WRI India study weighs the propensity of auto-rickshaws for urban freight delivery

When it comes to one of the world’s biggest and most dense road networks, India’s roads are no less than a maze. And auto-rickshaws are truly the most used public transport available on the Indian roads. They can not only accommodate people but also bags/packages and are compact enough to navigate in the crampiest of lanes. Considering the advantages that auto-rickshaws offer, a recent study by World Resources Institute (WRI) India shed light on ‘Assessing the Viability of Using Auto-rickshaws for Urban Freight Delivery in India’.

WRI India conducted primary surveys in five cities — Bengaluru, Delhi, Hyderabad, Lucknow and Pune — with business owners, retailers, dealers, distributors and drivers, among others. 

Let’s first take an overview of urban freight delivery. It refers to the transportation of goods/products/packages within urban areas, typically from distribution centres or warehouses to businesses, retailers, or end consumers. As a concept, it has been gaining traction in the last few years due to the crucial role it plays in the functioning of cities by ensuring the availability of goods as per demand. However, it also poses unique challenges due to the complexities of urban environments, such as congestion, limited parking space, narrow streets, and various restrictions on vehicle access.

In view of India’s congested urban and semi-urban areas, there is a need for an intelligent combination of vehicles/modes to move goods. Lately, as daily commercial deliveries increase, one can spot small delivery trucks/vans, bicycles, cargo bikes, and electric scooters scattered on the roads with packages to be delivered, at any point in time of the day. In India, daily commercial deliveries are expected to grow 40% annually by 2025 and would require a strategic game plan in place for the demand to be met.

Considering the fact that currently there is no vehicle category for transporting goods between 30 and
350 kilogram (kg), the WRI India study examines whether three-wheeler auto-rickshaws be used for urban freight delivery. They have the maneuverability of a two-wheeler while being designed to carry payloads up to 300 kg – an attractive attribute which also results in reduced logistics costs for small and medium enterprises, and lower greenhouse gas emissions by 51.5% per trip. This would generate a lower environmental impact as compared to under-utilized conventional cargo vehicles.

The study also states that using auto-rickshaws will not only have a positive impact on the shippers but would also increase the driver’s income by around 15%. About 72% of respondents said they already make dual trips. This held true across regions, with close to three-quarters of respondents adopting dual utility in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Delhi.

Amendments made in 2019 to the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 (MVA) sought to develop schemes for innovative use of transportation assets and greater efficiency in transport of goods. These could provide scope for regulators to allow dual use of auto-rickshaws.

The study also made the following recommendations –

  • Set up an expert committee to deliberate on the various facets of dual-use and formulate and define safety standards, as well as regulatory interventions needed for dual use of three-wheeler passenger autorickshaws.
  • Institute capacity building for drivers. Passenger autorickshaw drivers and owners could adopt good practices from their peers in the cargo-handling industries for safer driving habits when transporting goods.
  • Develop short- and long-term strategies through careful deliberations among all stakeholders. While the overall benefits may outweigh the challenges, safety – for both passengers and goods—needs to be studied in detail during the trial phase. Pilots can be deployed to analyze key metrics of asset utilization, income, and safety to help iron out variances in implementation.
  • The transition from internal combustion engine (ICE) auto-rickshaws to electric auto-rickshaws to eliminate tailpipe emissions. Switching to electric vehicles would further mitigate emissions. Transitioning to electrification could be a goal in the long term, as emissions from e-auto-rickshaws (including life cycle emissions) are far less than those from ICE autorickshaws.

The study also highlighted the drivers’ regard for their as well as package safety while transporting foods. 85% of respondents said that safety measures are absolutely necessary before they will consider transporting goods on their vehicles. Some also suggested the need to maintain optimum payload capacity and limit speeds at which auto-rickshaws travel.

Considering that a maximum of three passengers can travel in the auto at a time and assuming the cumulative weight to be in the range of 200 – 250 kg, the study suggested around the same weight of payload capacity to be allowed for cargo.

The complete research paper can be found here.

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