Mired in the slow mid-winter news cycle, local N.Y.C. M.S.M. once again are taking swings at one of the city’s softest punching bags: pedicabs. This time, they’re feigning concern around “motor” pedicabs. What, however, is the real story here? As usual, follow the money trail.
Back in 2007, the N.Y.C. motor taxi owner lobby cut a deal with then City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to back off their demand to ban pedicabs in the city in exchange for a commitment from her to ensure electric-assist motor systems were verboten. And so it was. She is quoted at one point as saying that pedicabs are a “human powered phenomenon”.
Unfortunately, this political football affected the status of electric-assist motor systems on all bicycles across New York State. Whereas in December 2006 the N.Y.S. D.M.V. issued a three-page legal opinion illustrating the ways in which electric-assist motor systems installed on bicycles could be considered legal for operation on the public streets of the state, the department the very next month in 2007 issued a terse one-page turnaround declaring that all motor-assisted bicycles are considered illegal by counsel. Does this sudden switcheroo pass the smell test? I smell burning petroleum in the background myself.
Where did this political pandering leave pedicabs in the city? As usual, left out to dry. Despite advancements across the rest of the country in codifying, standardizing, and regulating pedal-assist motor systems for bicycles (including pedicabs) through the 21st century, our state and city officials continue to keep their head in the sand on this issue. Due to a variety of market forces, pedicabs in N.Y.C. today overwhelmingly operate with motors, ones both legal and illegal per the 2006 D.M.V. opinion (as well as per relevant statutes in other states). They are now common if not copacetic with the local pedicab law.
As with all things pedicab, the City of New York invests effectively zero resources into maintenance of safe, secure, transparent, respectful, user friendly conditions for pedicab owners, pedicab operators, pedicab customers, or any other pedicab industry stakeholders. With 840 permits minimum mandated by city council for the industry (as opposed to a maximum 68 horse carriage permits, e.g.), a reasonable citizen might expect rigorous oversight of these passenger-carrying purveyors. However, the current city charter bars the Taxi and Limousine Commission – another 20th century relic – from regulating anything other than motor vehicles. Then T.L.C. Commissioner Matt Daus was eager to welcome pedicabs to his fold until this legal barrier stopped him in his tracks. Instead of tweaking the charter, city council shunted pedicabs into the fun house otherwise known as the Department of Consumer Affairs (lol) with 50-something other oddball cottage industries.
The solution? Blow up the T.L.C., pull the passenger transport orphans from D.C.A., and start fresh with all land-based passenger-transport industries (motor taxis, limousines, horse carriages, tour buses, pedicabs, Uber-style transport brokers) living under one regulatory roof – the Passenger Transport Agency, e.g. It’s been done in other cities even more backward than New York, to wit: I visited New Orleans in 2012 as it considered adding pedicabs to its streets. In the process of getting right its regulations, it revamped its entire for-hire passenger transport agency.
A simpler tack? Embrace eco-responsible technology, legalize pedal-assist pedicabs, and enforce laws and regulations. Modern cities that manage robust pedicab industries are introducing thoughtful regulations to embrace this relatively new technology that is sympatico with their goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase cycling, and improve flows of goods and services. Austin, for one, is adding a percentage of pedal-assist motorized pedicabs progressively starting 1 January 2018.
What are other traits of cities that manage effectively robust pedicab industries? A standard mandating in-state D.M.V. driver’s licenses – another political football in New York. A broad standard set by D.C.A. initially in 2007 requiring an active D.M.V. motor-vehicle license from any of the 50 states was torpedoed, supposedly by a simple threatening letter from a bicycle-focused lawyer hired by the dark prince of pedicabs. In this way, he protected his trade (and that of others like him) of renting his pedicabs, as well as flats in which to stay while “visiting” the city, to foreign nationals en masse to do business illegally in our city streets.
Another standard worthy of consideration is one involving consumer-protection design and signage standards, such as you see maintained by T.L.C. for motor taxis… but I progress.
In the meantime, what’s to be done about pedicab operators using motors deemed illegal as a favor to the motor taxi industry? Climb aboard and, as I always tell potential customers of pedicab operators, buyer beware: Always verify a price scheme prior boarding to ensure no unpleasant surprises at the end of the experience. The city won’t maintain reasonable industry standards; however, this fact shouldn’t keep you from maintaining respectful standards for yourself. Pedicab experiences are, after all, inherently exciting ones.