Pedicabs Endure a Rough Ride

Pedicabs Endure a Rough RideA drizzle wouldn’t seem to let up on the 16th street mall. Downtown Denver on Cinco de Mayo was sure to be a profitable evening. It had to be, I thought, as I rhythmically spun the wheels of my pedicab. Other drivers were out, but not too many, and I knew that rain always raises the appeal of a covered pedicab with a warm blanket and friendly driver, so prospects were good. As a pedicab driver in Denver for four years, I have had the opportunity to watch as the industry grows here and throughout other major metropolitan areas.

Rickshaws, pedal cabs, bike taxis, three wheeled freak bikes—call them what you will—pedicabs have been around for a while. Introduced in Japan in the 19th century, pedicabs or rickshaws have been used to transport people and goods for over 100 years. In the United States, pedicabs first showed up in Portland, Oregon in the 1930s. During the 1962 World’s Fair, pedicabs rolled into Seattle. The fair featured futuristic ideas of the 21st century including a monorail and super cruise ship. As part of the goings-on, some college kids were told to have some fun on a few Asian pedal rickshaws that were imported for the event. The kids ended up turning a profit and pedal cabs began to receive more recognition. Then, in 1963, Elvis brought pedicabs into the national consciousness with the movie "It Happened at the World’s Fair."

The father of the modern pedicab is Jim Tipke. In 1972, Tipke began manufacturing pedicabs in Portland, and T.I.P.K.E. Pedicabs are available today on their website (www.tipkepedicabs.com). In 1990, a few Tipkes showed up in Aspen, Colorado, and they soon spread to Denver. Today, the pedicab industry has a presence in almost all major downtown areas in the United States, and in countless small towns from Oak Bluffs in Martha’s Vineyard to Brekenridge, Colorado.

In 1990, Steve Meyer was consulting for housing developers when he heard about the pedicabs in Aspen. Leading up to a pedestrian conference in Boulder to plan "new urbanism," Meyer brought a few of the cabs up to Boulder before the conference for a test run. The pedicabs turned heads on Pearl Street Mall and the drivers earned a substantial profit. After taking a few cabs to Denver to test on the newly finished 16th Street Mall, Meyer instantly recognized their potential. He decided to have a competition within the University of Colorado’s Engineering Department: he challenged grad students to design the perfect pedicab. The students responded, and the result was the Classic Pedicab frame. In 1992, Meyer founded Main Street Pedicabs, and with annual sales of over $2 million (according to Dun and Bradstreet Business Information), Main Street’s business is flourishing.

Pedicabs Endure a Rough Ride

That same year, Denver pioneered the model for appropriate city ordinances governing pedicabs. Since then, there have been no major battles between drivers and city officials in Denver’s pedicab history. Denver is a model for progressive and sensible regulation; when legislators follow the direction of pedicab industry leaders, the effect is beneficial for all parties. The green-minded populous, wide bike lanes, flat topography, and a concentration of seven major sports teams in the downtown area combine to make it the perfect city for pedicabs. However, in cities such as New York and San Diego, the industry is currently going through some growing pains.

In March of 2007, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed a bill regulating pedicabs that was passed by the city council, citing his belief that the "free market should decide" how many pedicabs should be allowed on the streets. The Council responded by overriding the veto. Then, the New York Pedicab Owners Association sued over the licensing process. The lawsuit was thrown out, but some of the specifics of the regulations were still in limbo. Finally, after a crash on the Williamsburg Bridge this June in which a driver and a passenger were injured, legislation was signed into law on July 27 that requires drivers to take a safety course, caps the number of pedicabs per company to 30, and makes getting a license more difficult.

Ironically, when Chad A. Marlow, the president of the Public Advocacy Group, testified in June on behalf of the New York City Pedicab Owners’ Association at a City Hall hearing focused on the new bill, he said: "This is fairly close to the exact regulatory law the pedicab industry has been seeking for five years." This sentiment is also echoed by Greg Duran of Colorado Rickshaw in Denver. According to Duran, "The problems that New York and San Diego are facing right now are a result of a local government that should have regulated a long time ago, but chose to look the other way."

Pedicabs Endure a Rough Ride

In San Diego, the city is moving to amend the pedicab laws following the death of a tourist from Illinois. On July 4, 2009, the female passenger died after falling out of a pedicab and hitting her head on the sidewalk near the Convention Center. The new ordinance will include provisions requiring passengers to wear seatbelts, reducing speed limits, making it mandatory for drivers to post details about their fares, and reducing the total number of pedicabs on the road. These measures are a response to some of the perceived dangers of a young pedicab industry. Another claim by the City Council is that company managers are luring university students from poor Asian countries with false promises of making money.

Despite these challenges and the nation’s economic slump, the pedicab industry is growing. "Driving a pedicab is one of the true bohemian jobs left, man: make your own hours, work when you want, and make good money," says Duran. Duran has been driving pedicabs in Denver for 10 years, and managing pedicab businesses, including Mile High Pedicabs and Colorado Rickshaw, since 2006. He markets pedicabs as a unique transportation option for private parties, weddings, city tours, or just an efficient way to beat the traffic on your way to a sporting event. There are currently four companies and 12 independents operating in Denver.

Before leaving the garage, Dan, another driver, stopped by. As we discussed the pedicab scene in Denver, he seemed content, but also raised some doubt about Denver’s future. "I smell some battles in the future," he said. As a seasoned driver, he alluded to the fact that the pedicab industry is still young, and could face more challenges down the road. Presently, Denver has no cap on the number of licensed drivers on the street, and despite the demand for the bike taxi services, Dan thinks that more regulation could be heading here as well.

But for now, you don’t have to look any further than the satisfied face of a pedicab customer to see the success of pedicabs. So, the next time you’re in a downtown area, don’t forget to support human-powered transportation. Bring your sense of adventure and hail a bike taxi. Simply climb in, buckle up, and enjoy the ride!

[Ed notes: This article by Philip Dixon originally appeared in print in Bicycle Times issue #4. Photos by Bonnie Weimer and Dan Zimmerman. Click here to subscribe to Bicycle Times.]

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