Rickshaws pick up speed in Europe's top cities

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BERLIN, Oct 3 (Reuters) They once seemed most at home on the bustling streets of Asian cities like Delhi, Bangkok and Kolkata but cycle-powered rickshaws can now be found ferrying folks across town in Berlin, London and Amsterdam.

Whether futuristic fibre-glass pods or wooden carriages, rickshaws are a good way to experience a city and help cut down on congestion, as more and more European cities seek to promote environmentally friendly forms of transport.

In Berlin, one of the first European cities to adopt rickshaws, more than 200 bicycle taxis whiz at up to 15 km an hour through leafy Tiergarten park, past tourist attractions and through town squares.

''It is completely environmentally friendly. We have new models with engines to help the drivers up hills but they use 100 percent renewable energy,'' said a spokeswoman for Velotaxi, Berlin's biggest rickshaw company, which has carried around a quarter of a million passengers this year.

While the city is still home to around 7,000 car taxis, rickshaw companies say that their speed and green credentials mean their vehicles are more than just tourist transport.

While cycle rickshaws appear to be going out of fashion in India, Berlin has embraced pedal power since the launch of the first velotaxi fleet in 1997.

''It's better than the subway, better than a taxi, better than a bus because you feel free,'' said Ulf Grotensoan, 36, leaping out of an orange rickshaw near the Brandenburg Gate.

''This is something out of the ordinary - you would think you would get this on holiday in Asia, not in Berlin - but you can.'' In Amsterdam, driver Peter Jancso said many of his customers liked to be whisked away in his yellow rickshaw and compared the experience to Queen Beatrix, who travels in a golden carriage on important occasions.

''I like to make my passengers feel like the Queen,'' the 23-year-old Hungarian said at central Dam square.

Visitors Juri Ondracek, 44, and Ria de Rooij 42, were keen to try out a rickshaw for the first time in sunny weather - and noticed the cost savings for short trips.

''Taxis are more expensive, and this is something different to the trams, or the bus,'' Ondracek said.

BUMPY RIDE Whereas in Europe bike rickshaws are a popular form of transport, their Indian front-runners are now seen as old fashioned.

Indian rickshaw and three-wheeled taxi owners say they are worried the government sees these vehicles as a symbol of ''old India'' and wants them banned.

Kolkata has banned 20,000 hand-pulled taxis, branding them 'inhumane' and owners of three-wheeled 'autos', which resemble Europe's bike taxis, worry they are next.

''What is a worry is that with more cars, the roads will become clogged and the government may fell the axe on autos,'' said Somen Mitra of the rickshaw drivers' union in Kolkata.

In London, which brought in a congestion charge against central city motorists in 2003, bicycle taxis have flourished but now authorities and other parties have put on the brakes.

London's first pedicab company, Bugbugs, has increased its fleet from 6 to 60 in the past nine years but the ride has not been easy because of legal and political wrangling, mainly with taxi drivers.

Taxi companies have cited concerns about the safety and unscrupulous operators, but the founder of Bugbugs thinks it is more a case of taxi drivers' self-interest.

''The cachet is to be able to pick up off the street, because that's where most of the business is,'' founder Chris Smallwood said. ''The monopoly has been punctured and that is the taxis' major problem.'' A quirk in licensing rules lets rickshaws freely ply their trade in London. Unlike Berlin there are no specific regulations for the industry.

About 500 rickshaws pedal through London and politicians are in no rush to embrace more. The city's transport agency studied pedicabs in 2005 and gave a lukewarm conclusion.

''Rickshaws in my view provide a welcome and colourful, albeit, minor addition to the streetscape,'' said Murad Qureshi, who chaired the study. ''And that's how it should stay.'' REUTERS SKB BD1538

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