit. Our data on existing cycle rickshaw pullers´ income show that they make an average profit of Rs. 12,000 to 18,000/year. Hence with MAPRA they can double this profit-since they can go to twice the distance of existing cycle rickshaws.

    Besides being economically viable, MAPRA is also very energy efficient. Thus it is instructive to look at the energy efficiency of MAPRA vis-à-vis petrol or diesel powered autorickshaw. From power-plant to traction-energy point of view MAPRA consumes 86.5 Whr/passenger-km as compared to 175 Whr/passenger-km consumed by petrol autorickshaws. Thus MAPRA consumes half the energy as that required by a petrol-powered autorickshaw. The following assumptions were used in the calculations:


    • The efficiency of electric power plant including transmission and distribution losses = 0.255 ¹.
    • Charging/discharging efficiency of batteries = 0.64
    • MAPRA takes two passengers to a distance of 40 km per battery charge.
    • MAPRA puller consumes 8.3 MJ of energy in food per day. Since he will pedal continuously, this energy input has also been taken into account.

    Petrol autorickshaws

    • Average mileage = 25 km/l of petrol 6.
    • Calorific value of petrol = 31.5 MJ/l 6.

Issue of commercialization

With increased pollution in cities of India and various courts passing strictures against polluting vehicles, there is a need to introduce environmentally sound transport systems on the roads. In addition to the CNG powered buses and three wheelers, quite a number of major companies have introduced electric-powered three wheelers. However all these vehicles are expensive with their prices ranging from Rs. 2.75-4.28 lakhs7. One of the major reasons for this high cost is costly imported batteries and their weight. Around 50% of the weight of the vehicle is because of the batteries which results in increased motor power and hence the increased cost of vehicle. Present level of battery technology precludes high power output from lightweight batteries. We therefore feel that small transport systems like rickshaws are more suited for electric vehicle development. Thus reasonably priced, small size, indigenous batteries have been used to power MAPRA.

With IMPRA costing Rs. 7,000/- and MAPRA with its price tag of Rs. 27,000/-, we feel that they are some of the cheapest environmentally sound vehicles for India. Besides they also have the unique ability to provide large-scale employment to urban and rural poor.

MAPRA and IMPRA are designed in such a way that they can be shipped from the manufacturing plant in a completely knocked-down condition and can be assembled by any cycle rickshaw fabrication or bicycle shop. Efforts are also underway to reduce the weight of MAPRA by making its structure of tubular parts. A very lightweight MAPRA will allow the rickshaw puller to ply the MAPRA to longer distance thereby increasing his earnings.

Since MAPRA is essentially a pedal rickshaw with motor assist, the existing norms of pedal rickshaw commercialization may have a bearing on its marketing. In most cities each owner has 50-200 pedal cycle rickshaws. These owners either use their own resources for buying these rickshaws or borrow money from local touts at high interest rates. These rickshaws are then let out on hire to laborers at daily charges running from Rs. 15 to 20. Most of the rickshaw pullers are migrant laborers and are either known to the owner or to other rickshaw pullers who are driving the owner´s rickshaws. This ensures that rickshaws are generally not stolen. Most of the nationalized banks have been given a mandate by the Government of India to give loans to rickshaw pullers so that they can own the rickshaw but the terms and conditions of these loans are so tough that no rickshaw puller gets these loans. Thus majority of rickshaw pullers run the rickshaws on hire basis.

When MAPRA was shown to rickshaw pullers in different cities they immediately wanted it and were ready to pay higher daily rental charges so that they could eventually own it. The rickshaw owners on the other hand did not want MAPRA because of its higher cost. It is ironic that for rickshaw owners the difficult conditions faced by rickshaw pullers driving a poorly designed existing rickshaw are of no concern. They want a cheap vehicle and want to earn whatever they can from the daily hiring charges collected from the rickshaw puller. For rickshaw pullers, availability of user friendly rickshaws like IMPRA and MAPRA are the first real attempt at making a difference in their life. Thus there is a dichotomy in the approaches of rickshaw pullers and rickshaw owners. This problem can be solved largely by making finance available to rickshaw pullers so that they become rickshaw owners. One of the possible ways to do it is by setting up rickshaw pullers´ cooperative societies in different cities. These societies can facilitate loans from the banks and allow the rickshaw pullers to eventually own the rickshaws. The cooperative societies can also create better living conditions for MAPRA and IMPRA rickshaw pullers by providing a place for them to sleep at night and to charge the batteries. Presently majority of rickshaw pullers cook, eat and sleep on the footpaths.

