Well, this is how ‘rickshaw’ has been defamed. At present, only in few countries in Asia, rickshaws are still plying on the street, but for many it is often considered as the deplorable history. Obviously, ‘rickshaw’ is not the ‘perfect’ vehicle; but it deserves a more sensible and positive perspective considering its 150 years long history, its role as a convenient, environmental friendly, alternative mode of transport for the city dwellers and its contribution to absorb a large marginal group of urban population by creating employment opportunity. Nevertheless, growing consensus to promote car free, bicycle friendly city in order to limit high carbon footprint of automobile and shifting focus towards a more compact city, further highlight the importance of a new, changing perception about rickshaw. In fact, several attempts were taken in the past to improve the mechanical efficiency and design of the rickshaw, but for some reasons none of those improvement works could make any meaningful change to its existing form. The overarching goal of this work is to shed light on this least explored, often neglected mode of transport- the rickshaw- firstly by documenting its design features and secondly by providing some possible design improvement from holistic perspective considering its historical, mechanical, artistic, socio-economic and cultural significance.
A brief history of Rickshaw: Predecessors and Descendants
Rickshaws are commonly believed to have been first invented in Tokyo, Japan in 1868. Sources often credit Izumi Yosuke, Suzuki Tokujiro, and Takayama Kosuke as the co-inventors of rickshaw. The earliest form of rickshaw is known as Jinrikisha (人力車, 人 jin = human, 力 riki = power or force, 車sha = vehicle), which means “human-powered vehicle” . It was basically two wheeled cart pulled by a human known as ‘Coolie’. Due to its huge popularity, rickshaw was quickly spread to China (Shanghai), Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam. Initially it was a private transport. Later, by the end of 19th century, it became an inexpensive mode of public transportation across Asian cities.
In South Asia, Japanese ‘Jinrikisha’ first appeared in Simla, most probably through northwest Indo-China border. It is interesting to note that rickshaw was an entirely urban transport and mostly concentrated at the capital cities. But in India, its initial presence at Simla was an exception. However, later in the beginning of 19th C, it was introduced in Kolkata. A common consensus is that Dhaka got rickshaw from Kolkata. However, such human pulled rickshaws, which are still evident on the street of Calcutta, were never common in Dhaka . What we see in Dhaka is known as ‘cycle rickshaw’.
Now question is who invented this cycle rickshaw? The history of cycle rickshaw is not well documented as ‘Jinirikisha’. Multiple countries including Cambodia, Thailand, China are claiming the credit as the inventor of cycle rickshaw, but those claims are not beyond dispute. However, record shows earliest version of the cycle rickshaw was evident in Singapore (1915), Vietnam (1939) and Thailand (1933). Its worthy to note that the form of cycle rickshaw has been developed incrementally over times and its present forms are not same all across Asia. Broadly speaking there are three distinct types based on the configuration of passenger-driver seats:
Trishaw: This is the most rudimentary form of cycle rickshaw which was first appeared in Singapore. In trishaw, the passenger seats are usually located beside the driver in a side car. This type of cycle rickshaw is also seen in Philippine (Padjak) and Myanmar (Sai kaa).
Cyclo/ Becak : In this format the driver’s seat is located behind the passenger. It was designed by a French called Pierre Coupeaud and first manufactured at Phenom Penh, Cambodia. However, it was first introduced as public transport in Saigon, Vietnam followed by Indonesia and Malaysia (Becak).
Rickshaw: It is the most common type, where the driver sits in front of the passengers. The county of origin is in dispute; however, few unofficial sources noted Thailand as the inventor for this type of cycle rickshaw. In Bangladesh, India, China (San lunche) and Thailand (Samlor) this type of rickshaws are readily seen.
Rickshaw in Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, the first rickshaw is said to be imported from Calcutta in 1938 by the European jute exporters living in Narayanganj and Netrokona (in Mymensingh) for their personal use. However, its use as public transport in the urban street of Dhaka was first recorded in 1941, when its number was limited to 37 only. In last 75 years its number has increased to 1.1 million ! Despite its explosive growth, rickshaws have been almost entirely overlooked by policy-makers and there were several attempts to phase them out. Robert Gallagher, a British urban specialist and former faculty member in URP, BUET and author of the book -‘ The Rickshaws of Bangladesh’ (1992) mentioned, “this oversight is largely because the rickshaws are seen as inefficient, inhumane, and a symbol of under-development”. Due to this negative view, several experiments to improve the design of rickshaw in past actually never saw the lights.
