A small, two-wheeled cart with a doorless, double-wide bench and a collapsible hood that holds one or two passengers and is drawn by a man running out in front between two shafts, which he uses to pull the cart forward. Rickshaws were used widely throughout Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but were eventually superseded by the pedicab (a three-wheeled rickshaw propelled by by a footpedal-driven chain), and later by the motor-driven auto rickshaw (aka tuk tuk).

The name rickshaw itself comes from the Chinese characters for "human-powered cart" (人力車), although the English word "rickshaw" was borrowed from the Japanese pronunciation of those characters, jinrikisha.

The word breaks down as follows:

(jin) = "man, human"
(riki) = "strength, power"
(sha) = "wheeled vehicle"

Although it seems like an ancient type of transportation, the rickshaw was actually invented in Japan in 1869, one year after Japan opened itself up to the West and began to modernize, and the carts soon spread to port cities all over Asia, where they became a steady source of employment for idle young men. Many of these quintessentially "Asian" vehicles were actually built in the United States by the American carriage builder James H. Birch of Burlington, New Jersey.

When my girlfriend and I visited Toronto last summer, we were surprised to see rickshaws in the downtown areas, especially on Front Street. We were even propositioned by one driver, because it was around six in the evening and he wanted to go back the way we were walking. If I remember accurately, he offered us a ride from the CN Tower back to our hotel about a dozen blocks away for just five Canadian dollars. We were enjoying our evening walk, however, so we declined.

Far from seeming like an impoverished local, the rickshaw driver seemed fit and healthy. After reading the other writeups above I decided to check on google and found that the rickshaws (in North America, at least) are a summer job that pays decently. Anywhere from 500 to 2000 Canadian dollars per week are apparently available for drivers in Toronto. The company I researched, Orient Express (how bizarre), apparently also employs and offers service in Ottawa (the Canadian capital), Kingston (Ontario), and Las Vegas. It should also be noted that women are also employed - apparently this company's rickshaws are lightweight and designed to be easily pulled.

http://www.rickshaws.net/employment_aboutus.html (Orient Express website)
One country that seems to be rather glaringly missing from the above writeups on rickshaws is India. An obvious reason would be that our domestic variants have never quite been as popular or garnered as much media attention as the oriental variants or the ones now seen in most European / North-American countries. The latter ones I spotted recently on a travel show hosted by an American who just couldn't stop gushing over such an eco-friendly means of public transport.

Environmental thoughts aside, the rickshaw here is considered to be a cheap and quick means of getting around especially when browsing local markets or old neighborhoods besotted by a maze of criss-crossing lanes which even the most hardened traveler would be wary of. Try visiting the famed Chandni Chowk market in the Old Delhi area to get a feel of what I am hinting at.

Rickshaws (and I am talking about the human-powered ones here) come in two-basic variants. In most parts of the country you will come across the basic 3-wheeler where the driver sits in front of you and pedals, much akin to a bicycle. Unlike the drive mechanism the seating varies from state to state(at times, you may find differences in different neighborhoods of a city). The conventional form has a single seat to accommodate 2 passengers with a back-rest and a foldable cover to protect you from the sun / rain as the case may be. Often the back-rest is removed and an additional seat is added so that 2 more passengers may sit with their backs against the other passengers, facing the oncoming traffic. This form of rickshaws is more popular in small towns in North India and is generally used to ferry children to/from school. One of the more exotic variants is a 3-seater which involves an inclined back rest so that 2 passengers may sit on the incline whilst the third adjusts him/herself between the two on the erstwhile seat.

Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal is the only(as far as I know) place in the country where you will find the hand-pulled rickshaws often seen in Chinese movies. These though have been on a steady decline due to pressure from the law enforcement agencies and public transport departments in an effort to clear up the streets.

Most of the rickshaw-pullers that I have encountered all over the country are migrants from distant villages who came looking for jobs in the "big city" but never managed to quite make it beyond daily-wage jobs. The next time you get on a rickshaw and start heckling and arguing on the fare, remember that the man seated in front of you is probably the only working person in his family and has four, if not more, hungry mouths to feed back home. The Rs.5 or Rs.10(approx 25c) you save probably won't make much of a difference to you but will mean a whole lot more to him.

On a lighter note, growing up in this part of the world the rickshaw is a component of my everyday life and so ubiquitous that it is taken for granted that I will find one wherever my fancies may take me. It was not until I read a visitor's post on Lonely Planet of how a ride on a rickshaw down the main street of Chandni Chowk with her hands spread eagled made her feel like Rose in Titanic did I actually start to appreciate these contraptions and the people driving them. Every ride since then has been a memorable one with subtle effects reflected in my outlook of the world and how it shapes me and me, it.

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