The Leisurely Pleasures of a Pedicab
You feel every jolt and bump of the potholed streets. You feel a communion with the pigeons that swoop down and dart just overhead. A yellow parade of taxicabs rushes by close enough to touch.
Published March 2, 2007 by The New York Times
By William Neuman
New York — You feel every jolt and bump of the potholed streets. You feel a communion with the pigeons that swoop down and dart just overhead. A yellow parade of taxicabs rushes by close enough to touch. A double-decker bus looms suddenly alongside, seeming, in contrast to your puny status, like a skyscraper on wheels. Look up, and the real skyscrapers soar above you.
But for all its urban grittiness, there is something oddly bucolic about seeing New York from the back of a pedicab. It reduces this most bustling of cities to human-powered speed. There’s an almost tranquil feeling as you float lazily through traffic: Huck and Jim on a raft.
It is a feeling that the fellow pedaling the bike seems to share as well. “It’s a great gig,” Sean Devin, a veteran pedicab driver, said yesterday as he pedaled down Fifth Avenue south of Central Park. “You’re outside all the time. You start when you want, quit when you want, take whatever days off you want. You’re pretty much your own boss. It’s one of the last bohemian jobs left.”
But the unfettered world of pedicabs is about to change. The City Council passed legislation this week that for the first time would regulate what has been a quickly growing industry. It would limit the number of pedicabs to 325, down from what industry representatives estimate is now 500. It would also require drivers to post their rates, force owners to carry liability insurance and ban the small electric motors that some use as backup power to provide a boost for tired legs.
Mr. Devin, 43, disdains the motors and says that he enjoys his work in part for the exercise. He weighs 200 pounds now, down from 240 before he started pedicabbing, he said. And he kept up a lively banter, never running out of breath, as he pumped steadily along.
There is, he said, a kind of pedicab circuit, with many drivers congregating in cities in Florida or California in the winter and then moving north as the weather warms up. He drove a pedicab in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for several years, before he came to New York a year and a half ago. He said he read up on the city’s history and landmarks, and he often gives tours, narrating from the seat of his bike.
Mr. Devin sees pedicabs as being uniquely suited to New York, and he worries that the new regulations will quash the industry’s free spirit or even push drivers or cab owners out of business.
“New York’s a vertical city,” Mr. Devin said. “People want to look up. You get rid of pedicabs, what are you going to do — look up in a taxicab?”
Pedicab junction yesterday was a sunny strip of sidewalk where Central Park meets Columbus Circle. Nine cabs were lined up, waiting for fares. A couple of drivers held signs that advertised rides through the park.
Sergio Lago, 40, was the only one with a motor, known as an electrical assist, attached to the front wheel of his bike. The low-power, battery-operated motors are rigged to operate while the driver is pedaling or has reached a minimum speed, so they cannot be used to run the pedicabs like makeshift motorcycles.
Mr. Lago said he loves the work but could not do it without the motor’s help. He used to drive a horse carriage in the park but was hurt in a traffic accident several years ago and found it uncomfortable to sit for long periods in the carriage. The biking has helped him recover from his injuries, he said, but he does not feel strong enough to do without the motor.
Mr. Lago, who lives in Queens, switched the motor on as he went up a gentle slope on a stretch of road in Central Park. He compared the coming changes to the pedicab industry to a push several years ago to increase the regulation of horse carriages. “Everybody in the business was very scared,” but in retrospect, he said, the industry improved. He feels the effect could be the same this time.
“It’s not fair to me, but it’s the rules,” he said.
Mr. Lago said he pays about $200 a week to lease his pedicab from a small company that owns several of the vehicles. On a good day in the summer, he said, he has earned as much as $300. On a slow winter day, $60 may be more typical. As with other drivers, his fare is negotiable. For a 20-minute ride yesterday around Central Park, he charged $25.
There are a few companies that own several dozen pedicabs, which they lease to drivers, who often charge a dollar per block for each passenger or a set fee for a narrated tour. Other companies own a handful of the bikes. Some drivers own their own cabs.
A spokeswoman for the consumer affairs department, which will regulate the industry under the new law, said it had not yet determined how it will distribute the 325 pedicab licenses.
Sandor Sienkiewicz started leasing a pedicab in 2001. About a year and a half ago he bought his own for about $2,000. It has no motor. “This is all human-powered,” he said. “I’m trying to keep it as clean as possible.”
He said that people who ride in his pedicab are different from the typical taxicab passenger. “They have more time and want to relax,” he said. “And all that energy trickles down to us.”