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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pedi-Cabs: Human Power in New York

Air Date: Week of

Beth Fertig reports on the latest Manhattan fad: bicycle taxicab carriages called Pedicabs, which are now competing for New Yorkers' mass transit dollars.


CURWOOD: Electric cars will certainly help clean up city air but they still use electricity that comes from a power plant, and odds are that plant is causing some kind of environmental problem. Muscle power, on the other hand, couldn't be more natural for the ecosystem. But what about those of us who can't walk or bike or prefer not to? Just wait. New York City is leading the way in this country for sinew-powered transportation. No, it's not a return of the horse. It's the pedi-cab. Beth Fertig of member station WNYC reports on this latest human-powered vehicle, set to hit the streets of Manhattan this spring.

(Traffic sounds; a horn honks)

FERTIG: It's evening rush hour in New York. Buses and cabs are whizzing by and the streets are filled with people. But while everyone seems to be in a hurry, they can't help but stare at the bright green vehicle parked at an intersection in Greenwich Village. It's called a pedi-cab, a tiny carriage attached to the frame of a bicycle.

(A bell dings)

FERTIG: Its driver, Steve Hopkins, rings his bell to attract a passenger. He says a lot of people don't know what to make of the strange little cab, which resembles a rickshaw.

HOPKINS: It's very serendipitous; out of a crowd you can see somebody looking at you and you just kind of ignore them but ding your bell and look back, and they're smiling and it takes them a few minutes to make up their mind.

FERTIG: Within a few minutes an adventurous couple approaches to ask about the fare. Fifty cents a minute, they're told, about the same price as a taxi. Enid Hunter and Maurice Soca think it over, and then Enid says all right. She's seen the pedi-cabs before.

HUNTER: I think it's funny, I don't know. I've seen them a lot in the city my first time, and we're going to see. It should be interesting.

(A bell dings.)

FERTIG: Entrepreneur George Bliss is hoping a lot more New Yorkers will find his pedi-cabs interesting. The founder of Pedi-Cabs of New York bought a fleet of 20 vehicles. Six are now on a trial run. These bike-drawn covered carriages seat 2 people. They've appeared on the West Coast and in Hawaii, but Bliss says they've never been used in New York.

BLISS: This is a mystery to me. We've got the flat terrain, we've got all of this tourism year round. Really needed transportation options for people. We've got terrible air pollution and congestion problems. And this seems to address a lot of those potentials, you know, that tourists would use this, commuters might use this.

FERTIG: Bliss, who designs tricycles and cargo bikes, invested $50,000 in his new business. He plans to build more pedi-cabs and sell them in other East Coast cities. It took him a year and a half to get insurance; the 5-speed bikes and carriages are equipped with hydraulic disc brakes, shock absorbers, and lights powered by a battery. In a fast-paced city like New York, pedi-cabs might not seem like the quickest or most modern way to get around, but Bliss notes that the average automobile speed in midtown traffic is only 7 miles per hour, about the same as his pedi-cabs.

BLISS: Some people have said this is like a throwback to a bygone age, you know, sort of Victorian elegance and so forth. And we're aware of that. But our emphasis is really the future. You know, we think that with 90% of taxi fares being 1 or 2 passenger fares, and taxis cruising empty half the time, is an enormous amount of inefficiency.

FERTIG: Which is part of the reason why environmentalists are cheering the new pedi-cabs. Jesse Kalb, who runs the bicycle program at Transportation Alternatives, says they'll be a great addition to the city's mass transit scheme.

KALB: The more human-powered transportation, the better. I think we need less cars, we need fewer cars, on the streets. And if this induces someone to take a bike rather than take a cab somewhere or drive their car somewhere then yeah, it is needed.

(A bell dings in heavy traffic.)

FERTIG: Back in Greenwich Village, Maurice and Enid are enjoying their ride, though the cab jostles a little over some potholes and the air is cold.

(A bell dings.)

FERTIG: As the pedi-cab winds its way through narrow streets lined with brownstones, Enid says the ride is kind of romantic.

HUNTER: I love it.

FERTIG: What's it feel like riding in it?

HUNTER: Very, it feels like going to Central Park in the horse and buggy, same thing. Romantic. It's cold winter, though, never had this in the winter before.

(A bell dings.)

FERTIG: So Enid and Maurice bundle up and ride into the night. It may not be the best time of year for an outdoor trip, but come the spring a fleet of pedi-cabs will be ready and waiting for other adventurous New Yorkers. For Living on Earth, I'm Beth Fertig in New York City.



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