Some overwhelming facts about rickshaw:
“Rickshaws generates every year BDT 374 billion (approx $4.8 billion), sufficient to run whole Bangladesh for about a month and a half.In these sense, rickshaws lead the transportation sector even compared to air and rail services.” 
“The money supports almost 1.5 million rickshaw pullers and their families directly. Indirectly, this non-motorized vehicle supports a few million more including mechanics, painters, workers, parts suppliers and helps sustain the demand for roadside food vendors.” 
We, therefore, echo Gallagher (1992)- “It would be best to accept them, and plan for their future accordingly”.
Rickshaw and its sub-types
In the past, number of scattered attempts were taken by both GO and NGO to improve the design of rickshaw. For instance,
_In 1979 Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (BUET) had developed two different rickshaw prototypes.
_In 1983 Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) produced three rickshaws based on the BUET model.
_During early 1980, Inter Pares is a Canadian NGO, produced several experimental rickshaws with a tubular frame and jute plastic seat.
_In 1986 FredWllkie, a cycle engineer from Canada who was brought by Comilla Co-Operative Karkhana (CCK) organization, produced five models of Rickshaw.
_In 2015-16 CARC of BRAC University with funding from infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL) implemented prototypes of rickshaw-vans with PV support and torque sensor pedal
Most of these model rickshaws were focused on the improvement of mechanical efficiency, hence used metal frame replacing the traditional wooden passenger seat structure to reduce the weight, lowering the foot-board height for better ergonomics, improved suspension system for better comfort and braking system for smooth and safe operation of rickshaw. Some of the proposal also included overhead shade for the driver. In recent time few improvement proposals also included solar panel on experimental basis. Sometimes effort has been also made to make it faster by adding battery driven motor. We argue that such so called improvements deserve criticism because of its predominant focus on increasing mechanical efficiency. One of the most absurd example of such modification is ‘electric rickshaw’ which is highly unsafe, erroneous and energy hungry. We must not forget, traditional form of rickshaw is crafted for slow movement, short distance commuting by combining local material and knowledge and adorned with very special kind of artworks. A rickshaw in Bangladesh is more than just a transport, it’s a means of livelihood for a considerable population group, it’s a moving display of a Bengali folk art. Therefore, the low tech, low maintenance, zero carbon footprint and artistic features should be the key considerations for any future vision of rickshaw. We should also consider its strong tie with marginal social groups and micro industries. Nevertheless, rickshaw has strong mental image, any drastic change in its form and material for the sake of its mechanical efficiency might not be socially accepted.
One of the primary aims of this work is, therefore, to generate ideas on various design improvements of cycle rickshaw and its sub-types. By sub-types we mean, all other types of non-motorized vehicles made for varied purposes that make use of the whole chassis of the rickshaw or some parts of it. We have identified three basic types of NMT based on its uses/ purposes:
In the first phase, we have produced the scaled drawings of all the non-motorized vehicles that are plying on the urban streets of Dhaka. The CAD file of this drawings are available for download. We grouped them under the above-mentioned classification. We observed, with due respect to indigenous wisdom, these vehicles significantly lack fundamental ergonomic requirements, passengers and drivers comfort and safety etc. We also believe that only improvement of its form can barely solve the problem, rather equal emphasis should be given for its planning and operation in the street. Special program should be taken to train up the drivers about road rules and safety.
In phase two, our study will focus on the scope of potential design improvements particularly for the passenger vehicle (rickshaw and school vans). We welcome all the promising ideas, critical thoughts or any sort of volunteer participation to make the design process more inclusive and engaging.
For the drawing files and/ or volunteer participation in the design research please contact:
About the Author:
Saimum Kabir is an Architect and Assistant Professor, currently pursuing his PhD research at Melbourne School of Design (MSD), Australia. He is also the Founding Editor of contextbd.com, an online based inclusive platform on Design, Architecture and Planning.
Saimum Kabir (MSD) , Md Mohaimin Ali Khan (SUST) , Ramisa Tasnim (MIST), Rafi Shadman (AIUB), Asif Rahman (AIUB)
 Shy (2017). A History of Rickshaw, Taiken Japan
 Gallagher, R (1992). The Rickshaws of Bangladesh, University Press Limited, Dhaka
 Shafiq, S., (2017). Rickshaws continue to grow in numbers thanks to trade unions, Dhaka Tribune
 Molla, M. A.M., (2016) Green and cheap: Economics of rickshaw, Dhaka Tribune