WATCH OUT: Rickshaws have added another element to Old Town entertainment, but the kids driving them often veer out of control, posing a hazard to anyone in their way.
RIGA - Riga gets busier each summer, with tourists arriving to the city in ever greater numbers as they discover the beauty of the Baltics. Pedestrains, bicycles, skateboards, Disney-style trams, mopeds and three-wheel bicycles, or rickshaws, all crowd the cobbled squares and streets of the Old Town.
The rickshaw is a relatively new addition to Riga’s transportation network. Rickshaws appeared on the market approximately three years ago, and are used on a ‘for hire’ taxi basis in the Old Town; they are expecially busy during weekends.
The three-wheeled cycle season lasts from April until October, but the most busy months are July and August.
Most of the rickshaw drivers who were spoken to for this article said that they themselves rent the cycles, and work individually. They have to pay rent and insurance (at around 200 lats per month) for the cycles, and can then start to work.
Andrejs Aronovs, head of Tourism Policing Section in Riga, maintained that there is not any single law or regulation on using the three-wheeled-cycle in Riga, and as well there is no special licensing procedure for starting in the business.
There is no doubt, however, that legal regulations on rickshaws are incomplete, he adds.
There is no official price for a rickshaw ride – it’s up to the driver to charge what he wants. Some drivers said that usually they charge 5 lats (7.14 euros) for a ride in the Old Town. “For a rickshaw ride from McDonald’s to the House of the Blackheads, you would be asked to pay 5 lats or more. It depends on the situation and people, but usually we do not take less than that for this distance,” said Raivis Melders, a rickshaw driver.
Right now there are about 30 people who are working as rickshaw drivers in the city. Usually they plan their work time as they want. “We have many customers, with the most frequent tricycle taxi users being Scandinavians and Germans; usually retirees or couples. If it is a successful period, we’ll have approximately 8 to 15 people a day,” stated Melders.
The rickshaw’s weight is more than 100 kilograms. Usually they are bought from China. “If we take two people for a ride it is really hard to drive, [if the passengers] are heavy, as you should carry your own weight as well. Sometimes, if we have to drive up a hill, it gets complicated; we have to ask the customers to get off the rickshaw and to help push it. The most frequent problem is that we have to deal with a bicycle chain that has fallen off. It not so hard to fix it, but it makes for a lot of inconvienece,” said another driver, Janis Gulko.
Whether it is difficult to drive the three-wheeled cycle or not depends on the quality and the age of the rickshaw, too. Some of the rickshaws are old, so they are heavier and don’t have gears; some don’t even have bells for warning people in front of them on the streets. “If we don’t have a bell, we just scream for the people to move out of our way,” the driver maintained.
Gulko said that the most important thing is to have a reflector on the cycle, and that that’s all that the police are asking rickshaw drivers to have as well.
“In driving those cycles, the vehicles should have to meet vehicle standards - reflectors, a horn and so on,” counters Andrejs Aronovs, head of the Tourism Policing Section.
The world of three-wheeled rickshaws is also a competitive one. “We try to attract people to take a ride with the rickshaw in variuos ways. We repaint our bicycles, put on some lights and ask them to have a seat for a fun ride,” said Gulko.
Tourists usually take a rickshaw if they are in a hurry or if they are a little tired of walking, in addition to just wanting to have some entertainment.
As pedestrians have found out, to their dismay, the drivers also get carried away with their routines, occasionally at the passengers’ behest. “Sometimes we have a race from Old Town to the railway station, or to some hotel in the Old Town. The prize for the trip depends on the speed and position in which the driver ends up at the finish. The first driver who reaches the finish line wins the pot of money,” exclaimed Gulko.
These high-speed races can get careless as the cycles speed along crowded sidewalks. “One of our colleagues had an incident while driving through the street one night. He inadvertently struck someone, the man fell down to the ground. The driver apologized,” said Melders.
Gulko, who has been doing this for two years, maintained that small accidents like this happen. “One girl, who is also working as a driver, had a similar incident. She grazed a woman and afterwards that woman become very angry and hit the driver in the face,” he said.
Aronovs stated that the police maintain no information on accidents involving rickshaws and pedestrians. He noted that “The police do not keep precise records on all of the rickshaws. The police pay attention to those rickshaw drivers who have committed offenses in traffic and issues related to advertising on the cycles, reporting those violations to the relevant institutions.”
In order to improve what is at many times dangerous conduct by reckless rickshaw drivers, the Riga Municipal Police have conducted discussions with rickshaw owners on offenses, as well as emphasized the need to avoid menacing behavior.
According to Latvian Traffic Law and regulations of Cabinet of Ministers, the three-wheeled-cycle is defined simply as a bicycle. This means that those who operate them and participate in the road traffic need to obey regulations. “With the increase of rickshaw use intensity, Riga Municipal Police have referred to the relevant institutions initiations on several amendments in the national and local legislation concerning rickshaws and similar tourist-friendly activities,” said Aronovs.
Now if the city can only convince the young drivers that they should be ‘tourist-friendly’ and not, instead, a threat to them.