With no rules of the road, Chicago’s pedicabs thrive

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With no rules of the road, Chicago’s pedicabs thrive

In Chicago’s ‘Wild West’ pedicab industry business is up, but so are run-ins with the police.
April 9, 2013

Caroline O’Donovan

As winter slowly melts into spring, you’ll see them around Chicago with greater frequency. Hanging around after Bulls games and theater performances, armed with heated blankets and bicycle bells. More than a few showed up outside Wrigley Field at the Cubs home opener on Monday. With warm weather on the way, not to mention baseball games and endless music festivals, Chicago’s pedicabs are ready to take over the streets again.

The giant tricycles with room for two in the back, have become a fixture in Chicago over the last few summers. It’s not just the flat terrain and lazy tourists. Unlike other major metropolises, Chicago has yet to pass any ordinance regulating pedicabs. That means there are no rules on the books about where they can go, what they can charge, or how to make them safe.

Those non-existent rules are a mixed bag according to the pedicabbers themselves. Some worry it could lead to lax safety standards and inconsistent fare pricing, which only hurts their reputation. Yet that same freedom from regulation, others argue, is why the industry is doing so well in Chicago.

To learn what this means for pedicabs and passengers alike, I decided to go for a ride. Darren Hilton, who has been a bike messenger and pedicab driver for fifteen years, picked me up one recent afternoon in his yellow pedicab at Navy Pier. Except, he couldn’t actually pick me up on the pier where WBEZ is located. Apparently, pedicabs aren’t allowed there according to the Chicago Parks District. It’s one of the few hard and fast rules for pedicabs in Chicago.

Darren, who has long dreads, and wore a black silk shirt with a red dragon on the back, knows those rules (or lack thereof) better than most. He also has a keen appreciation for his pedicabs’ origins.

“I like rickshaw, because of the ethnic connotation,” Darren told me, “Rickshaw is Japanese from jinrikisha which means human power. So a ballpoint pen is a jinrikisha. A hairbrush is a jinrikisha. Human powered.”

My human-powered transportation first headed north toward Water Tower Place and the Magnificent Mile, a typical route for the tourists who make up the majority of the pedicab driver’s customer base. Pedicabs are perfect for short distance trips, like moving party goers from bar to bar. But Darren has hopes that one day, pedicabs will be seen less as a tourist activity and more as a viable industry. But for that to happen, he says, there have to be regulations, especially when it comes to price.

Because there are no rules regulating what pedicab drivers can charge, it’s much easier to gouge prices in Chicago than in other cities. Pedicabbers who live in the city say some out-of-towners come to Chicago for the summer months and charge exorbitant prices and give the industry a bad name. And even well-meaning drivers say their rates can change based on weather, terrain, and the weight of the load – not to mention, how much they like the customer. In New York, pedicabbers charge by the minute. Darren says having regulations in place would help make the industry more reliable, and therefore more vibrant.

Chicago has had two shots at a pedicab ordinance before, neither of which made it through City Council. The biggest point of contention for the pro-pedicab interests was a restriction that would prevent pedicabs from operating in the Loop during rush hour. Some say the cabs contribute to gridlock, but Darren says especially with the help of protected bike lanes, pedicabs actually move faster than cars and can help commuters get to their destination more directly. “It’s all about maneuverability,” he says.

But as we headed south over the Michigan Avenue bridge, where honking cars and speeding busses grew increasingly closer, I asked Darren how he was sure that we were safe.

“It’s not been an industry that’s been as internally regulated as it could have been,” he said, “As a customer, you don’t know the difference between something that looks sound, and something that is.”

Most garages that rent pedicabs require insurance that protects passengers, but it’s not mandated citywide, and the drivers are rarely protected. Darren says he’s only ever heard of one pedicab injury in which a car was involved, and the Chicago Police Department say they don’t keep a record of pedicab related accidents.

The police and pedicabbers primarily interact — and clash — over traffic laws. There are a lot of laws that are hard to enforce for pedicabs, which tends to make for fractious relationships, says Darren. “They just make it up. They’re not bad guys, but there’s no book. That’s the thing. And they’re responsible for their beat. But they can’t enforce something that just doesn’t exist.”

