Chicago should reconsider ban of pedicabs on some streets

T.C. O’Rourke makes his living pedaling people around Chicago in a tricycle taxi. But thanks to City Hall, he might soon be out of business.

As of Saturday, it’s illegal for pedicab drivers to use busy downtown stretches of Michigan Avenue and State Street — where O’Rourke says 80 percent of his business is. The ban means fewer customers and longer rides.

“There was one person that I ended up making a 12-block trip instead of a five-block trip, just because I had to avoid Michigan,” said O’Rourke, of Logan Square. “Nobody wants to ride down alleys and side streets to get to where they’re going when they’re visiting Chicago.”

Banning pedicabs from the city’s most sought-after streets is part of a sweeping ordinance aimed at controlling and containing this budding industry. The ordinance also makes it illegal for pedicabs to travel in the Loop during weekday rush hours, and it limits the number of available pedicab licenses to 200.

This comes at the same time the city is pouring millions of dollars into the Divvy bike-sharing program. Peddling two wheels downtown: no problem. Peddling three wheels: illegal.

When Chicago aldermen talk about pedicabs, it sounds like they’re referring to rogue mercenaries overtaking the city. Aldermen complain that they’re operating “without licensing.” That fares are based on driver and passenger agreement instead of a schedule set by City Hall. Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, said of the lack of pedicab regulation: “Literally, it’s the Wild West.”

Let’s be real: We’re talking about consenting adults riding in an oversized tricycle, traveling about 12 mph — often in the city’s bike lanes.

It’s unclear what aldermen are really worried about: being run over by a tricycle or the fact they’re not the ones peddling.

The pedicab ordinance is the latest example of city officials using their power to stifle — and possibly kill off — a vibrant new industry. As has happened in Chicago before and appears to be happening again, in the face of over-regulation, it’s the little guy who gets crushed.

“Unfortunately Chicago is one of the most restrictive cities for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the country,” said Robert Frommer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which advocates for the rights of entrepreneurs. “The city seems to go out of its way to put unnecessary and anti-competitive restrictions in place, and the city is no better for it.”

Frommer would know. He’s the attorney behind Burke v. City of Chicago, a lawsuit challenging city ordinances limiting food trucks.

It’s currently illegal for food trucks to park within 200 feet of a bricks-and-mortar business that sells food in Chicago. And once food trucks finally find a place to park, they can’t stay in that spot for more than two hours.

Frommer’s instinct on Chicago’s culture of over-regulation is right. Data show Chicago is not as attractive to entrepreneurs as other major cities.

The Missouri-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation keeps a national index of entrepreneurial activity. According to the index, about 1 of every 500 people in the Chicago area is an entrepreneur.

But in New York City, 1 of every 312 people starts a business. In Houston, that figure is 1 of 294.

Los Angeles has more than twice the rate of entrepreneurship as Chicago: 1 of every 204 people. Even Detroit has a higher rate of entrepreneurship than Chicago.

Frommer and O’Rourke agree: Pedicab drivers and food truck vendors do not expect to operate without any regulations. But they want City Hall to focus on regulations that genuinely protect public health and safety, instead of setting regulations that exist to protect existing businesses from competition.

O’Rourke plans to keep driving his pedicab to keep his business afloat as best as he can. But he’ll be working tirelessly to change the ordinance — for his own benefit, and for the good of the city.

“That’s where I really hold out my hope,” he said. “If I’m going to sit on the sidelines and not do anything, I might as well go find another job.”


By Diana Sroka Rickert
Diana Sroka Rickert is a writer with the Illinois Policy Institute. The opinions in this essay are her own.