DENVER — They’re ubiquitous in Asia, swarming the bustling streets of Bangkok, New Delhi and Beijing.
Now, a company that manufactures the tuk-tuk — the three-wheeled motorized rickshaws that have moved the masses for more than half a century — aims to make inroads in the United States.
The Tuk Tuk Factory, based in Amsterdam, has signed a licensing agreement with Denver-based eTuk USA to allow the company to manufacture and sell an electric version of the vehicle.
The company’s founders hope the eco-friendly vehicles, a far cry from the loud, pollution-spewing versions common in Asia and South America, will become the next hip mode of transportation for urban dwellers and tourists across the country.
It’s too soon to know if Americans will embrace tuk-tuks, but Michael Fox, Director of Sales and marketing for eTuk USA, says the company has been selling the vehicles across the country to individuals, marketing companies and food vendors for between $16,950 and $25,000, depending on how they are customized.
The three partners’ other company, eTuk Denver, launched a call-and-demand shuttle service in downtown Denver after receiving approval from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, which regulates for-hire transportation services.
The service is the latest entrant into an increasingly crowded field of transportation options that includes pedicabs, car-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft and golf-cart taxis.
Fox is banking that the tuk-tuk’s open-air design will help it stand out. “When you look at a golf cart and you look at a tuk-tuk, which has more curb appeal?” he asked.
But like car-sharing services, the tuk-tuk has faced some pushback from a handful of cab companies and other shuttle operators — and raised concerns about the vehicles’ safety.
Terry Bote, a commission spokesman, said several cab and shuttle companies were successful in restricting where the tuk-tuks can operate, what types and how many vehicles can be used and how many passengers each vehicle can carry.
The Tuk-Tuks operate mostly in a restricted downtown area — and are banned from providing scheduled service to the nearby Broncos’ football stadium, a lucrative destination for the competition.
But even with the restrictions, Fox said his service can complement Denver’s bus and light rail systems.
He noted the “last-mile concept,” a term that has been used by urban planners to describe the difficulty of getting people from places like a railway station or a bus depot to their final destination.
The concept originally applied to suburban areas, but also is relevant when studying how people complete their trips in downtown areas, said Carolyn McAndrews, an Assistant Professor of Design and Planning at the University of Colorado-Denver.
“Everybody has the last-mile problem, and they solve that problem by walking or we drive our cars,” she said.
But McAndrews also said the market is ripe for new modes of transportation like tuk-tuks to close that gap.
She points to a 2012 study in New Jersey that says “last-mile” shuttles are playing an increasingly important role in connecting people and jobs to rail transit, especially because of the decentralization of jobs and homes in most cities over the past few decades.
“To be competitive with cars, you have to make the point-to-point as convenient as possible,” she said. And it seems like Colorado’s legislature agrees.
Because the Tuk-Tuks are classified as motorcycles by the U.S. Department of Transportation, drivers would have had to wear eye protection and get a motorcycle endorsement for the license. Anyone under 18 also would have had to wear a helmet.
But state Rep. Paul Rosenthal said such requirements for vehicles that travel short distances at low speeds don’t make sense, especially for a shuttle service.
“Say you have four kids. They would have to go find a helmet or have them on hand to do that,” he said. “It becomes cumbersome.”
On May 4, the legislature passed Rosenthal’s bill to strip those requirements for 3-wheeled motorcycles with a windshield, seatbelts and a top speed of 25 mph.
Each shuttle model also has undergone a standard commercial vehicle inspection to make sure it complies with federal safety standards
Still, most states heavily regulate three-wheeled vehicles because of what some say is the potential for serious accidents.
Sherry Williams, who chairs a committee of independent researchers on motorcycle safety, said helmets should be required and passengers need to be aware of the possible danger in the event of an accident, even at slow speeds.
“Most motorcycle accidents occur under 30 mph, and many of them are fatal. This is a serious issue,” she said.