The tuk-tuk is a hardy little vehicle more familiar on the congested roads of urban Asia, but it makes whizzing around Johannesburg a breeze – although it huffs and puffs a bit as it steadily climbs the hilly streets of Westdene.
Even in a highveld heat wave the small canopy and windowless body offer a cool ride and, as a bonus, the quirky little three-wheeler prompts a smile from almost all the pedestrians it passes.
Tuk-tuks, also known as auto rickshaws, are becoming an increasingly common sight on South Africa's roads because people are trying to travel short distances at lower costs than driving and at less risk than walking.
The taxis generally service an area of 5km to 8km and can accommodate two or three passengers, plus a little bit of space for luggage. The vehicles generally have a drop-down side flap in case of bad weather, most are fitted with seat belts and some have GPS units.
A tuk-tuk taxi is legally only permitted to drive up to 45km/h. To ferry passengers, a public driver's permit is necessary, as are the permits needed to operate such a service.
Neil McWilliams, a shareholder of Shesha Tuks, which operates 25 vehicles in and around the Sandton area, said applying for permits to operate a taxi service is a test of patience. Shesha Tuks, which was launched in November last year, waited two and a half years before it was granted a permit to operate.
The door-to-door service caters to customers from all walks of life – from tourists to businesspeople and schoolchildren.
Assaulted tuk-tuk drivers
Because of the cost, a flat rate of R25 for up to 3km and R35 for up to 5km, McWilliams said the service was not in competition with minibus taxis. But not all taxi drivers see it that way.
Shesha Tuks has experienced a great deal of resistance from independent meter-taxi drivers, who have allegedly intimidated and assaulted tuk-tuk drivers.
Another service in Lenasia, which was launched in September last year, charges just R10 a ride and is aimed at pensioners in the area who require a door-to-door service, mainly to go shopping. Perhaps because of the lower fee, minibus taxi drivers have also allegedly threatened these tuk-tuk drivers for taking their customers.
"It's about 450 rogues who don't belong to any association. We offered them the first new jobs as they come up, but no," McWilliams said of the meter taxi drivers, shaking his head.
Shesha Tuks has good relations with the Gautrain security as well as Sandton central police, he said.
The Shesha Tuks business model relies on its branding partner, Old Mutual, to generate income and not the taxi fares and "their [Old Mutual's] visibility has gone through the roof", McWilliams said.
Tuk-tuk drivers rent the vehicle for R125 a day (working from 6am to 6pm) and are responsible for the petrol costs also.
"For the rental fee drivers have access to bookings logged at the call centre, uniforms, training, insurance, maintenance and public driver's permits," McWilliams said. "Already some of the guys are earning up to R500 a day."
With an estimated two trips an hour, working 22 days a month, they can take home up to R12000, McWilliams said.
Shesha Tuks hopes to extend its service to Centurion and Hatfield.
In Melville, the first phase of a pilot for a taxi service aimed largely at students is coming to a close. E-tuktuk came about when the Melville community development organisation and the University of Johannesburg identified the need for safe transport for students as part of the drive to uplift and recreate Melville.
Rina Jeyakumar, chief executive of e-tuktuk, said the service would likely appeal to those who would usually walk short distances, leaving them vulnerable to crime on the streets of Johannesburg.
Jeyakumar said it would increase individual mobility and also have an effect on the number of patrons drinking and driving in the area.
The door-to-door service also acts as "eyes and ears in the area and creates a presence in places that normally wouldn't have one".
"People say it's a brilliant idea. But it's a logical concept – there's nothing brilliant about it," Jeyakumar said.
Safe and affordable
The first phase of the pilot, which began on December 1, has had an overwhelming response from customers calling in for or hailing a tuk-tuk. The service currently operates from 6am to 11pm with three vehicles, but e-tuktuk intends to expand its fleet and operate into the early hours of the morning to provide safe and affordable transport for students and partygoers.
The tuk-tuk follows the design of the Piaggio Ape (Bumblebee) from 1948, a Vespa design. When Piaggio stopped manufacturing the Ape, the design was sold to Indian company Bajaj, which is now the world's biggest manufacturer of the three-wheeler.
Mahindra produces a similar vehicle, but it is less commonly seen in South Africa because parts are hard to come by.
Nick Breedt, chief executive of Vespamania South Africa, estimates there are thousands of tuk-tuks in the country. "Over the years, in my shops alone, I've seen more than 1 000," he said.
Even in Virginia, in the Free State, tuk-tuks transport the elderly from an old-age home to a coffee shop and back on most days, Breedt said.
Economical and ecofriendly
Vespamania sells about 60 tuk-tuks a month and demand is increasing. "We cannot import enough of these things; they are sold before they arrive," he said. "Many businesspeople buy them for deliveries, for advertising purposes and for ferrying staff. The vehicle is more manoeuvrable than a regular car and is much more economical and ecofriendly," Breedt said.
Vespamania's latest Bajaj has an eight-litre petrol tank and consumes 2.3 litres per 100km at 70km/h (the tuk-tuk's top speed) and has a four-speed gearbox with reverse.
The retail cost of the vehicle, out of the box (quite literally), is about R35 000 and Vespamania offers a deal with repayments of R999 a month. A motorcycle licence is required to drive it.
Breedt said no modifications are required, although the vehicles have to undergo roadworthy tests when they enter the country. An additional R 8000 can turn the tuk-tuk into a mini delivery van, although they are not built for the open road, said Breedt.
There are very few people who buy tuk-tuks for private use, he said. "Some people buy them purely for the fun of it … they attract a lot of attention. There are a few collectors out there too."