Thinking allowed — 02 August 2011

Be it Boris; Ken; Bikes; or Cabbies, nothing it seems polarises Londoner’s opinion more than rickshaws. When last writing about these three-wheeled wonders I received more comments than for almost any other subject. So at the risk of being accused of self-interest and ignoring the environmental advantages of using this mode of transport in the Capital, I offer this advice before you decide to be taken for a ride.

Are the vehicles safe?

There have been no major collisions which have resulted in death involving rickshaws, however the ride can be very hairy when traffic is busy, for example during the rush when the theatres finish their performances, or riding at speed around Hyde Park Corner. The rickshaws owned by the large companies who run them, known to them as pedicabs, are all members of the London Pedicabs Operators Association (“LPOA”) and abide by their own code of conduct. They claim to have regular safety checks carried out and a well maintained fleet of vehicles. Unfortunately only their voluntary code of conduct protects the public and therefore is not subject to external scrutiny. The London Taxi Drivers Association (“LTD”) commissioned the Transport Research Laboratory (“TRL”) to undertake an independent safety evaluation of the type of rickshaw most commonly operated on the streets of the capital. TRL concluded that rickshaws provided “little or no protection in the event of almost any accident and posed a significant risk of passengers being dragged along in direct contact with the road surface”; indeed the vehicles were considered to be so dangerous that TRL banned its technicians from testing them at speeds above 9 miles per hour.

Road safety?

The community police make regular checks to ensure that their lights function are turned on and give these vehicles a cursory check when they have the time, which in the West End at night, is rarely done. Rickshaws usually have seat belts, usually lap belts, and are not designed to carry more than three passengers; if there are four or more passengers you should use a second rickshaw. If you do need a second rickshaw, be warned, do not allow them to race; they always seem to want to outperform their colleagues, much to the horror of oncoming drivers. This rickshaw habit of racing around the streets of London at speeds far in excess of 9 mph prompted the LTDA to commission a further study by TRL to enable the handling and stability of these vehicles to be tested by means of computerised simulation, thereby eliminating the risk of physical injury to TRL technicians. Their conclusions reinforced their original findings.

Insurance?

Contrary to popular belief, the rickshaws run by the main companies definitely carry full public liability insurance; this is part of their voluntary code of practice. However, if you exceed the stated number of passengers you may invalidate the insurance. In addition, unlike all other types of regulated public transport an insurance certificate is not displayed on the vehicle so potential punters have no means of checking.

What do they charge?

The fare is a matter of negotiation between the driver and the passengers. Most of the rickshaw companies charge a basic flat rate fare per passenger (between £3.50 and £4) and then the driver negotiates his fee on top of that. How much more you pay is dependent on your negotiating skills and how far you are going. It’s no different than when travelling in a Third World country; you agree a fair price before you get in the cab and then stick to it and don’t listen to the excuses for increasing the fare at the end of your journey. You will find they expect a tip as well, 10 per cent is more than adequate.

Who are the drivers?

The drivers are thought to be mostly young “foreign students” trying to make a bit of money to help fund their studies, very few will be English students, but with university fees set to rise who knows? A few may have shadier backgrounds and unlike drivers of any other transport, they don’t have background checks even though they regularly carry children. If working for one of the larger companies they will have received training via the LPOA. This includes complying with a voluntary Drivers Code of Conduct and training to level three of the National Standards for cycling. The driver should be wearing a name badge; follow the road rules and make sure that passengers are buckled in on every ride. I have yet to observe this in practice.

How legal are they?

In 2003 the LTDA, in an attempt to rid the capital’s streets of rickshaws, launched its own landmark private prosecution (“Oddy v. Bugbugs”). The Association’s challenge eventually progressed to the High Court where Justice Pichford ruled that, due to loopholes in the law, the antics of rickshaw operators and riders were surprisingly, entirely legal, despite the risks which they could pose to unsuspecting passengers. The High Court ruled that an ancient Metropolitan Carriage Act defined rickshaws as “stage carriages” which is the loophole that permits them to legally ply for hire. There is not yet an officially recognised “vehicle definition” for rickshaws and at the present time they are still officially classed as pedal cycles which is another loophole and automatically exempts them from insurance and parking restrictions including standing on pavements and obstructing theatre exits.

There are thought to be 800 rickshaws (double the number two years ago) plying for hire in London, again that cannot be corroborated as the operators are not required to keep records – at least it’s not as bad as Dakar who have approximately 800,000.

Some have suggested that rickshaws be restricted to the Royal Parks as a fun ride for tourists, but commercial vehicles are prohibited from using the parks, again another grey area, are they commercial? Unfortunately Parliament would have to introduce primary legislation to ban them from London or specify their role in providing transport, and MPs it would seem are more concerned with their involvement with newspaper editors than ensuring the safety of rickshaw passengers.

Love them or loath them rickshaws are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

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Gibson

(2) Readers Comments

  1. Thanks for providing chapter and verse on the rickshaws and the regulations referring to them.

    I have never ridden a cycle rickshaw in London and have no plans to do so. They do not seem to me to be appropriate vehicles for the narrow and busy streets of London. I suspect it is only when a horrible accident occurs that politicians will take a serious look at the rickshaw and its operating conditions.

    I do think, however, that rickshaws probably receive more than their fair share of opprobrium because drivers of motor vehicles are generally prejudiced against cyclists, whatever kind of cycle they are riding.

    • Chapter and verse on the rickshaws does not, and I repeat, does not, mean that I in any way approve of them. Ban them NOW!

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