PARIS – The humble tuk-tuk, a fixture of Asian cities from Bangkok to Bangalore, is rapidly becoming a common sight in the touristy parts of Paris — and the bane of traffic police.
The three-wheeled auto rickshaws, as well as human-powered pedicabs, first appeared in the French capital in 2011, and their numbers have since risen to around 50, lining up at landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre or Place de la Concorde.
Like their Asian cousins, many are brightly painted, while others sport the iconic yellow with black-and-white trim of the New York cab.
The growth in numbers has been fueled in part by the recent downturn in the French economy and the need to find work.
The price for a tuk-tuk — imported from Thailand — can be as much as €9,000 ($12,000), but buyers hope to make good their investment.
While tuk-tuks may be a cheap alternative to taxis in Asia, in central Paris, tourists are happy to pay an average of €20 ($26) per ride, easily more than regular cabs can charge.
“Unemployment is everywhere,” one driver said. “We have found something that the tourists like.”
The downside, he said, is that “the police hassle you” — checking a laundry list of items including registration, medical clearance, insurance, brake lights and direction signals, as well as maintenance.
One operator, who said he had always dreamed of being his own boss, earns between €90 and €110 ($120-$145) a day — from which he might have to subtract between €35 and €135 ($46-$178) if he is unlucky enough to be fined.
“Why shouldn’t I take advantage of the ‘Golden Triangle’ like others do?” asked the former hotel worker, referring to an upscale section of the Champs Elysees.
Benjamin Maarek, manager of the company Allo Tuk Tuk, said: “We want to be put on the same footing as the double-decker tourist buses that blight the landscape, the river boats, the little trains.”
Maarek, whose outfit offers commented tours, added: “The right to the location is the right to work.”
For the police, the latest addition to the city’s already congested traffic is just another headache.
“These tuk-tuks are breaking the law because they haven’t been booked” by telephone or online, one policeman said.
Under French law, only registered taxis are allowed to pick up passengers on the street.
But the head of Paris’ traffic police, Maj. Bernard Baulard, admitted that the law is “not easy to enforce” because two- and three-wheelers are not specifically covered.
Anyone with a regular driver’s license can buy and drive a tuk-tuk, he noted.
Pedicabs have also flourished, numbering up to 200. They charge between €5-€15 ($6.50-$20) a ride.
“The monuments go by nice and slowly,” said one visitor from India. “It’s great to visit Paris without getting tired,” his girlfriend added before the pair got off at the Louvre.