Pedicabbers Plan to Defy Loop Ban by Attending City’s Bike to Work Rally

Pedicabs parked outside City Hall during a hearing on the ordinance. Photo: John Greenfield

Tomorrow’s Bike to Work Rally, 7 to 9 a.m. in Daley Plaza, will celebrate the act of using pedal power to get to your place of business. Mayor Rahm Emanuel may show up to give a speech touting Chicago’s strides towards becoming a more bike-friendly city. However, due to the city’s new pedicab ordinance, which bans the vehicles from the Loop during rush hours, many of those who bike for a living are prohibited from riding their work cycles to the rally.

The Chicago Pedicab Association, a nonprofit trade group, plans to highlight that irony with an act of civil disobedience. Members plan to pedal their vehicles to the plaza to conduct a press conference that will discuss how the new law, passed on April 30, is impacting their profession.

In addition to the Loop prohibition, pedicabbers are banned from pedaling on State and Michigan between Congress and Oak. They are required to obtain a $250 annual license and a $25 vehicle decal. Operators are required 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 pedicab licenses in the city is capped at 200.

CPA board member T.C. O’Rourke (a friend and former coworker of mine) estimates that the new rules have resulted in an 80 percent decrease in the number of pedicabs on the streets, and said his organization wants to call attention to the problem tomorrow. He expects that a handful of his colleagues will risk $500 tickets to attend the Bike to Work Rally. “We don’t want to be a disturbance,” he said. “We just want to draw attention to the fact that we can neither bike nor work downtown at that time.”

When the CPA tweeted about the ironic situation, downtown alderman Brendan Reilly, who helped spearhead the ban, was unsympathetic:

O’Rourke says the arduous requirements for licensing are one reason for the steep drop in the number of operators. These include a criminal background check, fingerprinting, a drug test, a physical exam, city debt clearance, a test on the ordinance and local geography, and a review of driving records.

By June 7, when the law was supposed to take effect, O’Rourke was the first and only person to have succeeded in getting a pedicab license. As a result, the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection sent out a memo stating that, for the time being, licensing requirements would not be enforced. However, the memo said operating requirements, such as the geographic restrictions, would be enforced.

Chicago Rickshaw owner Rob Tipton, who owns 20 pedicabs and leases them to operators, said the ordinance has had a chilling effect on business. While there are usually 40 or 50 people renting his vehicles during the summer, this year he only has five operators. “I’m afraid we’re going to go out of business,” he said.

Tipton said it’s difficult for pedicabbers to make a living when they’re banned from the sections of town with the highest density of pedestrians and tourists. O’Rourke said it’s virtually impossible for operators to avoid State and Michigan without pedaling their heavy vehicles several blocks out of the way.

He noted that the main exit to last weekend’s Blues Fest was on Monroe, but since Monroe is a one-way street west of Michigan, taking passengers into the Loop required riding for a block on Michigan to Adams or Madison. City officials have recommended that pedicabbers use Columbus as an alternative to Michigan, but Columbus in generally closed during the big downtown fests.

View Pedicab routes in a larger map

Blue: streets typically occupied by downtown fests. Red: direct, but illegal, pedicab route to Loop. Green: a legal pedicab route to Loop.

44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney, who sponsored the ordinance, hasn’t heard any complaints about ticketing from the pedicab industry since the ordinance went into effect, according to chief of staff Bennett Lawson. “It’s been pretty quiet so far,” he said. “We’ll see how the summer goes, and then see if changes need to be made to the ordinance. That’s true of any new legislation.”

Meanwhile, the CPA is in discussions with sympathetic aldermen about amending the ordinance to get rid of the geographic bans and the requirement that pedicabbers have a driver’s license for one year prior to getting a pedicab license. He wouldn’t say which reps have been involved, but aldermen Ariel Reboyras (30th) and Rey Colón (35th) spoke out against the legislation after it passed. “Given the ridiculous nature of the restrictions, we remain optimistic,” O’Rourke said.


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