Take a tuk-tuk
Tuk-tuks, which are a common feature in Asian cities, have now made their debut on the streets of South Africa. We talk to local service providers to find out more about the legal requirements involved in operating these vehicles, and explore the sustainability of the sector going forward. CLAIRE RENKEN reports.
Everybody’s talking about tuk-tuks as a fun, stress free and cost-effective way to travel. Service providers are popping up in both Johannesburg and Cape Town and seem to be battling to keep up with the demand. If this trend continues, importing these vehicles will certainly be a lucrative business.
A Cape Town based importer of tuk-tuks is Amatuktuk. Its vehicles are fully homologated by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), and all major economies worldwide. The company is registered as a Manufacturer/Importer/Builder (MIB) with the Department of Transport. Its vehicles have been issued with an electronic National Traffic Information System (eNaTIS) number that enables them to operate as passenger-carrying motor vehicles which can be used in a variety of ways.
Already there are people operating tuk-tuks to transport tourists, with officially issued operators’ permits from the Department of Transport. Amatuktuk is the sole dealer for the Expertise Company Limited of Bangkok, Thailand. Its specialised tuk-tuks are exported to many countries worldwide, including the United Kingdom (UK), United States of America (USA), Japan and several European countries. They have all passed rigorous safety tests and are compliant to European Union, USA and South African regulations. These vehicles are handmade to order by the Expertise factory in Pattaya.
I decided to see for myself what the fuss is all about. I made use of a company called e-tuktuk in Melville, Johannesburg, and took a ride in one of its vehicles. The driver, Rashid Kirabira, really did make it fun and informative. All you need to operate these nifty little three-wheel vehicles is a regular scooter license.
You can’t be in a hurry if you take a ride in a tuk-tuk – the drivers are advised not to drive any faster than 40 km/h. In any case, that’s just the right speed to be able to feel the wind in your hair and enjoy the scenery as you go. Kirabira says the reception from the Melville community has been phenomenal. Since e-tuktuk opened its doors in November last year, it has barely been able to keep up with the demand. The business started off with three tuk-tuks and now has eight.
In my opinion, tuk-tuks certainly do have a place in the market. The service is ideal for all those short haul trips to and from shopping centres, the Gautrain stations and dinner nights out. If you want to go and party the night away without having to worry about who is going to be the designated driver, taking a tuk-tuk will ensure that you arrive home safe and sound.
But are all tuk-tuks operating legally in South Africa? This issue has even caught the attention of Carte Blanche, which featured tuk-tuks in a recent episode, focusing mainly on brothers James and Daniel Clarence, founders of the Monarch Tuksi Company in Cape Town. They have attracted attention because of their innovative business model. Passengers sign a form saying they are buying shares when they get a ride. So the brothers’ argument is that they aren’t a public transport company, but rather a private transport operation, providing company transport to their shareholders.
But is this legal? Western Cape MEC for Transport, Robin Carlisle, had the following to say “Listen, I think it’s one of the cutest ideas I’ve ever heard of … marvelous idea. But, unfortunately it’s against the law because what’s to stop anybody else doing this? The fact is, at the end of the day, they’re a public transport outfit who don’t want to conform to the regulations for public transport.”
Another big questions is, are tuk-tuks a sustainable industry? Vaughan Mostert, senior lecturer in transport and supply chain management at the University of Johannesburg, is guardedly optimistic about the future of tuk-tuks in South Africa: “Tuk-tuks are a well-known mode of transport throughout the world and run successfully in many places, so they definitely deserve their place in the sun. In fact, about 20 years ago, they were off to a reasonable start in Durban, but then in the end, weren’t sustainable.” That’s probably because they are difficult to operate profitably because of their low capacity.
He continues: “Just think of a minibus – sometimes as many as 20 to 25 people get crammed into one taxi so that the operators can make money. Tuk-tuks cannot operate on a large scale or over long distances, but there is a niche market for them. Like Parkhurst in Johannesburg, for example, where people like to peruse art galleries and stop off at coffee shops along the side of the road – hopping in and out of a tuk-tuk in that environment certainly has an appeal and adds to the whole atmosphere of the place.”
Paul Browning, a public transport consultant with TransForum Business Development cc has positive things to say about this new sector of the market: “Tuk-tuks are wonderful examples of enterprise. There’s a gap in the market and they intend to try and fill it. The tuk-tuk is clearly going to be competition for the metered taxi. In a place like Sandton, the metered taxi typically charges around R12 a kilometre, the tuk-tuk about R5 a kilometre.”
Of course that could also pose a problem. If the metered taxi sector – and even more so, the minibus-taxi operators – start to feel threatened by tuk-tuks, it could spell big trouble. Referring to the history of violence in the minibus-taxi sector over routes, Browning cautions: “We’ve all seen what has happened in the past. It is very important that the authorities plan to make sure that that kind of conflict doesn’t happen again.”
At this stage tuk-tuk operators and taxi operators seem to be co-existing peacefully. This is because the tuk-tuks have not yet tread on any taxis’ toes, since they are, for the most part, operating in areas where taxis are not allowed to operate. Let’s hope it stays that way!