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Category: Transportation (Page 1 of 5)

The turtle-taxis of Tabasco

I have written quite a lot on this blog about autorickshaws, the remarkable three-wheeled taxis derived from motor scooters that are used extensively in India. In this post, I explained the surprising origins of a common name for the vehicle, and in this one, I described them as a creole technology. This term, introduced by David Edgerton in his fascinating book The Shock of the Old, describes a technology that originated in one part of the world but took on new and different uses in another part. In the case of autorickshaws, scooter technology came from Europe, but this technology transformed into a ubiquitous urban and rural mode of transportation in India and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia.

A Bajaj autorickshaw at Firoz Shah Kotla, Delhi.

Bajaj autorickshaws at Firoz Shah Kotla, Delhi.

When I wrote those posts five years ago, I had no idea that there was an entire dimension to this creole technology that I had completely missed. It turns out that autorickshaws are not just used in southern Asia. They are also used extensively in Latin America.

On a recent visit to the state of Tabasco in southern Mexico, I got to go on a couple of rides in a pochimovíl, as autorickshaws are called there (apparently because the vehicle’s hard fiberglass shell is reminiscent of the Tabasco mud turtle or pochitoque).

A pochimovíl in a suburb of Villahermosa, Tabasco, southern Mexico.

A pochimovíl in a suburb of Villahermosa, Tabasco, southern Mexico.

The pochimovíles I saw were very similar in design to those I am familiar with from India, and in fact they were manufactured in India by the industrial conglomerate Bajaj. One of them even had a little sticker behind the handlebar that said (in English) “MADE IN INDIA.”

Interior of a pochimovíl.

Interior of a pochimovíl.

The only significant differences I could identify between Indian and Mexican rickshaws were accessories, like the fiberglass shell (most autorickshaws in India have fabric tops) and proper doors for the passengers. Since the driver sits in the middle of the front, an autorickshaw can just as easily drive on the right side of the road (in Mexico) as the left (in India).

Mexico and India are very different from each other, but as I observed in an earlier post, both countries share certain similarities in terms of economics and (at least in tropical Tabasco) climate, so technologies like autorickshaws/pochimovíles work well in both places.

Scootermobility

Motorcycles in the Ghat ki Gooni, Jaipur.

Motorcycles in the Ghat ki Gooni, Jaipur.

Media in the car-saturated West—especially in the USA—have watched with some hand-wringing as the middle classes of large Asian countries such as China and India have increasingly been buying cars. At least in India, though, cars have so far failed to catch on to the extent that they did a century ago in the USA. What have caught on are two-wheelers: motorcycles and motor scooters. The profusion of two-wheelers in India hasn’t attracted much attention in the West, but I believe it has had a bigger influence in making India the country it is today.

Seven years ago, I spent my first sojourn in India at a school in the rural East Garo Hills district of Meghalaya. All of the teachers lived in the campus compound. Out of twenty-off families, only two had any sort of personal mechanized transportation: the principal had a car (a Maruti 800), and one of the teachers had a Bajaj motor scooter. Everybody else got around by walking, catching buses on the other side of the river, piling into the school sumo when it went to market, or bumming rides from the one teacher with a scooter.

Five years later, when I went back to Meghalaya to visit, there was only one family that didn’t have a scooter or motorcycle, and the others were asking when they would get one too. One of the teachers who now rode everywhere on his motorcycle spoke wistfully of the old days when everybody used to walk all the time.

In the early years of the twentieth century, when Americans first started buying cars in large numbers, optimistic car advocates claimed that automobility would usher in a new democratic age, when citizens could drive wherever they pleased, free from the tyranny of the railroads. Although cars did lead to new dependencies—on oil companies, tire companies, and of course the auto manufacturers themselves—cars did allow Americans to be more mobile than ever before.

Something similar is happening in India, except more with scooters and motorcycles than with cars. Thanks to scootermobility, residents of both city and country can go more places with more ease than ever before. Whole families pile onto single bikes to go on picnics. Teenagers and twenty-somethings escape the parental gaze to hang out in waste areas or old ruins on the edge of town.

Alongside the perks, scooters and motorcycles also come with many of the same pitfalls as cars, such as polluted skies and people who never walk anywhere anymore. There are also three shortcomings that aren’t shared by cars, which should give the builders of 21st-century India pause. The first is minimal safety protections. Motorcycles can go as fast as cars, but they have no room for crumple zones or roll bars. A seatbelt on a motorcycle would not do anyone any good. Second, two-wheelers have the loudest, shrillest horns of any vehicles. On any given day, they do more to create urban India’s noise pollution problem than anything else. And third, two-wheelers can insinuate themselves into places that cars could never go, thus endangering pedestrians and generally trampling cities in new ways. The pleasant pedestrian promenade at Connaught Place in New Delhi becomes not so pleasant when you constantly have to worry about getting run over by a scooter.

Motorcycles waiting at a light on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, Jaipur.

Motorcycles waiting at a light on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, Jaipur.

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The cycle-taxis of Syonan

On a recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia to attend the Society for the History of Technology’s first meeting in Asia, I came across a curious example of local technology, the trishaw. At first glance, trishaws looked like cycle rickshaws, common in India, but on closer inspection they turned out to be an ordinary bicycle with a sidecar clamped to one side.

Trishaw in the History and Ethnography Museum, Malacca.

Trishaw in the History and Ethnography Museum, Malacca.

The trishaws I saw were not regular taxis. Instead, like the pedicabs of New York City, they offered joy rides to tourists. In Singapore, I only saw a few forlorn trishaws parked opposite the Raffles Hotel, but in Malacca (Melaka) there were flocks of them congregating around the historic Dutch Square. The Singaporean trishaws were mostly unornamented, but the Malaccan ones were decked out elaborately. Most of the decorations featured children’s movie or TV characters, such as Doraemon, Minions, or the main characters of Frozen.

Trishaws at Dutch Square, Malacca.

Trishaws at Dutch Square, Malacca.

The history of trishaws in Southeast Asia began more than seventy years ago. According to C.M. Turnbull’s History of Singapore (Oxford, 1977), trishaws originated in World War II during the Japanese occupation of Syonan (“Light of the South,” the name given to Singapore by the Japanese). Singapore, an island state with few natural resources, had long been economically oriented toward the west. The Japanese occupation cut off Singapore’s western trade links, leading to severe resource shortages. Some enterprising Singaporeans found ways to create domestic import substitutes, such as banana-fiber ropes and bamboo paper. Trishaws were another such improvisation. Not only could they be readily adapted from existing bicycles, they also did not consume any gasoline, another scarce wartime commodity. After the end of the war, Singapore’s economy recovered, but trishaws continued to be used into the 1970s. More recently, they have made a comeback for tourists.

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