Will San Francisco Review Its Uneasy Relationship With Pedicabs?

Among the many users of San Francisco’s streets, pedicabs occupy a space somewhere between a bicycle and a motorized taxi cab, though their movements are restricted far beyond other modes, in part because pedicab owners don’t have the budget to lobby city leaders and don’t have an obvious constituency to advocate on their behalf. This could change as new pedicab businesses move to the city and push for their right to use the roadways for their enterprise.

pedicab_photo_small.jpgSan Francisco Pedicab drivers waiting for fares near Fisherman’s Wharf. Photo Lulu Vision.

San Francisco Pedicabs, the sole company operating pedal-powered liveries in the city since 1989, is about to be joined by Golden Gate Pedicabs, an offshoot of a company from Boston. Rather than resist the addition of a competitor, San Francisco Pedicabs owner Keith Saggers has been working with Golden Gate Pedicabs to negotiate the complicated permitting procedure with the SFPD, whose Chief Gascón has sole discretion over where the bicycle taxis may operate.

Saggers, whose company has a permit to do business exclusively along The Embarcadero between The Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf, hoped the addition of a new company and the growth of pedicabs in general would convince the city to revisit the pedicab rules, which were established in 1986 as Article 39 of the Police Code. He said the permitting procedure is a constant issue for him as his company has expanded to 15 cabs and as demand for greener transportation choices increases. His current permit limits his drivers to a route that doesn’t connect to important downtown destinations like Union Square and the Moscone Convention Center. He also conceded that his drivers will occasionally take the risk of a ticket when customers request those destinations.

"Sometimes I think the routes are a stupid idea, sometimes I think they are good because they keep us off dangerous streets," said Saggers, who added that efforts to expand his permit to include a route to the Moscone Center had been met with resistance from the SFPD and the MTA at meetings of the Interdepartmental Staff Committee for Traffic and Transportation (ISCOTT), an interagency body that traditionally determines street closures.

According to a policy document adopted by ISCOTT in 2000 [PDF], there are a litany of reasons why new routes should not be approved, particularly in the downtown core, the logical place for pedicab business.  Permits are discouraged in general for routes that include transit or heavy traffic, unless those routes have a bike lane wide enough to fit a pedicab or if the vehicle lane is wide enough to comfortably fit a vehicle and a pedicab side-by-side.

When asked whether its policy should do more to promote pedicabs in San Francisco, the SFPD Officer Samson Chan said that the issue for his agency was whether or not the proposed new route "will mess up the flow of traffic."

MTA spokesperson Kristen Holland echoed the SFPD, saying their "policy is to approach new pedicab permits cautiously…. Introduction of pedicab operations in the downtown area or on transit or arterial streets that don’t have bike lanes could impede the flow of transit and traffic."

Though the SFBC hasn’t lobbied publicly for pedicabs in the recent past, the group did suggest they should be considered in the city’s wider green transportation policy goals. "It seems like this is a no-brainer," said SFBC Program Director Andy Thornley. "There should be people-powered transit [in] San Francisco to serve the city’s many policy goals for congestion relief, climate protection and better smelling streets."

Deputy City Attorney Tom Owen said the pedicab law on its face was similar to other permitting laws and implied that changes to it would have to come from the legislative branch of city government. "The Chief of Police has to exercise sound and reasonable discretion–he
would have to assume that there is some reason to restrict the
movement," said Owen about the SFPD’s permitting procedure. He clarified that the moment a pedicab charges for a service, they are no longer simply bicycles with three wheels and that similar route restrictions apply to jitney service.

"There is no right to operate a business on a public street. It’s a privilege."

For Saggers, the question of how much room the city will make for pedicabs was the central concern. In addition to new routes, he said the city will have to consider staging areas for the cabs, whether or not they can wait for fares on sidewalks as the do currently on Port of San Francisco property, or whether the city would eventually consider pedicab standing areas on-street, similar to those for taxis.

With the exception of Supervisor Chris Daly, said Saggers, the issue doesn’t seem to be on the political radar, and until the city takes a more serious look at its policy toward pedicabs, his company and future competitors will continue to operate in a gray area.

"Officers have said they don’t have the man-power to police pedicabs," said Saggers. Their advice to his drivers? "Just stay out of trouble."

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