By ARIEL KAMINER, New York Times
The bride stood out against the backdrop of Central Park: The temperature was in the 50s, yet she had nothing more on her torso than a lace bustier. Below, her dress was as voluminous as an inflated parachute, dragging as she hobbled along the path. I was gliding along comfortably in the back of a pedicab, with plenty of room next to me on the seat. So I offered her a lift.
The look she gave me was not gratitude. After a few more friendly entreaties, the groom caught up to us. “She doesn’t want to,” he said. With that, they turned off the path and she hobbled onward, juggling various hems.
I was stunned. Did she just reject my chivalrous offer? Could I possibly look that weird? Then I thought: Oh wait, she’s seen the video.
If you have not caught it on YouTube or the evening news, the video shows a pedicab driver getting into a brawl with a taxi driver on Broadway, and it has given pedicabs — already viewed as suspect — an unwelcome moment in the spotlight. In June, one got into an accident after crossing the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn, where pedicabs are not allowed in the first place. By the time a Fox 5 cameraman caught the pedicab driver hurling a garbage can at the taxi driver, the whole fleet was in for a whupping.
Now the City Council has passed a law requiring all pedicabs — there’s no reliable figure for how many are on the road — to be inspected and registered by Nov. 20. “Pedicabs have been for too long acting like they rule the streets ahead of any other mode of transportation,” City Councilman Leroy G. Comrie Jr. told The New York Post.
Having never thought to ride one — any more than one of those ridiculous party bikes (which probably are fun if you’re drunk enough to get on) — I had to wonder, could pedicabs really be that bad? Worse even than buses, the oblivious, lumbering bullies of the city streets? So I spent a few days being driven around on three wheels, and even on occasion taking the handlebars myself. Let’s just say I do better in the back than in the front.
The drivers who congregate at 58th Street and Seventh Avenue said they were delighted someone was finally going to regulate their business. They take their jobs seriously, and say people who don’t should be kept off the road.
Bernard Treanor, a driver for six years, has an impeccable pedigree: He trained with George Bliss, an industrial designer, who started one of the city’s first pedicab companies in 1995. “We were all actors and musicians,” said Mr. Treanor, who recently appeared in an independent film and is writing a novel about Central Park. “We needed to do this so we could hit our auditions.”
Today, many drivers are recent immigrants who rent pedicabs by the week (around $200 in summer, as low as $80 in January). Before, “the only thing in these guys’ way was maybe, like, a random goat,” he said. “And now they’re guiding a family through Times Square?” It’s turning police officers, who used to cheer him on, into enemies, he said.
I felt a little silly the first time I climbed into the back seat, but despite the autumn chill I warmed to it quickly. As with riding a bicycle, you see things at that pace that you can’t see from a car, and you get to put your feet up in a way you obviously can’t while walking. If your driver is full of interesting historical information, great, sit back and learn. If not, tell him to shut up (but apologize with a tip).
After a few rides, I persuaded a driver to let me try. It’s hard to keep the wheel straight, and during turns I kept thinking it was going to tip over, as a bicycle might. (A girly shriek ensued.) Of course there’s almost no way to tip over: the vehicles are solidly balanced on three wheels, with a lot of ballast keeping them that way. Especially if your driver hops in the back, as mine eventually did, then invites his friend in, too. By that point I was laughing too hard to go very far. I got no tip.
More seriously, it’s about as green a conveyance as anyone is ever going to find. But what do the tourists who typically ride them care about keeping our streets and our air clear? Perhaps, I started to think, pedicabs are being wasted on their passengers — and perhaps that is part of the reason they’re largely reviled. What if New Yorkers exercised eminent domain and reclaimed these overgrown tricycles for our own daily use?
To lead the way, I tried hiring a pedicab to run a few errands: dry cleaning, deli, the basics. Fine. But when I thought about visiting Aunt Frances at Mount Sinai Hospital, I found that at about $1 per minute or per block, what would be $15 in a taxi would be a trip to the A.T.M. in a pedicab. Fail.
I turned to Mr. Bliss for guidance. “The goal when I started this was that the pedicabs would actually be less money than a yellow cab,” he said.
He began that experiment downtown, where he thought people would be open to the idea, but he found they were too self-conscious to ride in a pedicab. It worked for a while in Midtown, but today, he said, sounding melancholy to the point of despair, the dream is dead.
“The pedicab industry itself became self-marginalizing,” he said. “It became more and more tourist oriented, less transportation oriented. We need drivers who are educated, fluent in languages. They need to be ambassadors to the city.”
We also need stricter regulation of the fleet, he said, and electric-assisted pedicabs — which he developed with a state grant, but the city does not allow. In short, we need the city to decide that a fleet of law-abiding, low-cost vehicles that consume no gas, is in everyone’s interest.
Take that to its logical conclusion and you get people commuting by rickshaw, exchanging newspaper sections with the guy in the next lane at a red light. Kids picked up after school by a parent on three wheels who has already stopped for groceries. A bride in Central Park accepting a lift from a pushy but well-meaning stranger. Wouldn’t you like to live in that city?
It seems a lot of people would say no.
In 2007, a city councilman was quoted in the Village Voice saying that pedicabs caused pollution by increasing congestion. Perhaps he’s right; perhaps pedicabs and cars cannot coexist in Manhattan. Maybe it’s not safe to have three wheels darting in and out of four-wheel traffic. Maybe the time has come to make a change. How about we get rid of the cars?Tags: bicycle, bikes, broadway, Cabs, central park, congestion, downtown, fun, Manhattan, mode of transportation, NEW YORK, passenger, Pedicab, pedicab driver, Pedicab Videos, pedicabs, rickshaw, ride, three wheels, times square, traffic, Transport, tricycle