You step out on an Indian road, stick out your hand expecting a taxi and what do you get? Instead, you get a notorious metal shell, on 3 wheels much like a scooter with three wheels with a motor that sounds like a western lawn mower! a.k.a The Auto Rickshaw.
The Auto Rickshaw also known as tuk tuk, auto or rick, is one of the most popular modes of transport across cities in India. They are Cheaper than taxis, and also easier to find.
While it’s a form of daily transport in India…many visitors not used to this mode of transport, find rickshaws quite amusing and in some cases intimidating or scary. Here’s a guide to traveling by Auto Rickshaws in India to better prepare you and what to expect:
What Exactly is an Auto Rickshaw?
Auto Rickshaws are three-wheeled cabs known by a number of names in India and abroad. They’re sometimes referred to as scooters in the north but more commonly as autos, rickshaws, ricks or even tuk tuks as they are popularly known in south east Asia. You’ve probably seen a bicycle rickshaw or pedicab (Human powered cab). An Auto rickshaw is essentially a bicycle rickshaw on steroids!
Auto rickshaws have 3 wheels and a metal cabin enclosed tightly on all areas except for the doors. The areas where the doors are supposed to be are empty, but sometimes they have a roll down shower curtain type covering to keep out rain in the monsoon. Auto rickshaws have a maximum capacity of three passengers and one driver, but often people will cram in many more people (you have to see it to believe it!), though this is against Indian law in many cities. There are no seat belts and certainly no air bags! Auto rickshaws in India are typically colored black with bold yellow borders with a few exceptions in some cities like Delhi where they are green.
Another characteristic is that they have a very small turn radius since it is steered with a handlebar and can be turned in circles at the same spot…making them very maneuverable, a result of which is the weaving through traffic and flouting of lane discipline of auto rickshaws on Indian roads.
Getting an Auto Rickshaw in India
Auto rickshaws are very easily available in almost all cities and small towns The only exception is Mumbai (barring the suburbs) where autos don’t ply but taxis do. They are cheaper than taxis but more expensive than buses…though these days auto fares are on the rise. Hailing one of these 3-wheelers to your service is as simple as raising a hand an screaming “Rickshaw!” or “Auto!”.
While all rickshaws are supposed to have meters calibrated according to the city guidelines…many auto rickshaws don’t. And sometimes, even if an auto rickshaw has a meter, the Drivers (called an auto-wallah) will refuse to turn it on. That’s when your negotiating and bargaining skills come to hand..that’s if you have any or you best look for another auto. Even if your auto-wallah does put the meter on, there’s no guarantee your paying the right fee, with the amount of faulty meters and meter tampering that goes on. It’s best to ask for a conversion card before paying up which translates the no. shown on the meter to Rupees. There is an initial charge at the beginning of a ride then the price normally increases in proportion to the distance.
If there is no meter, or they don’t put it on, fix up rates and negotiate a price in advance. ‘Pre-paid auto’ drivers often spring surprises by asking for more, but you can refuse if you have agreed on a price earlier.
The Experience of Riding in a Rickshaw in India
Even though rickshaws have these interesting characteristics it’s not the actual vehicle (if you can call it that) which makes it memorable ride. So what makes riding in an Indian auto rickshaw such an adventure? It’s the drivers of the coveted vehicle that makes the experience of riding in an auto a complete one!
If the thrill of riding in a metal cabin with no doors, no seat belts and no airbags on treacherous Indian roads doesn’t scare you, then the auto-wallah’s driving skills definitely will! Riding an auto rickshaw is a bit like riding a roller coaster except you stay firmly on the ground with no definite track.
Even though auto rickshaws are said have a top-speed of around 50 km/h (about 31 mph), it definitely doesn’t seem like it and I doubt it’s true especially when your zipping past cars and bikes at much higher speeds leaving them in a cloud of smoke. You can sometimes can feel the G-forces pulling you as the auto-wallah makes a tight turn. They’re driven the way you would a bumper car at a carnival.
They zig-zag and weave through traffic unafraid of bigger vehicles or pedestrians and are notorious for playing chicken by driving on the wrong side of the road with oncoming traffic. And just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, if the gap between two cars or buses in front of you is seemingly impossible to fit into…think again! The auto wallah will surprise you by daringly maneuvering their rickshaw into the tightest imaginable spaces in traffic. So much so that you can literally touch the vehicle beside you by sicking out a finger!
All said and done not all auto-wallahs are terrible and drive like there’s no tomorrow. In fact the auto-wallahs are probably the best guides in town, so Rickshaws are a great way of seeing a new city. In traffic their your best bet to getting you to your destination the quickest. While the the Journey may be rough, the destination is always reached.
So don’t chicken out! You really haven’t experienced urban India if you haven’t taken an auto ride!