Rickshaws were invented in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century by a European missionary who had been in Japan. The name derives from the Japanese expression ji riki shaw which means literally 'vehicle propelled by man'. The first rickshaw appeared in India around 1880 on the avenues of Simla. Some 20 years later a few of these vehicles arrived in Calcutta, imported by Chinese traders who used them to transport goods.
In 1914 the same Chinese people applied for permission to use them to carry people and it wasn't long before rickshaws were to be found in many metropoli all over south-east Asia. For peasants migrating to the big cities the rickshaw offered a means of earning a living. No one knows exactly how many there are today in the streets of Calcutta - the city where there are most. Unofficial statistics suggest 50,000, providing employment for twice as many pullers. Their work provides food for their families, which means that over one million people look to the rickshaw for their daily bowl of rice. Economists have calculated that the economic value of rickshaws and their pulling is $6 million - a quarter of the budget of the whole urban transport system of a city like Paris.
See also velotaxi.