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Hitting the pavement in a ‘tuk-tuk’

­­Sights and Smells of New Dehli

An auto-rickshaw waits outside the World Trade Centre in New Delhi for a lunchtime passenger. Nicknamed “tuk-tuk” for the noise of its engine, the three-wheeled auto-rickshaw is the vehicle of choice for commuters and tourists wishing to weave through India’s streets. (DEVIN BANERJEE/The Stanford Daily)

NEW DELHI — Navigating city streets with the wind in your hair may come in the form of a Mustang in Los Angeles, a Porsche in Berlin or a Ferrari in Rome. But in India, the convertible is replaced by a half-size, three-wheeled taxi that many say offers a fuller travel experience than any roof-down car: the auto-rickshaw.

“The auto is open all around – no windows, no doors,” touted Gopal Singh, the owner of three auto-rickshaws that he manages at a taxi stand outside a New Delhi shopping center. “See everything, hear everything. Better than a car.”

Since its introduction in New Delhi in the 1970s, the auto-rickshaw’s apple-green carriage and lemon-yellow roof have become trademarks of urban transportation in India. In the capital, the noisy, three-wheeled taxis buzz like bees around every corner and at every hour of the day. They are so abundant that a spokesman for New Delhi’s transport department said he didn’t think anyone in his office had ever really tallied the “tens of thousands” of rickshaw permits filed in the city.

“Always find [an] auto,” Singh said, leaning on one of his own. “They are everywhere.”

The interior of an auto-rickshaw features motorcycle handlebars for steering and not much else. A passenger row behind the driver’s bench seats about four people, while the sides are left open. (DEVIN BANERJEE/The Stanford Daily)

There’s good reason for their omnipresence in urban India. A new auto-rickshaw costs about $3,000, said Singh, an amount that would seem high for a taxi operator were it not for the vehicle’s low maintenance cost and long life. And the auto-rickshaw dominates among urban taxis because of its small size, allowing it to adeptly navigate city traffic.

“It’s the way to go if you need to get somewhere quick,” said Arjun Hari, a New Delhi banker who often has to be at lunch meetings out of his office. “My work is just two kilometers away, but it takes forever if I’m not in an auto. Plus, it’s cheaper.”

Though fare meters are built into most auto-rickshaws, drivers rarely turn them on, instead accepting whatever fare their passengers are willing to shell out. Locals say an easy formula to follow is halving a normal taxi’s fare for the same distance.

“Really, you could give any fare,” Hari said. “If you don’t know a normal taxi’s fare to split in half, you could just ballpark it. That’s the beauty of it.”

For others, the beauty of the auto-rickshaw is its versatility.

“I take it to work, I take it to lunch, I take it to the market and then I take it home,” said Sheena Shah, an office assistant. “And when [my friends and I] go out, we all squeeze into one. There are no seatbelts or anything.”

Indeed, the layout of the auto-rickshaw’s “interior” is as simple as they come. A bench-like seat for the driver, which can also fit a passenger, faces a pair of motorcycle handlebars instead of a steering wheel. Behind, a passenger row can seat about four.

“And then we can sit on each other’s laps,” Shah laughed. “So really, it can probably fit like eight people if you really wanted to pack it in.”

For tourists, who tend to visit the Indian capital in fall and spring when the weather is temperate, the auto-rickshaw is the preferred mode of sightseeing, admitted Bhupinder Singh, a four-door taxi driver in south New Delhi.

“They like to see out, feel the wind, smell the smells,” Singh said.

And hear the noises. In fact, a nickname often given to the auto-rickshaw is “tuk-tuk,” for the noise emitted by its small motorcycle engine.

“The sound is part of [the experience],” said Ariel Tandler, an Australian tourist who has mostly traveled by auto-rickshaw during the week she’s spent in New Delhi. “If one really wants to absorb the culture and the scenery, one must be exposed to it all.”

That includes being exposed to the reality that in the morning and early evening, flagging down a vacant auto-rickshaw may not be easy.

“I think there’s actually a skill to it. You can position yourself ahead of the others on the street, or some people actually stand a few meters into the road so that they can jump into the first one that drives up,” Hari said. “Really, it’s all just part of the auto culture in India.”

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Devin Banerjee

Devin Banerjee

Devin Banerjee was president and editor in chief of Volume 236 of The Stanford Daily, serving from June 2009 to January 2010. He joined The Daily's staff in September 2007. Contact him at devin.banerjee@stanfordalumni.org or follow him on Twitter @devinbanerjee.