Ithaca family pedals for sustainability

The Harrod family has a new vehicle, one that gets really good fuel efficiency. Elisabeth Harrod says it's fueled by burritos.


Published December 15, 2006 by The Ithaca Journal 

ITHACA — The Harrod family has a new vehicle, one that gets really good fuel efficiency. Elisabeth Harrod says it's fueled by burritos.

[[image:ithaca_pedi.jpg::inline:1]]She has been carting her kids around in a brand-new pedicab, a mountain bike attached to a cab that fits two kids and an adult inside with room below for groceries. From behind, it looks like a miniature Amish buggy — until you see wheels and pedals, not hooves and a tail.

A year ago, the family's car broke down. Elisabeth, 38, and her husband Jon, 36, thought long and hard, and concerned about fossil fuel depletion and pollution, they decided not to get another car.

Although apparently the first, the Harrods are not likely the last family in Ithaca with a pedicab. According to Jennifer Dotson, executive director of Ithaca CarShare, an unusually high 41 percent of Ithacans walk to work. Across Tompkins County, 18 percent walk or ride their bike to work, according to the 2000 Census.

Wednesday afternoon, her two boys, Will, 8, and James, 5, who are home schooled, clambered into the cab, and she “drove” them downtown. The night before, she had a meeting and a “backseat full of things” to tote, so instead of walking or taking her bicycle, she took the pedicab.

Pedal-powered vehicles like this are popular in Southeast Asian cities, said Jon, who got the idea of such a family vehicle after spending time there in the early 1990s. They are used as taxis, for kids going to school, commuters and tourists. Perhaps this is why Elisabeth has been repeatedly asked for rides.

Jon has pedaled the whole family around, and Elisabeth has given friends rides and let them take test drives. She said she gave City Attorney Dan Hoffman a ride after a meeting Tuesday at GreenStar Cooperative Market, where she has a part-time job. She said he was thrilled.

In addition to GreenStar, she runs a small preschool three days a week at EcoVillage. Committed to teach through the end of the school year up on West Hill, she is not avoiding all cars. Sometimes she catches a ride with someone who drives to EcoVillage. Sharing rides fosters friendships, she said.

She feels confident that things work out without a car. When she needed to pick up the family's new puppy, Lucy, in Lisle, Broome County, three days ago, it just so happened that a friend had loaned her a car for a few days.

The Harrods have lived in Ithaca for six years, moving here after Jon did post-doctoral work in botany at Harvard College. He said he wanted to make changes in more immediate ways, and with a long interest in sustainability, began working on making local homes more energy efficient.

Their pedicab purchase came two weeks after a move downtown to North Titus Avenue from EcoVillage at Ithaca west of the city on Route 79. While Elisabeth said she knows many EcoVillage residents who pedal up and down West Hill, and some on the other side of the lake to Warren Road, she doesn't figure she could do it with a pedicab, nor would she want to be in traffic quite that busy.

“I'm not a marathon runner,” Elisabeth said. “I'm just a regular person.”

The move downtown and the new pedicab have given them more freedom, they said. “Living without a car helps us build connections,” she said. People are continually curious, and talk with her about her new mode of transportation.

And parking is easier.

Jon has a contractor's van he uses only for work. It has no seats for the family. Meeting Elisabeth downtown Wednesday, he ended up parking two blocks away. Elisabeth parked the pedicab on the yard in front of the office where her kids had an appointment.

The Harrods said they thought carefully and then splurged for a new Main Street Pedicab, from the company that supplies pedal taxis to fleets in New York City and Denver. With all the bells and whistles — that is, actual bells and lights, and a weather shield and shipping — this vehicle that is part-buggy, part- multi-geared mountain bike cost the Harrods nearly $5,000. Base price is about $3,500, Jon said.

“It's not all about the money. It's the same reason we don't have a television,” she said.

The couple met in 1995 at a Nature Conservancy event in North Carolina. Both share a passion for learning to live lightly.

“It's something we're both interested in trying to figure out — how people can live sustainably and be early modelers of what people can do,” Elisabeth said.