Bumpy road for Cape Town tuk tuks

2013-03-26 08:58

Cape Town - From New Delhi to Bangkok, the brash, noisy tuk tuk is king of the road in south-east Asia.

But the arrival of the three-wheeler taxis on Cape Town's scenic streets has created a red-tape headache for authorities with one operator grounded as dozens clamour to enter the market.

Upstart firm Monarch Tuksi, owned by two brothers, was shut down after putting its fleet of Indian imports on the road despite being refused operating licences.

"We were inspired on a trip to Thailand in 2008," said James Clarence.

"We used tuk tuks there, we loved them, we went to the beach, to shops, to restaurants etcetera. Really loved it. Thought it would work great in Cape Town and it does."

Interest in the cheap and cheerful trade is high: some 80 would-be operators have lodged applications with the city.

But tuk tuks fall into a policy black hole with no model for three-wheelers to be used as public transport in current plans.

New rules are set be finalised later this year.

Not wanting to wait, the Clarence brothers launched Monarch Tuksi last year ahead of Cape Town's busy summer season with a shares-for-fares scheme to try find a legal loophole.

This saw customers sign up as shareholders for R40 instead of paying the direct fare for short trips around the city.

"Our opinion is that we do not form part of the public transport service," said Clarence, who believes the company was operating legally above board.

"We are a private transport company. We transfer our shareholders from point A to point B."

It was a gimmick that did not impress the authorities.

"It's charming and it's cute and it's cool but it's a scam. Either they are a transport form which charges or they are not," Robin Carlisle, provincial transport minister told AFP.

Cape Town is beefing up public transport options. While the level of tuk tuk domination found on Asian roads is unlikely, it does see a role for the feisty three wheelers.

But tuk tuks will have to fall within a regulated model that takes in buses, minibus taxis and meter cabs in a city already battling traffic congestion.

The brothers first applied for 10 licenses in October 2011 and received just one, in error. Assurances were given that the rest would follow, they say.

Eventually, 20 tuk tuks were zipping around Cape Town until the company pulled them off the road in March after being warned that they would be impounded.

"As far as we're concerned, they were operating a public transport service illegally," said Brett Heron, city councillor for transport.

The city had received some 80 applications and each had to be handled equitably and based on a plan.

"So what they've done is they've jumped ahead and operated a service kind of outside of that framework," said Heron.

Tuk tuks have run into similar problems in Johannesburg where a separate company started a service in the city's leafy suburbs last year.

Although the tuk tuks were granted licences, there's debate about whether they'll be able to keep them.

Paul Browning, a public transport analyst and advisor to government, said authorities feared a repeat of the uncontrolled rise of the private minibus industry characterised by turf wars and violence.

What if, he asked, scores of tuk tuks were suddenly buzzing around a train station, as commonly seen in Asia?

"It may be a good thing but government is very cautious about letting the genie out the bottle until it is quite sure it knows what it is doing," he told AFP.


Read more on:    travel south africa

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