Thanks to Loophole, Cheerios’ Downtown Pedicab Promotion Was Unsinkable

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Why not promote your cereal with a vehicle whose wheels resemble it? Image: Cheerios

This morning, I was puzzled when I read a DNAinfo.com report that Cheerios was planning to promote its new line of high-protein cereals with a seemingly illegal activity: pedicab rides in the Loop during rush hours.

In April, City Council passed an ordinance regulating pedicabbers – and banning them from downtown streets. Under the new law, operators are prohibited from working in the Loop during rush hours, as well as on Michigan and State, between Oak and Congress, at all times. Pedicabbers say the restrictions are making it more difficult for them to make a living, and that the regulations are discouraging the growth of this environmentally friendly form of transportation.

Cheerios planned to have a crew of pedicabbers from local company Chicago Rickshaw offering free rides for people arriving at Union Station between 6 and 10:30 this morning. The commuters would line up on Jackson to be picked up by the bicycle taxi drivers on a first-come, first served basis, and then squired to any downtown destination. The pedicab operators would also be delivering free cereal to anyone who tweeted their location to @cheerios using the #CheeriosProteinChi.

Pedicabs are a great fit for this kind of event. Hiring the operators to make deliveries is probably cheaper than using motor vehicles, and companies want eyecatching vehicles for their promotions. And by placing its logo on the back of a pedicab, a company gets to associate its product with health, eco-friendliness, and good times. Meanwhile, Chicagoans benefit by having fewer cars and trucks on the street, and the passengers enjoy an unforgettable ride to the office.

It certainly would have been a bummer if Chicago-style overregulation had poured cold milk on the plan. Fortunately, a loophole saved the day, according to T.C. O’Rourke, a board member from the Chicago Pedicab Association [and a friend and former coworker of mine]. He pointed out that the ordinance defines as pedicab thusly:

“Pedicab” means a pedal-powered public passenger device used to provide transportation for hire upon which a person may ride, propelled by human power, and is constructed in such a manner as to allow the carrying of one or more passengers.

Since the operators would be providing transportation to the commuters for free, not for hire, the downtown ban didn’t apply, O’Rourke said. “By that interpretation, what we were doing was legal.”

O’Rourke worked as an independent contractor for Chicago Rickshaw this morning, and said the promotion went off almost without a hitch. A police officer briefly questioned one of about ten operators working for Cheerios, but no citations were issued.

O’Rourke said he taxied roughly 15 people to various Loop destinations. “It was great,” he said. “People love free rides, and they’ve got Cheerios. What’s not to like?”

What’s not to like is that the ordinance still bans operators from providing rides to paying  customers downtown. It also cuts down on their potential for earning money from ad revenue, since companies want their logos exposed to a maximum number of eyeballs. That kind of pedestrian density takes place in exactly the places and times where pedicabbers are banned.