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."

  • EL

    “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.”

    That pretty much sums up why the relationship is uneasy to begin with. Sidewalks are for pedestrians. I’m sure that even the SFBC can agree with that.

  • The Ferry Building area on the EMB is, by far, the most dangerous part of my bike ride. Cabs just come and go as they please, the bike lane was obviously put in so valets and rich assholes can double park, and who put those pesky blinkers on cars anyway if no one uses them. I would say 95% of the close calls that I get into are because people just don’t use blinkers.

    But as for the pedicabs, most of the time they are out of the way, but this isn’t always the case. I don’t really see how they can get other routes if their main pick up points are the Ferry Building and Pier 39 – they are blocked in by Telegraph Hill and Fort Mason, there really isn’t anything to the south (save ATT Park).

  • patrick

    It seems like they should make the process easier, maybe only disallow them on 1 lane streets.

    If new york can have pedicabs and horse drawn carriages on the streets, I think we can manage to find a way to have a few more pedicabs on our streets.

  • Diane

    Close Market Street to cars! Buses, bikes, taxis and pedicabs only!

  • There would be plenty of space on Market street if we just got around to finally closing it to private cars. I hate riding in cabs, but a pedicab might be fun!

  • Stevie

    In Golden Gate Park, the underground parking lot that serves the De Young and Academy of Sciences is full by 11:00 AM on weekends, and people park and walk long distances. Seems like a perfect pedicab habitat. Central Park is home to hundreds of pedicabs, and business thrives. Why not Golden Gate Park? As a would-be pedicab rider, I don’t relish the idea of hauling busy shoppers and their booty through Union Square traffic. But Golden Gate Park calls to me!

  • CBrinkman

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

    Let’s remind the taxi cab drivers of this fact. Can we ask to restrict their routes as well and keep them off Market, Oak and Fell, and the Wiggle? Makes more sense then restricting pedi cabs – taxi cabs are far more dangerous.

  • Last year at the Car-free Cities Conference in Portland I recorded a workshop on Pedicabs with Steve Meyer of Main Street Pedi-cabs, Peter Meitzler of Manhattan Rickshaw, filmaker Frederic Choiniere, and Jonathan Magnes of PDX Pedicabs.

    http://bikescape.blogspot.com/2008/07/pedicab-solution.html

  • There’s also this film by a participant in the workshop.
    http://bikescape.blogspot.com/2008/07/free-wheelies-pedicabs-of-new-york.html

  • AP

    Why should pedicabs – a zero carbon transportation alternative – be held to a higher standard with regards to the public street than taxis or private vehicles? If we can find a way to handle pick ups and drop offs in taxis, we can surely figure out a way to accommodate them in pedicabs. In a transit first city (adopted policy), we should be doing everything we can to support and incentivize environmentally friendly and socially responsible transportation choices. The current Police code and ISCOTT policies do in fact the opposite by making pedicabs an unattractive and inefficient transportation choice.

  • Thousands of cars, not 15 pedicabs, are a real problem for everyone that SFPD should focus on to protect pedestrians, bicyclist and motorist, killed by cars! How does 15 Pedicabs traveling in bike lanes cause a problem that needs SFPD control?

    Taxi cabs making money on our streets are not restricted; cars doubled park in traffic and bicycle lanes, park in driveways and on the sidewalk all the time should get tickets.

    And what a privilege it is to use public streets and sidewalks, SF Pedicabs pays City taxes and the SF Port a whopping 10% of its gross revenue to stage on the Embarcadero.

    Until the City implements the excellent balance for Better Streets and a Livable City plan. along the Embarcadero, creating multi use paths, a safe and healthy place where seniors and parents with there children could walk or ride – away from car traffic, noise and pollutions – there will be no improvements to our city’s environmental and economic health. The jewels of our city will be tarnished by massive car congestion, pollution and noise – not pretty site for locals or visitors.

    Keith Saggers has been the only pedicabs owner to create a sustainable business and jobs for 15 drivers for the past 20 years! SF Pedicabs is part of the solution, a people powered fun ride that is a safe and healthy form of transportation – and one of the best way to see The City!

    When all else stops, pedicabs can quickly transport locals and tourist to San Francisco businesses, plus our great cities hidden jewels! That is why at the MTA/ISCOTT meeting, with a SFPD representative at the table, the extended route to Moscone Center was approved – only to have, once again, a road block set up by the SFPD permits department.

    Carolyn Blair:
    40 year SF waterfront resident, pedestrian, bicyclist,
    and now a senior who still like to ride on car free Sunday.

  • ZA

    I’m curious what the specific arrangement is that has taxi stands in front of major downtown hotels? I imagine there should be some sort of permit for that ‘take’ of public space for private enterprise.

    It seems to me that if a hotel were to want pedicabs as a service option for their room-stay customers, it would be a relatively simple matter for a modified permit and a different space arrangement along their front.

  • ZA

    I keep wondering about the business model for pedicabs.

    As it is, they aren’t going to compete well with intra- and inter-city options that MUNI, BART, and motorized taxis provide. They also cost more than your own bike rental.

    As a conveyance for tourists through limited areas, they’re scraping a decent business, but remain a lot smaller than either rental bikes or rental scooter-vehicles used by tourists. Pedicabs could operate successfully for similar business in GG Park, parts of the Avenues, even the Mission and parts of SOMA – but it has a large question mark hanging over it.

    As a distributed fleet in support of major BART and MUNI stops for everyday use and heavy shopping loads, I doubt they’ll ever be price-competitive. You’d need a lot of them, in the absence of inexpensive motor-taxis (who have all the advantages now), to get labor costs down to a price a consumer can haggle for.

  • Richard G

    I have a mother who isn’t confined to a wheel chair, doesn’t use a walker, but when we were given the option of taking a pedicab to the end of the pier at Huntington Beach, we took it. It was a great experience and allowed someone who is mobility impaired to the degree of getting a handicapped parking permit, the opportunity to enjoy a part of the world normally only enjoyed by those able to walk. I think that pedicabs should BE REQUIRED!. How is it that the government can spend federal funds on promoting bicycles and not be required to promote bicycles for those not able to actually pedal them. Pedicabs are a broader issue – it is one that advocates for handicapped access should pursue

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