Pedal pushers

If you're ever around the Capitol or K Street Mall during the week, you’ve probably seen these guys. Maybe you have heard the bell first, maybe you didn’t, but next thing you knew they were pushing past you in their space-age, “zero emissions” vehicles right there on the sidewalk. And they were pedaling. Hard.

Published October 25, 2007 by NewsReview.com
By John Motsinger 

Sacramento, CA– If you're ever around the Capitol or K Street Mall during the week, you’ve probably seen these guys. Maybe you have heard the bell first, maybe you didn’t, but next thing you knew they were pushing past you in their space-age, “zero emissions” vehicles right there on the sidewalk. And they were pedaling. Hard.

These are the drivers of Velocab, Sacramento’s latest addition to its alternative-transportation arsenal, and they want your money in exchange for a short bike ride to wherever your next destination may be. For just 50 cents a block, they’ll transport you anywhere within the 30 square blocks of the downtown/Midtown grid under the power of their own two legs.

Pedicabs are not new, and anyone from the Indian subcontinent or Southeast Asia will recognize the rickshaw-like contraptions with nostalgic pangs for home. But these ain’t your average bikes. Velocab has purchased three state-of-the-art, German-engineered recumbent bicycles fitted with a polyethylene frame to whisk passengers to-and-fro in 21st-century style.

Velocab is not your average cab company, either. Owner Marc Christensen believes pedicabs will help shape city planning and urban development, moving Sacramento away from a car-based culture. He’s banking on “green” cachet to propel his vision of a cleaner, safer city that puts biking at center stage, and he’s found credible allies with the City of Sacramento.

Dan Roth, chief of staff for Councilman Ray Trethaway, said their office has been paving the way for pedicabs since 2005, when Trethaway saw a small fleet of bicycle taxis in San Diego. Since then, the councilman has been developing ordinances to allow pedicabs to take to the streets of Sacramento, as part of a greater attempt to revitalize the downtown district, Roth said. From high-rise lofts to high-end restaurants, Sacramento’s taking on a new look that’s all about having a hip and accessible urban center. Besides, developing eco-friendly transportation options is just smart business these days.

“Realistically, we’re going to have to invest in alternative modes of transportation,” Roth said. “We’ll either do it now or in 10 years, and the price tag is going to go up.”

For Ed Cox, the city’s alternative-modes coordinator who was tasked with drawing up the pedicab ordinances, it’s about providing diverse transportation options for people.

“By giving them the choice to hop in the back of a pedicab, they’re not hopping into a car and burning fossil fuels,” he said. “It’s not just a fuel-economy thing. It’s also a social statement that says, ‘I’m getting around and still engaged, not enclosed in a car. I’m part of the whole scenery.’”

However, getting the green light for pedicabs wasn’t a foregone conclusion. As the first entrant into a new market, Velocab had to clear several regulatory hurdles before it could do legitimate business and collect fares. Just three weeks in, Christensen was served a cease-and-desist order, putting the brakes on pedicabs until the city could finalize workable ordinances and regulate the nascent industry.

The city was primarily concerned with traffic flow. While standard bikes take up a small portion of a traffic lane and can often keep pace with cars traveling under 30 mph, pedicabs are both larger and slower. Weighing about 300 pounds sans passengers and rider, a Velocab is damn heavy and doesn’t move much faster than a brisk walking pace when fully occupied. This is bad news for the 9-to-5 crew piling into their cars and onto the highway at rush hour, only to be stuck behind a slow-moving bicycle. Talk about road rage.

So the city implemented restrictions on driving routes that prohibited pedicabs on major thoroughfares during peak hours and put together an appearance code to ensure drivers made the city look good. After some persistent lobbying, the city agreed to allow pedicabs on the sidewalk around the Capitol and on the K Street pedestrian mall (otherwise closed to bicycle traffic), giving drivers reasonably direct routes to get around downtown.

Now that he’s cleared the red tape, Christensen is back on track with Velocab and has officially been operating since June. And while it may seem like transportation options abound in Sactown with taxis, buses, light rail, Amtrak and the convergence of four major highways, pedicabs still have their niche.

“We are the first or last-mile alternative,” Christensen says. “We compete directly with people’s feet.”

Heading out for lunch but don’t feel like walking? Want a leisurely ride around the Capitol? Need some help with those shopping bags? That’s where pedicabs come in. Velocab also caters to visitors looking for an alfresco tour of Sacramento with a knowledgeable guide. Christensen looks for drivers not just with strong legs, but also who are familiar with the city and can provide historical tidbits while pedaling frantically.

Richard Reeves has been driving a Velocab since the business started. As the only full-time driver, the 50-year-old semi-retired woodworker is out five days a week, eight hours a day, trolling for fares, putting more miles on the new cabs than anyone. He hears the same questions every day from excited on-lookers: “How much does it cost? Is it hard to pedal? Where can I get one?”

For the vast majority, however, learning that the bike costs $10,000 is enough to satisfy their curiosity. Actual paying customers have been few and far between despite nearly unanimous enthusiasm for the concept.

Christensen doesn’t seem worried, though. Even if the momentum hasn’t swung in his direction just yet, he’s subtly establishing a presence and the bikes are being noticed. With the bikes already paid off, it’s just a matter of time before the money starts rolling in, especially once they’re wrapped in advertising and getting eyeballs from the city’s half-million inhabitants. Ultimately, it may not be about the money anyway, at least not initially. Though Christensen expects to roll out Velocabs in cities up and down the West Coast in five to 10 years, he’s content to start small and patiently await the groundswell.

Funky bicycle taxis certainly look cool, but only the market will determine how prominently they’ll be featured in Sacramento. It will require a constant stream of customers who see the value in slow-moving transportation that doesn’t pollute, people who realize the beauty of cities with fewer cars and more bike lanes, and rogue investors willing to sacrifice a few dollars off the bottom line for the sake of the greater good.