Pedicabs Face Midtown Ban

Michael Bielawski Feb 7, 2005

My job is considered illegal by the City of New York. I am not selling drugs or peddling stolen merchandise. I am not a street performer, nor am I parading without a permit. I am not giving food to the poor. I pedal a bike for a living, a pedicab in a city where riding bikes is almost illegal – just ask anyone who rides with Critical Mass.

A pedicab is a large tricycle with a rear seat for two or three adults and is used as a taxi and to give tours. With only about 400 pedicabs in operation, they’ve managed to avoid city regulation.

Our legal troubles have to deal with the regulation of our business, or rather lack of regulation by the city. We have always welcomed the idea of reasonable regulation, regarding rules we must follow on the road and requirements for drivers to get a license. Only recently has a city crackdown made the legalities an immediate question.

Workers generally lease their bike from one of several companies for a daily, weekly or monthly fee. About five percent own their own bikes. The industry arrived in New York eight years ago. It’s a great job, with exercise and opportunities to meet people from all over the world, plus it pays the rent with charges running about one dollar per block.

They can be found near landmarks such as Central Park in the day and Times Square at night. The Central Park rides are in direct competition with the traditional horse carriages and that’s when the trouble came. Instead of friendly competition, the horse carriage companies have insisted pedicabs are illegal because we do not carry the vending license required to sell things in the city. We argue we are a service, and do not require a vending license, which doesn’t apply to us even if we wanted it.

Then the Partybikes showed up, a new breed with room to pedal for up to seven people. The cops went crazy. Undercovers impounded the Partybikes, and some pedicabs were also taken as collateral damage. When the impounded vehicles made it to court, the judge ruled a vending license is now necessary despite eight years without them.

Don Domite, owner of the Partybikes and some pedicabs, says, “I feel my civil rights were violated. They used every form of harassment they could.”

According to pedicab owner Andy Arango, the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) said that pedicabbers do not need a vending license. Pedicab owner Gregg Zukowski clarified: the DCA meant it was fine to own the pedicabs without a vending license but not to pedal them for business. Zukowski added that the DCA claims they will not fine pedicabs for vending without a license.

As if that’s not all confusing enough, the City Council is getting in on the act. One reasonable bill would basically clear up the regulatory limbo, but another threatens the whole industry by proposing to ban all pedicabs from midtown. That’s the prime turf, accounting for about 90 percent of all rides.

If pedicabs are forced out of the tourist zone, what chance do we have of survival? We are in the business of adding culture and romance, sans pollution, to a city that seems to be gaining a reputation as a police state.

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