Pedicabs: A Highly Regulated Industry — in One Neighborhood

For a pedicab operator, hauling tourists along the Embarcadero takes more than shapely thighs; it also requires a run through the gauntlet of city policy.

Jeffrey Larson — who hopped coasts from Brooklyn last May — is a six-year veteran of the New York City pedicab preserve; now he's with Cabrio Taxi here.

Despite “unbelievable levels of bureaucracy,” he says the regulations of the S.F. pedicab scene are a welcome change from “the chaotic landscape” of NYC streets and legislation.

While the money is comparable in both cities — $200 for a typical baseball season day and up to a grand for Fleet Week or New Year's Eve — Larson says both the culture and obtaining a license are very different.

“In New York around 2006, I didn't need a special pedicab license or badge, anything like that. It wasn't illegal and it wasn't legal; it was somewhere in between,” he says. “The guy who hired me wanted to make sure I wasn't insane, had a valid driver's license and that I could pay him $50 up front.”

While NYC has undertaken additional regulations in recent years — including issuing formal licenses and requiring seat belts — Larson says it was still the Wild West when he left: Competition was rampant.

“Tempers flared over territories and you could charge anything, provided it was posted on your cab,” he says, “which of course encouraged undercutting and price-gouging.”

In San Francisco, however, there's not only a seven-step licensing process and about $400 in fees, but the Port of San Francisco strictly enforces a pedicab limit of around 40 bikes on its property, which runs the length of the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building to Fisherman's Wharf.

Elliot Riley, senior property manager for the port, says that in 1993 the Port Commission approved a pedicab licensing program to address what was then a contentious issue of unregulated pedicab operation on Port property. It determined 40 cabs were enough to contend with business demands, but not saturate the streets, as opposed to the nearly 650 bikes in NYC.

It's possible to find off-grid pedicabs in Chinatown or near Candlestick Park, but since tourists are concentrated along the Embarcadero, the pedaling action, and the red tape, remains mostly portside. Cabrio (one of the city's three pedicab companies) has made inroads with the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority and is slowly ramping up citywide services.

Despite the bureaucracy, Larson is a convert. “I think it's better to jump through the hoops. The pedicab drivers here can be proud of their reputation,” he says of himself and his cronies, who often gather at Pier 26 beneath the Bay Bridge to quaff a few post-ride, sunset brews. “You're part of the infrastructure of the city.”

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