Loop Pedicab Ban Passed in Committee; Council Votes Today

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Pedicabs parked outside City Hall. Photo: John Greenfield

During a 2.5-hour committee hearing yesterday on a proposed ordinance to regulate Chicago’s growing pedicab fleet, aldermen heard passionate testimony from some 20 operators and advocates. They argued the legislation, which includes a ban on downtown operations, would hamstring the industry and kill jobs.

In the end, all but two of the reps voted to approve the ordinance in committee, which means it will go before City Council for a final vote on Wednesday morning. Aldermen and pedicabbers agreed that the restrictive legislation is likely to become law, barring pedicabs from the Loop during rush hours, and from Michigan and State, between Congress and Oak, at all times.

At the start of the joint hearing by the licensing and transportation committees, 44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney, who drafted the ordinance, outlined the proposed rules. Tunney’s ward includes Wrigley Field, a hotspot for pedicab work. “There are, as we will witness today, many good and safe operators,” he said. “But we’ve certainly had a few problems that this ordinance is designed to address.

Pedicabbers would be required to obtain a $250 annual license and a $25 vehicle decal. Pedicabs would have to be equipped with seatbelts and meet other safety standards. Operators would need to carry liability insurance and post their fare structure on their vehicle, instead of negotiating the price before or after a ride. The number of operators in the city would be capped at 200.

Members of the newly formed Chicago Pedicab Association have said they welcome additional regulation, which they say would help weed out the minority of operators who behave irresponsibly. But they’ve argued that the downtown ban will drive them out of business.  Many tourist attractions are located in the Loop, and they say it’s nearly impossible to navigate the central business district without using Michigan and State, the main two-way, north-south thoroughfares.

At the hearing, 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colón, who doesn’t sit on either committee, asked if any traffic studies had been conducted that indicate that the Loop restrictions are needed. Chicago Department of Transportation deputy commissioner Luann Hamilton, on hand to field questions, replied, “These operational restrictions are not a concern of CDOT’s, and we would support reducing such geographic and temporal restrictions. However, we understand that they reflect concerns of others.”

“So the answer is, no, there haven’t been any studies,” Colón responded. “This is a subjective [decision.]”

CPA board member T.C. O’Rourke reiterated that association members were open to the proposed regulations, but that the downtown ban is a non-starter. “Pedicabs are a solution to traffic congestion,” he said. “We’ve all seen [irresponsible] pedicab operators do obnoxious things, act rudely, behave badly, and cause traffic congestion. But the amount of regulation in this ordinance is many times what’s needed to get rid of those operators.”

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Pedicabber T.C. O’Rourke testifies before the committees. Photo: John Greenfield

“This legislation is just a vain attempt to make downtown Chicago an easier place to drive your car to,” argued James Bond from Chicago Rickshaw. “Do we want downtown be a place to bring your car to, a giant parking lot? Or do we want a downtown that’s actually pleasant to visit, a downtown where people want to go and spend money?”

Joey Werling, who works as a pedicabber to help pay her way through art school, said she often feels endangered by reckless motorists while biking in Chicago, but argued the presence of pedicabs promotes awareness of bikes and a safer environment for all road users. “I dream of a city where I can bike to school and do my job as a pedicab driver safely, and receive the same amount of respect and awareness from motorists as I give to them,” she said.

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke testified that his group supports regulations for pedicabbers, but is against the geographic restrictions. “Our goal should be to move people – not just people in cars – quickly and safely,” he said. “Most people wouldn’t suggest banning cars from the Loop, despite how inefficiently they move people there, and how much congestion they cause. So it’s hard to justify banning pedicabs, which actually reduce congestion and are certainly safer than a speeding, 3,000-pound taxi.”

The push for the inclusion of the Loop ban seems to come from business groups and constituents who have lobbied 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly to do something about what they perceive as a downtown pedicab menace. Art Bryan, owner of the Redhead Piano Bar and a board member with the River North Business Association, thanked Reilly and Tunney for moving forward with the legislation.

“We’ve noticed an increase in the number of pedicabs, and a corresponding increase in the problems they have caused,” Bryan said. He claimed that pedicabbers run red lights, ignore stop signs, and “exceed the speed limit.” The crowd erupted in laughter at that last part. In the same breath, he argued that pedicabs should have to display reflective triangles, because they’re slow-moving vehicles.

After the testimony, Reilly argued that the geographic ban is needed. “I don’t think Michigan Avenue and State Street were cut out arbitrarily,” he said. He noted that CDOT has classified traffic flow at most of the intersections on those streets as “failing.” Of course, as Active Trans’ Burke noted earlier, any delays caused by rogue pedicabbers are a drop in the bucket compared to the congestion that already exists, and the congestion relief that pedicabs provide in general.

When the vote was held, only 30th Ward Alderman Ariel Reboyras and, oddly, Reilly opposed the ordinance. The downtown alderman later said he voted against the current ordinance because he wants the rush hour ban expanded to include River North as well as the Loop. Reboyras said, “I’m a no vote because I don’t think we should be restricting where [pedicabbers] should go. Are we trying to create jobs or kill jobs?”

CPA board member Antonio Bustamente said he’s convinced the ordinance will become law tomorrow. “In their minds [the aldermen] already had passed it, no matter what we said,” he argued. “They just allowed us to come down here and express our concerns, so they could look like they’re listening. But, because of the geographic ban, they just put a lot of people out of work.”