Pedicab Smackdown: City Council Defies Bloomberg, Reins in 'Green Transport'
Pedicabbers rode over the Brooklyn Bridge Friday, April 20. The Council's new law bans them from bike paths on city bridges.
Photos by Sarah Ferguson
Monday's vote in the City Council to sharply rein in the burgeoning pedicab industry was both predictable and dispiriting, given Mayor Bloomberg’s pledge on Sunday to make New York "the first environmentally sustainable 21st-century city."
No matter that the mayor's 2030 plan specifically calls on the city to promote bicycling as one way to lower traffic congestion and emissions.
The Council voted 37-6, with 2 abstentions and 5 absences, to override Bloomberg's veto of the pedicab cap, reflecting the reluctance of some members to risk the wrath of Speaker Christine Quinn by coming out publicly against a bill she has so adamantly defended.
Among those switching sides were Brooklyn rep Letitia James, who stood with Quinn after previously opposing Intro 331-A, and Parks committee chair Helen Foster, who voted no even though she'd initially supported the bill. David Yassky of Brooklyn voted yes, but said the bill's citywide cap of 325 pedicabs was "unwise and too low" and asked that it be revised before the bill expires in two years.
In a press conference before the vote, Quinn, took exception to the notion that her efforts to restrict pedicab transit were anti-environment.
"The issue isn't whether pedicabs are or are not green," Quinn told reporters. "The fact that they are human powered certainly makes them a clean-air vehicle. But we have to balance the reality of wanting to have more green vehicles of all sorts . . . with the reality that you have to regulate industries that use the streets of New York to make money."
Quinn said capping the industry at 325 pedicabs was "reasonable"—even though drivers say it could put 40 percent of them out of business—and predicted the new restrictions, such as allowing the NYPD to ban pedicabs from any Midtown street for up to 14 days—would prove less "dire" than opponents think.
Just why Quinn has been so determined to smack down the still relatively puny pedicab industry has been the subject of much speculation.
She dismissed allegations that she was swung by a close friend who works for a firm that lobbies for the taxi industry, terming that "ridiculous."
Quinn said she was initially motivated to act on behalf of theater owners in her district, who are fed up with aggressive pedicab drivers congregating outside Broadway shows and ringing their bells to attract customers. (Quinn described a recent trip to see Jersey Boys on Broadway: "You couldn't pass on the street because there were pedicabs from one curb to the other, completely blocking the flow of traffic.")
But Quinn didn’t deny that the taxi-medallion owners had given her plenty of input. "There’s nothing wrong with the taxi industry making their position clear on this bill, and there’s nothing wrong with talking to the taxi industry," she insisted, adding, "There was no undue influence here at all."
In fact, representatives of the taxi industry showed up at every public hearing over Intro 331-A, and there were at least five taxi reps on hand for Monday's override, including a guy snapping pics of the Council members as they voted.
Surprisingly, the most outspoken opposition came from the outer boroughs. "This bill is not about regulation. This bill is designed to kill this industry," charged Tony Avella from Queens. "You are immediately, the day this bill goes into effect, putting people out of work. Shame on us if we do this."
His Queens colleague Hiram Monserrate questioned why the Council was requiring pedicab owners to take out $2 million insurance policies, when taxis are required to carry only $350,000 in coverage. "This is about eliminating, not regulating," said Monserrate, who made a last-ditch effort to avert the override by circulating an alternative bill with a bigger cap and fewer restrictions. Monserrate urged the Council to follow the lead of Mayor Bloomberg, who moved at the last minute to reconsider and then veto the bill, even after his Administration spent hours helping to craft it. “ We are going to take people’s jobs away. It’s unfair and it’s wrong."
And the ever-combative Charles Barron accused Quinn and her allies of caving to the taxi and limousine industry. "This is not us versus the mayor," he said. "This is us versus people in New York City who created a creative industry that tourists use and to raise income for their families."
On Saturday, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion argued that the cap of 325 pedicabs citywide would amount to a "de facto ban" on pedicab businesses outside of Manhattan.
"What signal does it send to those who are considering investing in a small business in our city — especially green businesses that should receive heightened protection?" Carrion said. "On the day after Earth Day, of all days, this is not a direction the Council should be going."
Last week, the Sierra Club, NYPIRG, Transportation Alternatives, and the New York League of Conservation Voters sent letters to all the council members, urging them "in the strongest way" to uphold the mayor's veto or risk losing their support. But those voices were outweighed by Quinn's allies on the Council like James Gennaro, chair of the Council’s environmental protection committee, who went so far as to argue that pedicabs cause pollution by creating more congestion.
His comments drew boos and hisses from the roughly three dozen pedicab drivers and supporters who packed the upper rafter of the Council chambers. After the vote, they gathered on the front steps of City Hall and threatened to sue.
"I think they made an absolute mockery of the mayor’s 2030 plan," said Jessie White, who rides a "big red trike" for Mr. Rickshaw. White predicted that the new law would result in a rash of arrests and ticketing of pedicabbies when it takes effect in five months. "It’s going to bog down the system and cost the city a lot of money. It’s gonna be chaos."
The Department of Consumer Affairs is setting up a lottery to award the new pedicab licenses. Many drivers are upset the DCA has not offered to give preference to existing pedicab owners, even though some have been operating in the city for 10 years. They fear the new licenses will get bought up by big players, leaving grassroots operations out in the cold.
"People with tons of money will turn it into a defacto medallion," says Gregg Zukowski, the founder of Revolution Rickshaws. "All of these people standing here could be out of business in five months."
Zukowski says he's already gotten calls from taxi medallion owners seeking "passive investments" in the pedicab biz. "They’re trying to find a way to profit off the new cap," says Peter Meitzler, head of NYC Pedicab Owners Association. "I don’t think they realize how shoestring this industry is."