Seen all over the world, auto rickshaws are now popular in Sana’a - Tok-toks, gaining speed but angering officials
Anwar Al-Faqeh starts his day every morning by getting into his motorized vehicle to start picking up passengers in the streets. His vehicle isn’t the typical minibus known as a “debab” or one of the thousands of motorcycles that quickly dodge traffic in Yemen's capital Sana’a. Al-Faqeh’s transport has three wheels and is characterized by its big yellow covering. Al-Faqeh drives a tok-tok, an auto rickshaw that has been used ubiquitously all over Asia for the last 50 years.
Tok-toks originally came to Yemen in 2000 in small numbers. They were used by restaurants to make deliveries but this past March their presence on the road increased as they were introduced as a means of public transportation by a local company.
The Gazelle Transportation Company, which formed this year, imports the tiny vehicles from China. They say there are currently 120 tok-toks roaming the streets of Sana’a.
Al-Faqeh says the passengers who venture to ride with him pepper him with questions about the new transport. They want to know how fast it can go and where these vehicles come from.
He happily answers 60 kilometers per hour as he gathers customers at the Remas roundabout which is located off of a well-known thoroughfare in Sana’a. This area has become somewhat of a hub for tok-toks, especially in the afternoon hours.
“My work driving a tok-tok is better now than my past work," said Al-Faqeh, who used to be a bus driver.
The Gazelle Company rents tok-toks to drivers for YR1,800, about $8, a day.
Al-Faqeh says business is good. He makes YR4,000 to YR5,000 ($18 to $23) a day. He and others drivers have capitalized on people's curiosity of the vehicles.
Though many are enthusiastic to take the mini taxis for a spin, others are worried about the vehicles' ability to protect them.
“I tried the tok-tok, and I found it without a safety belt and its frame is weak,” said local resident Abdulfatah Al-Hamadi, who worries it would implode in an accident.
Akram Al-Sharjabi suggested only allowing tok-toks to operate in Sana’a’s Old City, which is walled in and where traffic is a controversy.
The Old City has narrow streets which are ideal for small vehicles, Al-Hamadi said.
Another issue of concern for some is a lack of privacy for women, something that is valued in Yemeni society.
“When women board tok-toks, bystanders watch and comment because it is open and unprotected," said Mansour Al-Haj, a local in the capital city.
Government ministries are torn about allowing tok-toks in Sana’a. Several months ago the capital secretariat discussed solutions to curbing the number of motorcycles in use in Yemen as they were being used in an unprecedented number of assassinations and linked to a high number of traffic accidents.
Among the suggestions put forward to rid the city of its dependence on motorcycles was to bring in tok-toks.
But, right now, the Gazelle Transportation Company is at odds with the Traffic Department in Sana’a due to the licensing of the vehicles.
Although the Gazelle Company says they are operating within the law and applied for 60 licenses for their drivers from the traffic department, the traffic department is upset because they say they were deceived by the company and issued them motorcycle licenses.
Part of the problem is that tok-toks are so new there isn’t an official license for them yet.
About half of the tok-tok drivers like Al-Faqeh are former bus drivers and are just using those old licenses—the other half have the motorcyclists’ licenses that the Traffic Department unknowingly issued.
For the Gazelle Company that is good enough, but for city officials, it isn’t.
Colonel Abdulkareem Al-Jaefi, the traffic manager in Sana’a, expressed his dissatisfaction with tok-toks as a means of public transportation.
“Tok-toks have been imported to Yemen and brought to the streets haphazardly,” he said.
Al-Jaefi said the Gazelle Company should never have received motorists' licenses and should have waited for the traffic department to create restrictions and rules for their use.
In order to create such restrictions the traffic department must wait for the capital secretariat to permit them to do so, something that could be a lengthy process, officials say.
So with no law technically telling they cannot operate the little yellow vehicles continue to pick up passengers.
“If the capital secretariat wants to determine special places for the movement of tok-toks, we will comply with that,” said Mutahr Al-Qadi, the executive manager of the Gazelle Company.
“We have no objection to keep everything organized. But [for now] we will continue to work on all the streets of the capital city.”