143 31-01-2013 A man walk pass by a tuk-tuk in Sandton, Johannesburg will soon resemble an India city with the zippy tree wheelers. Picture: Tiro Ramatlhatse

‘We’re expanding into Pretoria, Hatfield and Centurion… over the next year and a half or so, we want to have 100 vehicles on the road.”

This was the claim made in a national newspaper by the owner of a new tuk-tuk service in Joburg.

The question is – will Tshwane be ready to deal with them?

The tuk-tuk is a three-wheeler motorised vehicle that, in addition to the driver, can carry two passengers and even a limited amount of luggage.

They are found throughout South-East Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

They have become commonplace in many African countries and now they have arrived, in a small way, in South Africa.

There are two companies in Joburg and one in Cape Town. Their emergence seems to have found the authorities somewhat unprepared.

Operators of any public transport service must apply to a “regulatory entity”. In the case of Joburg (and Tshwane) and Cape Town, the bodies are at provincial level.

Legislation requires the provincial regulatory entity to ask the city authorities whether the proposed tuk-tuk services fit in with the city’s integrated transport plan (ITP).

It seems that both Joburg and Cape Town are in the later stages of preparing their ITP and have not been in a position to say where the tuk-tuk might fit in.

Both seem to have asked the regulatory entities not to issue the operating licences until their plans are completed.

The reactions of the provincial bodies have been different.

The Western Cape body resolved not to issue the tuk-tuk licences – though oddly, according to the Pretoria News’s sister paper the Cape Argus – one licence has been issued out of the 10 applied for.

In the case of Joburg, the Gauteng regulatory entity has issued a number of licences to the two operators who applied.

The situation is, at best, muddled.

One operator made it clear that he intended to begin operations in various areas of Tshwane.

He will, presumably quite soon, be making an application for the operating licences.

What will be the response of the city transport planners as and when they are approached by the Gauteng regulatory entity?

It is most likely to be the same as that of Joburg and Cape Town. It is understood that like them, Tshwane is also still developing its ITP.

The city authorities may well ask that the licences be withheld or put on hold, while the planners complete their work.

They may suggest that a limited number of licences be issued to test how this new transport mode can contribute to the public transport network in the interests of the residents.

Gauteng Transport MEC Ismail Vadi is on record as saying that tuk-tuk routes should “not encroach on the legal routes of other public transport operators such as minibus taxis, metered taxis and buses, so as to avoid unhealthy competition and conflict”.

This last point is important, given our experience of recent decades.

Competition among public transport operators has too often resulted in conflicts.

Tuk-tuks will definitely offer competition for metered taxi operators.

These usually charge between R10 and R12/km.

The tuk-tuks typically charge R5/km.

If they use the same taxi ranks to ferry customers there will be a ready-made flashpoint.

A limited trial would therefore enable the planners to get some real-life experience in the use of tuk-tuks, knowledge which can be fed into their longer-term plan.

There is of course the possibility of the genie being let out of the bottle.

If the tuk-tuks prove popular, or more significantly, if word gets around that there is money to be made, then irrespective of legal restrictions, large numbers will undoubtedly appear in a short space of time.

The Tshwane transport planners will in all probability be faced with having to make a decision on tuk-tuks in the very near future.

It is to be hoped that they are taking note of the experience of Joburg and Cape Town. A decision must not be made to wait until the completion of a long-term plan.

l Paul Browning is an independent public transport analyst.