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Future of Pedicabs Remains Uncertain

by Bruce Schaller, Apr 18, 2007
 

Are bicycle-powered pedicabs just a diversion for tourists or are they a legitimate form of mass transit? Mayor Michael Bloomberg's veto of a bill to regulate the city's pedicabs has kept alive debate about the role of the fledging bicycle taxi industry in the city.

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A LEGISLATIVE COMPROMISE

The New York City Council recently passed a bill that represented a compromise between pedicab owners and powerful opponents of the industry, primarily taxi, hotel and restaurant owners.

The bill would establish a cap of 325 pedicabs in the city and require the cabs have $2 million in liability insurance, that drivers be licensed and that vehicles undergo inspection. The legislation would also ban the use of electric motors to help with pedaling and authorize the police department to restrict pedicabs from Midtown during the holiday season and from any Midtown street for up to 14 days at other times.

Pedicab owners supported insurance and other safety regulations to maintain standards and prevent pedicab owners who are not paying insurance from charging lower rates to the detriment of those owners who are insured. The owners, however, opposed the cap on the number of pedicabs, as well as the bans on operation during the holiday season and the use of electric assists.

THE MAYOR'S SURPISE VETO

Ironically, it was not pedicab owners but their drivers who prompted the mayor to veto the bill.

Drivers testified at what was expected to be a routine bill-signing ceremony that they feared losing their jobs – seemingly with good reason since the current number of pedicabs, estimated at up to 500, probably exceeds the new cap. After hearing from drivers, Bloomberg surprised everyone by declining to sign the bill and on March 31 announced his veto. During his weekly radio show, the mayor commented, "Let the free marketplace decide." He suggested that a cap of 500 would satisfy him.

It is not clear whether the City Council, which adopted the bill with than the two-thirds majority needed to override a mayoral veto, will vote to do so.

The New York Sun reported that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn will force through an override, while the Village Voice quotes the bill's sponsor, Councilmember Leroy Comrie, as saying the bill's fate is undecided. An override vote - if there is one - is expected to take place at the council meeting scheduled for April 23.

If the council overrides the mayor's veto, the bill would formalize the city's acceptance of the pedicab industry as part of the Midtown landscape while limiting the vehicles’ numbers and potentially restricting their operation during the most congested -- and most lucrative -- times of the year.

PEDICABS VS. TAXIS

The council’s regulatory scheme for pedicabs is similar in some ways to the long-established taxicab medallion system. The number of medallion cabs is limited by law to about 13,000 vehicles and the industry is subject to an extensive set of requirements for insurance and driver licensing.

Yet the medallion cabs are never banned from Midtown -- in fact, they are allowed special access to some bus lanes and provided with taxi stands at key locations.

Insurance requirements are actually lower for medallion cabs than for pedicabs under the bill, an ironic contrast given that cabs can travel at much higher speeds and are thus more likely to be involved in accidents causing severe injury.

Proponents of the bill say that the cap, insurance requirements and licensing regulations are important to prevent pedicabs from further clogging traffic, to protect against unfair competition with taxicabs for street hails, and to protect pedestrian safety. This view essentially sees pedicabs as an entertainment option for tourists. It thus makes sense to limit their number and operations to prevent the pedicabs from interfering with other users of Manhattan streets.

ALTERNATIVE TRANSPORTATION

Pedicab proponents paint them as a fast, safe and environmentally and passenger-friendly means of transportation.

Gregg Zukowski, a pedicab owner and driver, wrote in Gotham Gazette last year that because of its ability to weave through traffic, a pedicab can zip from Grand Central to Penn Station in eight minutes, while a taxicab could take 20 or 30 minutes. Pedicab drivers say that many of their riders are New Yorkers who value the faster ride or who cannot find a medallion taxi.

With the exception of one accident in which a private bus struck a pedicab in 2001, there have apparently been no major accidents involving pedicabs since their advent in New York City a decade ago. With pedal power, pedicabs do not contribute to either smog or global warming.

Leaders of several city transportation and environmental groups emphasized the environmental implications of the issue in a letter urging council members not to override the mayor’s veto. “If you are truly committed to protecting our environment and heading off environmental catastrophes such as those highlighted in the Academy Award winning film An Inconvenient Truth, you simply cannot vote in favor of legislation that is specifically designed to undermine evolving green industries,” the letter said.

Perhaps the greatest appeal of pedicabs is their passenger-friendly image, created by drivers who engage in conversation and will point out the sights along the way to tourists.

Pedicab owners implicitly point to a future Manhattan streetscape with fewer cars and cabs and more eco-friendly modes of transportation. Pedicabs would be part of this, joined by pedestrians, bicycles and clean-air buses, all of which use less street space per passenger mile traveled than cars or conventional cabs. There might be additions to this new transportation list; Vespa, the manufacturer of motorcycles and scooters, recently released a study that concluded that substituting motor scooters for cars would reduce global warming vehicle emissions in the city.

The council's bill does allow for changes in the future. The cap on the number of pedicabs would expire two years after the bill becomes law, unless the council renews it. Thus, neither this bill (nor a replacement that simply increased the numerical cap) really resolves the place of pedicabs in the city. The bill does take important steps toward making sure pedicabs are safe. But it does not settle the thornier issues about who should be using the city's congested streets and for what purposes.

Bruce Schaller, who has been in charge of the transportation topic page since its inception in 1999, is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. 


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