Natalie Moberg is a bike messenger and pedicab driver who loves the freedom of being an independent contractor. During the summer, she and her fellow cab drivers make most of their money picking up Cubs fans after games at Wrigley Field.

“Most officers like us. We get the drunk people out of the stadium area. We get ‘em gone,” says Moberg.

But one day last August, Natalie learned what happens when the rules are left up in the air. She says she was waiting with other pedicabbers outside Wrigley Field, when a police officer drove up and confronted them.

“Officer Healy drives up, he gets out of his vehicle and says we can’t be on the street there, and I say, well, where would you like us to go, and he says, on the sidewalk.”

Natalie says that didn’t make any sense, since not even bicycles are allowed on sidewalks.

“So, he’s starts spouting out how like it’s all listed at the police station and I interrupted him and, I asked wait wait, there’s regulations? There’s no regulations in the city of Chicago.’”

Natalie says that, although she was arrested, the charges were dropped when the officer failed to appear in court. The judge, she added, was confused about whether it was a car or a bike that had been impounded. Natalie is waiting until she gets a drivers license to return to pedicabbing, which is something the garage she leases from wants her to have for insurance purposes.

Despite her run-in with the cops, Natalie isn’t ready to support certain regulations. “I think that would kill the spirit of the industry in Chicago. We’re the Wild West, and overall,” she says, “it seems like more of a headache.”

But Chicago transit experts say, while regulations might be a pain, they’re important to help build a diverse transit system in which people have options for how to get around. Joe Schwietermann, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul, says pedicabs are, “part of the explosion of innovation we’re seeing in transportation, a lot of creative solutions to get people around.” He says pedicabs are an especially promising solution for traveling short-to-medium distances in dense urban environments.

But Schwietermann also has concerns about over-regulating the budding pedicab industry.

“It’s interesting how when things sound really good in Chicago you put it in the meat grinder of city hall, and something else come out,” he says, “and I think that’s the big risk here.”

Schwietermann points to last year’s food truck ordinance as an example. He believes the City Council’s regulations for mobile food vendors were too strict and thus hurt the growth of an industry that has flourished in other cities. (Check out WBEZ’s coverage of the food truck regulations here.)

As for the pedicabs, City Hall says there are a number of interested parties — pedicab garage owners, motor vehicle cab owners, aldermen, and more — at work on an ordinance, but nobody could say for sure what it might include, or when it will be announced. So for now, pedicabbers like Darren Hilton are making it up as they go along.

“We’re not bad people, we’re young. We’re 5 year-old dictators. Whatever we say goes. We don’t realize the repercussions of our actions,” Darren says. But in terms of building a long-term, stable industry with a reputation as fair business operators, he adds, “It always comes back to us, whatever we’ve done.”

As we headed back toward Navy Pier from Ogilvie Station, we breezed by cars and taxi cabs stuck in rush hour traffic, most of whom were presumably trying to get onto trains and out of the city. Darren says it’s a prime example of a profitable niche that pedicabs could fill.

“All these people you see right here are potential customers, but the cabs are full. You can’t get a cab coming this way. And then if you get in a cab, you’re sitting there,” he says. “It’s not the same as being where you want to be. You need maneuverability.”

If some of the aldermen who want to restrict Darren’s ability to do business in the Loop during rush hour and in other areas of the city succeed, however, that maneuverability is going to be seriously restricted. As we rolled up to Navy Pier, I realized just how big a change that would be for the city’s rickshaw cowboys.

“Now this is like halfway legal in a manner of speaking,” said Darren, as he tried to sneak me down the pier to the front door of WBEZ. But just as he spoke, a security guard blocked our path and turned us back around with a stern warning: “These carts are not allowed!”

Sooner or later, there will probably be no such thing as ‘halfway legal’ for the pedicabbers of Chicago — only legal and illegal. Whether the industry can thrive, or just survive, remains to be seen.