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CARRIAGE HORSES
Media

NY PRESS

MARCH 8, 2006

GEORGE CHEVALIER

NEWS & COLUMNS

I loved driving a pedicab. Getting out of class, I’d rush to West 58th Street to pick up my transportation—then the sheer exhilaration of pedaling. It’s just what I used to do when I was a kid: ride around Manhattan, looking for action, adventure, whatever happened. But this was 40 years later, and I was getting paid for it. The serendipity, the expectation of surprise around every corner, was the same.

That was 2003, after taking a training course offered by George Bliss, owner of Pedicabs of New York, the original and then-largest pedicab company in the city. Bliss, brilliant and eccentric, took the knowledge distilled from eight years in the business and combined it with safety, classroom and on-the-road training. One memorable point, for instance, applied to ordinary bicycles also: if you ride on the left on a one-way street you minimize the chances of a car door opening in front of you. Bliss also stressed adherence to the traffic laws, and indeed would have fired anyone running a red light or going the wrong way down a one-way.

But drastic changes in the industry were about to undermine Bliss’ supremacy. A pedicab accident—maybe the only one anyone can document—resulted in a large settlement: One of Bliss’ pedicabs was dragged by a turning bus, injuring a tourist couple. It cost him $1.7 million. The insurance company reacted by requiring a $25,000 deductible. Bliss was forced to sell most of his pedicabs. Now left with only a dozen, he has emerged as a spokesman and leader for an often-fractious mini-industry.

Now, groups representing taxi and horse-carriage owners are demanding the city regulate pedicabs. They’ve hired the politically well-connected lobbying firm Connelly and McLaughlin to press their case. The Metropolitan Taxi Board of Trade, which represents fleet owners, is one of the highest-spending lobbying group in New York City. A horse-carriage owner is currently spending $2,000 a month to eliminate pedicabs as competition to his carriages.

The director of business development for the taxi group, Joseph Gianetto, says pedicabs are “inherently dangerous.” This a comment that could be made about yellow cabs: the 12,487 medallion taxicabs in the city have something over 4,000 injury accidents a year, accounting for 17 percent of the injury accidents in Manhattan, a figure that rises to 30 percent when livery cars are added. Thus, a yellow cab has a virtual statistical certainty of being in an injury accident over the course of three years.

This is not at all helped by the economics of the taxi industry: Real income, adjusted for inflation, has declined since 1929. In 2003, a cab driver made $115 a shift on the average, a decline of 28 percent since 1981. That, however, tells only part of the story. According to “The NYC Taxicab Fact Book,” an industry-commissioned effort, the drivers’ “total compensation dropped due to the loss of benefits such as health and pension benefits, employer contribution to Social Security, scholarships, legal services, unemployment insurance and disability insurance.” A clear trend is the inverse relationship between income and accidents—a driver making money takes less chances than a hungry one.

Part of the riddle facing the City Council is the elusiveness of facts. Sources in the pedicab industry cannot even agree how many people ply their trade on the city’s streets. Estimates run from 200 to 400. Rates are, in theory at least, quite comparable to horse carriages: a buck a minute for pedicabs vs. a regulated (and frequently violated) $34 a half-hour for horse carriages. Rogney Rodriguez, a horse carriage driver who co-owns Gotham City Pedicabs, says the conflict between horse and bicycle carriages claims most of it centers around one hack stand on Sixth Avenue at Central Park South.

What is unquestionable is that the two industries are related. A number of pedicab owners either came from or are still in the horse-carriage business, and two floors of the West 52nd Street livery stables are filled with pedicabs. I once lost a fare because the man was going to meet his girlfriend and the pedicab smelled of horses.

Rodriguez, like other pedicab owners, is all in favor of regulation. “I’ve always wanted it,” he says. City Councilman John Liu, chairman of the Transportation Committee, said that, across the board, “the industry is in favor of regulation.” Liu said the Council has “Just begun its examination,” and no votes are scheduled as of now. Liu says any legislation must make sure it “recognizes the value of the pedicab industry”—something many a tired theatergoer has on a rainy night when no cabs are available.

The owner of the largest pedicab manufacturing company, Main Street Pedicabs, says more cabs have been shipped to New York the past year than all the previous years combined—reflected in the comments of New York City officials, who call the business “burgeoning.”

But I could have told you that back in 2004. All of a sudden, it wasn’t fun anymore. It seemed like every theater had 30 pedicabs in front of it; that whenever I went in front of a hotel, some snot-nosed kid would try to jump in front of me. After a few times when I went out for four hours and didn’t take in a dime, I threw in the towel. But I won’t pretend I don’t miss it. You see, I loved driving a pedicab.

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