It’s a bird, a jet… No! It’s a Three-Wheeler!

The Three Wheeler Age may be at an end.

The rise of the three-wheeler or tuk-tuk is a perfect example of the market economy at play. Not everyone can afford a private car, even fewer can afford the hassle of parking those cars and for the middle class in Sri Lanka taxis are often a tad too expensive and buses not entirely convenient. This creates a ripe demand for quick, efficient and above all, cheap transportation. It’s this ripe demand that three wheelers supply.

Despite their notoriety three-wheelers provide a crucial service in Sri Lanka with its limited road space and appalling mass transit system. Economically, they support a large portion of the population directly and indirectly as there are now over 1,000,000 tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka. With a population of a little over 20 million people, that means there’s a tuk-tuk for about every 20 of us.

But now that we have seen the glorious rise of the tuk-tuk, are we about to witness the end of the tuk-tuk era. Why? Well, essentially two reasons: increased regulation and decreased economic incentive.

The first tuk-tuks to install fare meters came up against the full force of the Three-Wheeler Mafia, the loose band of warring groups of tuk-tuk drivers that played by their own rules. Still, driven by the market, meters prevailed as travellers preferred metered tuk-tuks over the ‘open outcry’ variety. Slowly but surely most tuk-tuks installed meters but a handful still remain unmetered and ready to rip unsuspecting travellers off.

The government has recently introduced legislation (*standing ovation*) that will make meters mandatory along with basic safety precautions. This will make operating a three wheeler less than savoury for the unsavoury, non-metered tuk-tuks in the business, possibly encouraging them to leave altogether. Taxes on three wheelers have also risen in the recent past and it’s only reasonable to expect more increases in the future, aimed at curbing the number of active three-wheelers, which is now, putting it lightly, a bit problematic. 😉

Competition in the form of a limitless supply of three wheelers, ‘nano cabs’, and ride hailing apps like Uber make operating three wheelers less economically attractive than in the wild days of outright highway robbery :-P, encouraging less productive operators to close shop. The advent of these other forms of on-demand hired transportation has also made it abundantly clear that travellers have been taken for a good ride by three-wheelers because it’s now possible to get a ‘nano cab’ with air-conditioning, an enclosed cabin, seating for four people, increased comfort and better safety for the same per-km price of a roadside three-wheeler.

While we’re certain that we won’t see tuk-tuks vanish any time soon, with increased regulation, decreased economic incentive and supply now beginning to outstrip demand, it’s inevitable that we will see a period of decline for the three-wheeler at least in the near term. But what we really hope will happen, is that the pressures currently faced by the market for three-wheel hires will turn it into a diamond of sorts, launching a three-wheeler revolution, if you will, resulting in economy, safety, decency and ethics.

Whether the age of the three-wheeler is entering its twilight years or not may be up for debate but what isn’t up for debate is that their cowboy, wild-west days are at an end, as far as fares are concerned at least.

What do you think? Are three-wheelers on the way out or just out of control? Let us know in the comments. ☺


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