July 18--As three-wheel bicycle taxis catch on in Pittsburgh, critics and competitors warn of potential problems in the unregulated business as pedicabs can operate without insurance or the standards required of motor-powered passenger service.
"We do view them as dangerous," said Jamie Campolongo, CEO of Pittsburgh Transportation Group, which operates Yellow Cab, Checker Cab and other traditional transit services. "Car versus bicycle, the car usually wins."
Paul Kletter, 30, co-owner of Green Gears Pedicabs on the South Side -- the only pedicab service operating full-time in Pittsburgh -- said he adheres to aggressive maintenance and driver safety programs and carries $3 million in liability insurance on the bikes.
"I know there are some things going on in other areas that can cause some concerns," said Kletter, who started Green Gears on St. Patrick's Day 2009. "I'm proactive on the safety things, the way we train drivers, the way the bikes operate. I work very hard to make it a safe, fair and effective mode of transportation."
The rickshaws, which typically operate free of stringent regulations, have generated concerns across the country as their popularity grows, fed by their eco-friendly status.
Fatal accidents occurred in San Diego and Seattle. New York City had several high-profile crashes that prompted regulations, said Jonathan Mintz, commissioner of the city's department of consumer affairs, which oversees pedicabs. In 2009, New York began requiring insurance and licenses for pedicab operators and drivers, as well as annual inspection of the bikes.
"Were the drivers safe? Were they insured? Were tourists treated fairly? All of those questions were just below the surface, and I think that and those accidents pushed through the regulations," Mintz said.
In Pennsylvania, the Public Utility Commission sets cab rates and geographical areas and oversees safety, insurance and customer service for public transportation carriers and traditional taxis.
The state does not regulate pedicabs, officials said. Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials said the industry is so small that regulating it has not yet become an issue. City police officials could not remember any wrecks involving the bikes since they first appeared about 2003.
"I recall one time one of them got stolen," said Sgt. David Mead of the Zone 3 station, which covers the South Side, where visitors to Carson Street's busy bar scene give the pedicabs heavy use. "A couple of college kids jumped in one and took off. We recovered it a few blocks away."
Organizations such as Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which contracted with Green Gears in 2009 to provide free rides to patrons during the annual Pittsburgh Arts Festival, support the pedicabs as a "green" transportation alternative. The trust also hired the company to provide rides during its Gallery Crawls and First Night Pittsburgh events and to haul trash out of the arts festival area as an alternative to gas-powered vehicles.
"The trust has been extremely pleased with the professionalism and quality of service that Green Gears provides," said spokeswoman Veronica Corpuz. "They're simply great to work with."
Kletter said he wants people to feel safe riding pedicabs. He has expanded Green Gears from three in 2009 to seven. About 20 people lease the vehicles and operate as independent contractors. The flat rate is $1 per block or no more than $15 inside a zone, which is defined as a city neighborhood such as the South Side. There is no extra charge for multiple passengers. Up to three can fit in a pedicab. Green Gears also offers for lease two larger cargo bikes capable of hauling up to 600 pounds.
The service operates regularly Thursdays through Saturdays on the South Side from about 8 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., and for special events Downtown and on the North Shore. It's also available for special events outside of the city.
A pedicab was involved in an accident for the first time about three weeks ago when a vehicle hit one of the wheels and drove off, Kletter said. No one was injured.