Besides creating a non-polluting transport system for India, MAPRA will also provide dignity to rickshaw pullers. Presently rickshaw pullers are treated as belonging to the lowest rung of society. Many rickshaw pullers told us that a motorized rickshaw would give them dignity. It is felt that the police and the people in general treat the drivers of motorized vehicles with slightly more respect as compared to rickshaw pullers.

Other Issues

We feel that following technological and policy issues need to be looked at for MAPRA to spread and become a viable transport system in India.

Technological Issues:

  1. There is a need to develop a very low cost sensor/controller for sensing the load of MAPRA and to switch on and off the motor accordingly.
  2. There is a need to develop a very low cost battery charger based on switch mode power supply (SMPS) technology which should be rugged and could be mounted on MAPRA so that the batteries could be charged anywhere. Presently such rugged and low cost battery chargers are not available.
  3. The issue of battery charging has to be solved before large-scale deployment can take place. It can be addressed in two ways:
    1. The MAPRA puller/owner can take the rickshaw to his home for overnight charging if he has an electric connection.
    2. The rickshaw pullers´ cooperative society can also set up a battery-charging station where the rickshaw batteries can be charged. The charging can either be done by regular electricity supply or from a suitably sized solar PV unit. With PV charging two sets of batteries will be required so that one set could be charged during daytime.
  4. In the long run there is a need to develop high performance capacitors as battery substitutes. These types of capacitors are being introduced in U.S. and Europe for electric vehicles8 . Electric vehicles (EV) are presently limited by the battery technology. An excellent and cheap energy storage system can make EVs the transport vehicles of tomorrow.

Policy Issues:

  1. There is a need to permit only environmentally sound vehicles to operate in the congested areas of cities. Automobiles and buses can be parked at suitable locations from where these types of rickshaws can ferry the passengers. A cluster of such rickshaw stands even in big cities will help reduce the pollution and congestion in the cities. Similarly in zoos, University campuses and areas of tourist attraction like heritage sites, these environmentally sound and user friendly rickshaws should be encouraged.
  2. Since MAPRA and IMPRA are environmentally sound and user friendly vehicles they should get all the financial benefits available to renewable energy projects. Besides all the Government of India schemes for providing employment to weaker sections of society should be used to give loans to rickshaw pullers who want to drive these better rickshaws.
  3. There is a need for concerned authorities in India to exempt MAPRA from the purview of Motor Vehicle Act since it is essentially a pedal rickshaw with a small motor.

Finally it should be pointed out that the evolution of cities and towns has been driven by the transport system. The sprawling cities of U.S. developed because of automobiles. However most European cities have integrated the public transport systems like rail, subways, bus and trams with private cars, taxis and cycles to cover the "last mile". A similar thing could also be possible in a fair weather country like India where rickshaws can provide the transportation to cover the last mile or kilometer. If we consciously promote vehicles which are human propelled then we can help reduce the growth of cities and at the same time drastically reduce the energy used in transportation. This can show us a way towards a sustainable transport system of future. I also hope this paper will generate interest in the large S&T community of the country to work for producing better cycle and electric rickshaws which will help the environment and the lives of the poorest of poor of our country.


The funding from Ministry of Non-conventional Energy Sources (MNES), New Delhi and E & Co., New Jersey is gratefully acknowledged. I am thankful to Dr. C.R.Bhatia and Dr. J. Srinivasan for the valuable comments and suggestions.


  1. Rajvanshi, A. K., Human Power, Winter 1999-2000, No. 49, pp. 15-18.
  2. "Six seaters have been responsible for pollution", Interview of Thomas Benjamin, Pune Municipal Commissioner, Times of India, Monday June 10, 2002.
  3. Chasing Rickshaws, Tony Wheeler and Richard I´ Anson, Published by Lonely Planet, Australia, October 1998, pg. 180.
  4. Rajvanshi, A. K., Final Project Report Submitted to Ministry of Non-conventional Energy Sources (MNES), New Delhi, June 2002, p 47.
  5. Personal Communication, Curtis Instruments Ltd. (Pune), June 2000.
  6. Technical Data on Fuel, 6th Edition (Ed. H. M. Spiers), Published by British National Committee, World Power Conference, London, 1962.
  7. Data on cost of electric three wheelers in India from various newspaper reports.
  8. ESMA Company data.


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