Unless you’re one of the combatants, New York’s Great Pedicab War has passed most of us by, and not unreasonably. Surely, in the age of Iraq and Guantánamo, this is one fracas you could afford to simply sit out.
The battle erupted when scores of these goofy-looking tricycles began cruising for customers a few years ago, mainly in Times Square. This promptly put some powerful noses out of joint: The yellow-taxi-fleet owners resented the competition; Broadway theater operators griped that the pedal-pushers blocked traffic; the city’s tourist office complained that they made the place look like something out of rickshaw-filled Hong Kong, circa 1935.
But the hope that this was just a frivolous dispute about reining in the cowboy-like antics of some of the men and women who tow these people-buckets around quickly disappears after taking a look in the back of George Bliss’s bicycle shop on Morton Street in the Village. Bliss is the godfather of the city’s pedicab industry, the first to put a small fleet of them on the streets in the mid-’90s. Here, stacked uselessly on end, are three dozen white plastic, bullet-shaped vehicles designed to carry up to three passengers each, propelled by a driver relying on little more than strong calf muscles. Oh yes, there is also a battery that provides a small electric boost when needed to escape a tight spot or take off from a full stop. The battery carries less than half the power of a hair dryer. Carbon emissions? Zero.
You look at these sleek projectiles and you see what could be a piece of the future for a city that wanted to defeat the killer smog of auto pollution. Except that the future here is gathering dust.
Thanks to the brilliant maneuvers of a City Council that remains beholden to the same permanent government interests that always speak loudest, these so-called electric-assist motors are now illegal on city streets. The politicians did not stop there. The law they passed in response to the lobbyists for the taxi and theater owners also bans pedicabs from using city bike lanes, forcing them into the traffic stream. They cannot go on bridges. They are limited in entering the parks and can be barred entirely from midtown during the Christmas holiday season, or any other two-week period during which officials deem traffic especially heavy.
Stretch limousines, Hummers, vans all come and go freely. Pedicabs risk tickets and confiscation.
There was more yet: The council decided there should be just 325 pedicabs at any one time. There is no exact count of how many are in operation, but 500 is the estimate. Instantly, 175 workers are unemployed. And still more: When city bureaucrats sat down to devise rules for this law, they decided that no one owner could have more than five licensed cabs. This effectively destroys the fleets that have employed hundreds of people, most of them young, who cheerfully haul passengers through the streets, leaving behind nothing more harmful than a small tailwind and the tinkling warnings of a bicycle bell.
In classic council style, the most onerous of these measures were inserted into the legislation at the last minute, after multiple public hearings. This wasn’t even the best of the jokes played on the pedicab people. In one of the great fake-outs in recent legislative history, the bill itself emerged from a request by Bliss and others who had naively trooped down to City Hall to request that this august body bring some regulatory order to their burgeoning industry.
In 12 years of operation, there have been no pedicab fatalities; a single accident—a passenger’s shoulder injury—is the basis of the sole lawsuit. Still, the pedicab operators wanted insurance to be mandatory; they wanted licenses—and possibly hack stands—to keep the wildest of their cowboys in line. Instead, they got what even some council members acknowledge is a death sentence.
“These are regulations designed to kill the industry,” says Tony Avella, the rebel council member from Queens who rode as a passenger from Columbus Circle to City Hall last month in a protest ride by pedicab operators. “It was marvelous,” Avella said of his ride. “You’re outside, riding down Broadway. What could be better?”
The original bill, calling for safety rules, insurance, and traffic-congestion prevention, was introduced by Alan Gerson, the lower Manhattan Democrat. Before the final version was passed, Gerson removed his name in disgust. “The bill devolved into something very different from its original intent,” he says.
Asked if she’s ever ridden in a pedicab, Council Speaker Christine Quinn makes a face. “No way. I would never get into one of those things,” she says. Any problems with the law can be fixed when it comes up for renewal in two years, she suggests. As for the pedicabs’ environmental benefits, she is skeptical. “Human-powered vehicles are never going to be the answer.”
The speaker acknowledges that she took a meeting with Ronald Sherman, the head of the taxi-fleet industry’s association, accompanied by his lobbyists. She insists she never discussed the matter, however, with a good friend who is listed as another taxi lobbyist with the City Clerk’s office. “The stories about my friend Emily Giske lobbying me are just wrong,” she says. Giske, whose firm received $98,000 last year to represent taxi owners on this matter, says she never got involved.
Pedicabs would not be the first transportation novelty to die of political strangulation in City Hall. In 1870, inventor Alfred Ely Beach sought permits to excavate for something he called a subway. Back then, William “Boss” Tweed controlled all political levers and already had a nice piece of the action going with elevated railways and stagecoach lines. Tweed made sure that Beach’s brilliant plan was snuffed in its cradle. The inventor managed to get a single block-long tunnel built and then hit Tweed’s roadblock. Subways had to wait 30 years to get past it.
There was one episode in this sordid pedicab business that did play against political type. On the day last spring when the council’s bill was presented for the mayor’s signature into law, a handful of people came to speak in what they assumed was a futile last gasp of opposition. Quinn stood beside the mayor. The bill, and the pens with which to sign it, were next to them on a table. The first speaker, Melissa von Ludwig, a photographer and pedicab driver, spoke sweetly, asking the mayor to consider that pedicabs are a natural extension of his new environmental program. “By 2030,” she suggested, “I imagine our city needing pedicabs by the thousands.” George Bliss raged. “You are jeopardizing your legacy,” he yelled. “You are giving police the power to stop a tricycle from coming down the street, but Humvees can come right through? What is that about?”
Bloomberg listened quietly. Then he stunned Quinn and everyone else in the room by saying he wanted to think about this one a while longer. A few days later, on his radio show, he announced his veto. Quinn quickly summoned her troops and won an override of the mayor’s decision.
The new law was supposed to go into effect last month, but a lawsuit filed by pedicab operators won a last-minute delay. Hearings are pending. Last week, a 25-year-old driver named Ned Akkayk, a business major at NYU, peddled a passenger past the theaters of West 47th Street. He swerved around three stretch limousines, each the size of a yacht, that were doubled-parked on the block and said, “I don’t know how they say we are the problem.”