10 Cultural Universals: Tuktuks, Gondolas, & Travel

From tuktuks in Thailand to gondolas in Venice, transportation takes on unique forms across the world. And these unique forms epitomize local culture.

Part two of transportation in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals will outline two compelling forms of transport and how they influence local culture.

The TukTuk

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Versions of a tuktuk, also known as an auto-rickshaw, can be found everywhere in the world, from South America to Asia. But tuktuks are particularly emblematic of Thailand.

Though they originated in Japan, they were embraced by Thailand, where they were imported during the 1930s. Eventually, the Thais took over production and Thai-made tuk-tuks were born.

Bangkok is packed with the three-wheeled open-air motorcycles. The smaller ride can wheel in and out of narrow alleyways and amongst all the traffic, where a traditional four-wheeled cab might get squeezed.

While these taxis should logically be the cheaper option, tuktuk drivers know what they’re doing.

As Greg Rodgers of tripsavvy put it, “The road-hardened drivers are experts at somehow convincing travelers to pay more than they normally would for a comfortable, air-conditioned taxi to go the same distance.”

This is the culture of Bangkok. An overabundance of colorful tuktuks and their tuktuk drivers, trying to make a buck off of fresh-off-the-boat types.

Haggling is part of the game, part of the culture. But, as Rodgers notes, unless you know what you’re doing, a traditional metered cab is probably a cheaper and more comfortable option.

The Gondola

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Certain iconic forms of transport spring to mind when thinking of a specific place or culture. The gondola is one of them.

Navigating the city’s historic canals, the gondola – and the singing gondoliers who guide them – is emblematic of Venetian culture. 

Dating back to 1094, the gondola’s structure was specifically designed to navigate the shallows of the Venetian lagoon. By 1562, gondola culture had evolved and been so embraced that the boats were excessively ornamented, so much so that legal restrictions were placed on their decoration. Thereafter, they became uniformly black and were allowed only three types of flourishes – a prow, a curly tail, or a pair of seahorses and a multi-pronged ferro.

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In the early years, gondolas were often shared among four people – three gondoliers and a fourth man who remained onshore to book the gondola for public transport.

Nowadays, gondolas are almost exclusively a tourist attraction – one that can bring in around $150,000 annually for your average gondolier.

That’s not without putting in the work. The profession is now controlled by a guild, where training and a comprehensive exam is required. Not only must gondoliers be incredible oarsmen, they must also have adequate foreign language skills, and intimate knowledge of Venetian landmarks and history.

Needless to say, this form of transport – like unique forms in many other places in the world – has become a cornerstone of the city’s culture.

When you think gondola, you think Venice.

When you think tuktuk, you think Bangkok.

When you think bicycle, you think Amsterdam.

This is how culturally significant transportation can be.

10 Cultural Universals: Transportation Culture & Social Movements

Amsterdam is a bicycler’s paradise.

Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Bali.

Knowing your way around the subway or the Tube is essential in NYC or London, respectively.

People all across the world have a common need: to get from here to there.

Whether on foot, by bus, or aboard a gondola, the methods of travel in every nation or region are unique and practical to the culture born there.

Last week, we discussed traditional clothing and how clothing culture evolves with the times.

This week, we’ll take a look at transport and its evolution, a topic which falls under the same umbrella of basics – along with food, clothing, and shelter – as part of our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.

Practicality and Culture

Each culture has its own public and preferred methods of transport. These methods vary across regions, based largely upon two things:

1) Practicality – the most functional mode of transport, considering the landscape and infrastructure of the area

2) Social norms & values – the social norms and values that drive these transport choices

The favored method of transport is often chosen due to the type of transport culture that’s cultivated in any given region. It’s also chosen based upon practicality (which usually influences why society cultivates that type of transport culture, in the first place).

The Bicycling Capital

Let’s take Amsterdam, for example.

‘Bike Street: Cars are Guests’

Amsterdam is often called “the bicycling capital of the world,” and this is largely due to a social movement that happened in the ‘70s.

While prior to WWII, bicycling was already the predominant form of transportation across the Netherlands, car ownership exploded in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was soon so popular that roads were congested, and bicyclists were literally shunted to the side.

With more motor vehicles zipping around, the number of road fatalities sky-rocketed. 3,000 people – including 450 children – were killed by drivers in 1971.

‘Stop the Child Murder’ Social Movement

This is when a social movement formed, called ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder). The movement’s name was derived from journalist Vic Langenhoff’s article of the same title, which he’d written after his own child had been killed on the road.

The Middle East oil crisis of 1973 also informed the move toward reinstating bicycling as the primary form of transport. As the Dutch’s reliability on foreign oil was shaken, the motor vehicle seemed less sustainable than previously thought.

Thus, the Dutch government renewed their investment in bicycling infrastructure – with more cycling paths, smoother biking surfaces, parking facilities, bike-sharing programs, and clear signage and lights.

Biking is now a daily part of most Dutch people’s daily lives, which means that children grow up with this cycle-centric primary socialization. This makes for a homegrown biking culture, ever popular in a world promoting greener transport options.

In this way, Amsterdam’s traditional and revitalized biking culture is ahead of the pack, and forward-thinking “smart city” cultures are following in their bike tracks (see: Barcelona, Mexico City).

Next week, we’ll discuss transport culture further.