NEW KID: A tuk-tuk taxi in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
NEW KID: A tuk-tuk taxi in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

FEAR of minibus taxi operators, murky law and municipal pettiness must not be allowed to hinder the flourishing tuk-tuk taxi businesses, which offer a cheap solution to urban transport problems.

Various companies in Johannesburg and Cape Town have established tuk-tuk taxi services to fill a gap in the market — short urban trips. As a result, a company operating in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, including Parkview, Parkhurst, Greenside and Melville, says its service is hugely oversubscribed, especially at weekends. Another company transports businesspeople from the Gautrain station to offices in Sandton, people who would otherwise walk or subject themselves to the questionable service offered by expensive metered taxi operators. In Cape Town, a company has had to resort to regulatory contortion to operate legally, by insisting that every customer buys a share in the company when they take a ride.

Yet, despite the demonstrable need for cheap, short-trip urban transport, Gauteng transport MEC Ismail Vadi last week called on tuk-tuk operators to stay away from established minibus taxi routes because taxi operators have a "history of violence". He even described the existence of tuk-tuks as "unhealthy competition". In Cape Town, it appears applications from numerous entities wanting to establish tuk-tuk taxi services have been turned down because the policy framework doesn’t allow for it. In other words, the city didn’t have the idea, so nor can anyone else.

Whether or not policy frameworks exist, and whether these licences were turned down legitimately or not is immaterial because, surely, it is an exquisite madness to stand in the way of tuk-tuk taxi services. At R5/km, they are cheap and accessible and, as such, there is no excuse for a weekend reveller in Johannesburg or Cape Town to drink and drive. They are fuel-efficient, so can be the environmentally sound transport option. And they generate employment and are vehicles for transformation — at least two Johannesburg tuk-tuk companies are helping their drivers buy franchises.

This is not a call for anarchy. Tuk-tuk services need to operate safely and legally, but it is crucial that agencies of state keep the commuter, not an outdated status quo, at front of mind.