Life and Death of Live-Drive Transport in NYC

NYC Pedicabs, NYC Pedicabs infrastructure

Apparently, it had to be this way.

In the cold, relatively quiet January streets of Manhattan, few cyclecabs aka pedicabs and horse-driven carriages are found operating. Out of season as it were, the live drive (i.e., power derived primarily or exclusively by the living as opposed to petroleum) transport practitioners still at it struggle to find a few customers. It’s hard enough to hustle in such conditions; however, powerful forces have also conspired against both pedicab and horse-drawn carriage operators and owners to destroy their marketplace and put them down.


The occasion for this piece is the new legislation set to be issued by the city council speaker in conjunction with the mayor’s office regarding horse-drawn carriages. The proposed legislation involves a one-two punch to the two live-drive transport service providers in town: winnowing down the operating zone as well as the number of horses and teamsters for the horse-drawn carriage industry while banning pedicabs from operating in Central Park below 85th Street.

The City of New York has already given its two “carbon neutral” transport service industries the middle finger by placing them in the regulatory ghetto of the Department of Consumer Affairs, which is ill equipped (to write the least) to regulate these industries. Stuck in a 20th century regulatory framework, the city for the moment is unable to slot these two transport service industries under the regulatory umbrella of its transport services brethren due to city charter rules mandating only motor vehicles be placed under the auspices of the Taxi & Limousine Commission.

In the era of “climate change”, “carbon neutral” products and services, and “zero emission” transportation, one might think and feel that New York City would be bending over backwards to coddle its local live drive transport industries. As we see, just the opposite is the case.

Pedicabs in particular stand out as the bastard stepchild that the city wishes would just go away once and for all. With its daily mistreatment of pedicabs, the city has done its best to destroy utterly the marketplace for its services; to wit:

Effectively zero street enforcement of regulations or laws by DCA (by far the most critical missing piece of the puzzle)
– Effectively zero accountability for operators or owners via customer protection systems (user friendly ways to hold operators/owners accountable)
Effectively zero proof of safe operators (anyone with a real or decent fake car license from ANY country anywhere on Earth qualifies to operate, regardless of legal status)
Zero city marketing to customers of “carbon neutral” operations (electric-petrol “hybrid” motor taxis sport “Green NYC” logos and special market access)
– Zero city budget earmarked to manage and encourage development of the industry

The pedicab industry and its customers were far better off when it was unregulated. At least shady operators were more respectful of their customers for fear they would be arrested for mistreatment of customers. Since regulation hit in 2009, shady pedicab operators have scammed their customers with impunity with no fear of repercussion; in fact, the city backs them up every step of the way with business licenses, zero DCA street enforcement, and New York Police Department officers forced to side with scammers in disputes due to confusing rules. For years now almost all street-based pedicab operators have been shady, with respectful operators unable to compete with the scam artists. These scammers have come to define the industry in the eyes of the NYC public.

Ironically, the pedicabs operators in Central Park are far more transparent than the ones operating in the streets – and they’re the ones set to be eliminated by new legislation. Battles with the Department of Parks & Recreation as well as the Central Park Conservancy and NYPD have created a sort of fragile detente between pedicabs and enforcement and maintenance agencies to the point at which customers are relatively well served.

If the city wants to move beyond talking the talk around “carbon neutral” transport and equipment and start walking the walk, then it needs to begin now. First step is investing a few bucks in maintaining standards already on the books for pedicabs as well as horse-drawn carriages, which already face a fair amount of scrutiny. The legislative and regulatory tools for transparent operations in these industries exist; however, the budget and focus do not. Second, a task force to review the current situation in the pedicab industry in particular is needed. Third, the city must embrace the fact that pedicabs create a greater “carbon neutral” footprint each time a customer jumps in one in the streets – and market this fact by adding them to its Green NYC program among other opportunities.

Of course, industry participants have a role here, as well. Unfortunately, the city has created conditions in which only scammers survive. The New York City Pedicab Owners’ Association, a 501(c)6 trade association founded in 2005 to represent responsible owners, has been mothballed while scam artists and their enablers now attempt to represent the industry.

In a city with a commitment to dropping its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, pedicabs are an obvious opportunity to exploit in this regard alone. Not to mention that a well run pedicab operation creates happy customers all day and all night long.