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UBC study targets the world’s heaviest polluters

New Delhi needs a breath of fresh air when it comes to the iconic motorized rickshaw



VANCOUVER—When Conor Reynolds went to the Indian capital of New Delhi in the fall of 2009, he had one goal in mind.

The visiting post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues wanted to know how the city of 14 million could reduce emissions from their preferred mode of urban transportation: the three-wheeled motorized rickshaw.

“New Delhi is definitely in the top-10 cities in the world with the worst air quality,” he says. “These three-wheeled rickshaws are a significant factor adding to the poor air quality because of the fuel they are powered by.”

Reynolds explains in 2003 the Indian Supreme Court ruled that public transportation in New Delhi, such as buses and rickshaws, had to be fuelled by compressed natural gas (CNG) to cope with the extreme level of emissions and dwindling air quality.

The policy was implemented after years of public inquiry. It targeted public transportation as a stimulant for change because a significant percentage of the low-income families in New Delhi that couldn’t afford to buy cars.

At the time, the only sustainable form of “clean-fuel” was compressed natural gas.

Reynolds says there are about 50,000 rickshaws on the go at any time, most of them powered by small two-stroke engines. In North America, these engines are typically found in yard equipment like lawnmowers and leaf‑blowers.

The CNG was slated to power buses as well, and proved somewhat successful, but rickshaw emissions remained less understood, he says.

Reynolds and a team of researchers traveled to New Delhi and recruited 30 local rickshaws with both two-stroke and four-stroke engines and put them through rigorous testing similar to Ontario’s Drive Clean program.

“Testing was fairly easy because there weren’t many variables. A lot of the rickshaws are made by the same manufacturer and had the same engines,” he says.

Reynolds and his team found the smaller two-stroke engines running on CNG were actually emitting the same amount of particulate matter and emissions as a bus running on diesel fuel.

Particulate matter has a significant effect on air quality because it is a solid particle released into the atmosphere made up of soot and organic carbon.

In North America, we would usually see signs of high-particulate matter when starting a leaf‑blower or lawnmower ‑ blue-ish smoke pouring out of the exhaust.

What Reynolds found was that the two-stroke engines weren’t burning the mix of natural gas and oil efficiently, resulting in an extremely oily exhaust full of particulate matter.

“The two-stroke engines aren’t as fuel efficient because the fuel doesn’t burn properly,” he says. “The results really show that no matter what we put them in, two-stroke engines are going to be a problem for emissions, especially in larger scales found in India and other parts of Asia where things like rickshaws are an extremely popular way to get around.”

Reynolds adds that the Indian government should make the next step of trying to phase two-stroke engines out of New Delhi’s rickshaws and hopes the results of the study will help encourage it.

“Spreading the word to policy makers and developing a good relationship with industry will help eliminate problems like the one in New Delhi,” he says. “In the future, clean fuel actions need to be truly considered rather than forced upon people like CNG was in India.”

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