Prepare for an invasion of tuk-tuks!
They're found all over in Asia. They swarm the busy streets. This is especially true in the huge cities of Bangkok, New Delhi and Beijing.
They are called tuk-tuks.
Now, a company that manufactures the tuk-tuk aims to make progress in the United States.
What's a tuk-tuk? It's a three-wheeled motorized rickshaw. It has moved the masses for more than half a century in Asia.
The Tuk Tuk Factory is based in Holland's Amsterdam. It has signed a licensing agreement with Denver-based eTuk USA. The deal will allow the company to manufacture and sell an electric version of the vehicle. The Colorado company's founders hope the eco-friendly vehicles will become the next hip mode of transportation. The company wants to sell them to city dwellers and tourists across the country. These versions are a far cry from the loud, pollution-spewing versions. Those are common in Asia and South America.
It's too soon to know if Americans will embrace tuk-tuks.
Michael Fox is director of sales and marketing for eTuk USA. He says the company has been selling the vehicles across the country. They have gone to individuals. They have also gone to marketing companies and food vendors. The cost is between $16,950 and $25,000. The price depends on how each is customized.
The three partners' other company is called eTuk Denver. It has launched a call-and-demand shuttle service in downtown Denver. The company received approval from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. The commission regulates for-hire transportation services.
The service is the latest arrival into an increasingly crowded field of transportation options. It includes car-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft. It also includes pedicabs and golf-cart taxis.
Fox is banking on the tuk-tuk's open-air design. He hopes it will help it stand out.
Just look at a golf cart and look at a tuk-tuk, he says. "Which has more curb appeal?" he asked.
The tuk-tuk has faced some pushback. Complaints have come from a handful of cab companies and other shuttle operators. And tuk-tuks have raised concerns about the vehicles' safety.
Terry Bote is a utilities commission spokesman. Several cab and shuttle companies were successful in restricting the tuk-tuks, he said. Those restrictions include where they can operate and 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 Denver area. They are banned from providing scheduled service to the nearby Broncos' football stadium. That is 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." It's a term that has been used by urban planners. It describes 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. It is also relevant when studying how people complete their trips in downtown areas, said Carolyn McAndrews. She is an assistant professor of design and planning. She teaches 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. It says "last-mile" shuttles are playing an increasingly important role. They help connect people and jobs to rail transit. That is especially true 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.
It seems like Colorado's legislature agrees.
Tuk-tuks are classified as motorcycles by the U.S. Department of Transportation. So 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. He says that's especially true 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. It would strip those requirements for 3-wheeled motorcycles with a windshield, seatbelts and a top speed of 25 mph. Each shuttle model has also undergone a standard commercial vehicle inspection. It must comply with federal safety standards.
Still, most states heavily regulate three-wheeled vehicles. That is because of what some say is the potential for serious accidents.
Sherry Williams chairs a committee of independent researchers on motorcycle safety. She said helmets should be required. She believes 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.
Critical thinking challenge: What characteristics of the tuk-tuk make it a good fit for crowded cities?