Cabbies’ lament

Local taxi companies say pedicabs present unfair competition

CO-ED RIDE<br>Chico pedicabber Joseph Mix whisks away, from left, Donnae Dunsmore, Jamie Simons and Jilmarie Seastrunk as an American Taxi van pulls up to the curb.

Chico pedicabber Joseph Mix whisks away, from left, Donnae Dunsmore, Jamie Simons and Jilmarie Seastrunk as an American Taxi van pulls up to the curb.

Photo By Tom Angel

The meter is running:
Contrary to popular belief, pedicab jockeys do charge per ride. On a good night a driver can make up to $80 in tips.

Hauling human cargo for cash is a competitive and at times cutthroat business. So when Chico’s competing cab companies collectively cry foul, something must be amiss.

The cab companies, American, Yellow and Independent in particular, have banded together to battle the city over what they charge is an inequitable policy. While the engine-powered people movers must jump through myriad costly hoops—permits, inspections, insurance—their competitors, the unlicensed pedicabs that swarm downtown on crucial weekend and Thursday nights, suffer no overhead woes. No permits. No inspections. No liability concerns.

The hacked-off hacks have let the city know of their disdain and would like City Hall to rectify the situation ASAP.

In a rough-and-tumble meeting with the city just weeks before Halloween, the cab owners vociferously brought their complaints to the attention of Bob Koch, Chico’s risk and administration projects manager. Last week, Koch said he was aware of their concerns and “sometime in the next three to four months will take up the issue with the City Council.” In the meantime, the city remains out of the potential liability loop.

On the surface it’s easy to sympathize with the cabbies’ lament. While you or I could pound together a rickshaw this afternoon in the garage and hit the street tonight, cab owners and drivers must traverse a minefield of regulation.

Potential cab drivers need to acquiesce to random drug testing, pay $40 for a one-time permit and undergo a Police Department background check in search of those with sexual malfeasance on their resumes.

Not one of the local cab company owners has had a problem with the drug test, nor with background checks.

Hubert Beaver, owner of American Cab, Chico’s largest cab company, is disturbed, however, by the fact that pedicab drivers are accountable to no one.

“It is a problem,” he said. “If they operate, they should be licensed. A pedicab driver could be the biggest weirdo and still be able to drive people home at night.”

Then there’s the little matter of insurance. “People have no idea they’re climbing into a pedicab that has absolutely no liability [coverage] for their safety,” said Yellow Cab co-owner Edward Ort. Ort says he and partner Steve Bouttote will pay more than $40,000 this year to keep his fleet legal. Bouttote doesn’t have a problem with the bar-to-bar service provided by the pedicabs, but he says there are just too many of them.

“They’re like bees,” he suggested. “If you regulate them, they’ll still exist. There just won’t be the overflow of empty pedicabs clogging downtown.”

For Beaver to keep his 18 taxis mobile, he says he’s going to make the insurance industry more than $90,000 richer this year. To help offset this cost, Beaver began selling advertising on the side of a couple of his cars for $60 a week or “$400 to $500 a month per car.”

Beaver said, however, that the city quickly told him to remove the signs because they violate a city sign ordinance. Beaver reluctantly complied.

“There is advertising on city buses and pedicabs,” he pointed out. “Whoever heard of cabs without ads?”

His disdain for the pedis is evident. “They don’t observe the rules, and they jam up downtown,” Beaver said. “It’s a wonder no one gets hit.”

That’s not exactly true. Just ask Ozzie Carrizales, a longtime Chicoan and one-time candidate for Chico City Council.

On Halloween night, Carrizales, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair for transport, allegedly was blindsided by a pedicab. The rickshaw struck him while he was crossing Fourth and Main streets and tossed him from his chair, he charges. Carrizales says he spent nearly three months in Enloe Medical Center recuperating from an array of bumps and bruises.

Carrizales, often the court jester at many downtown watering holes, has sought legal counsel in hopes of seeking fiscal recompense from the city for his pain. Although he has yet to file a claim with the city, Carrizales remains adamant.

Before the law is modified, the city has to weigh “risk management with more practical matters,” Koch said. Sometime this spring he intends to bring this matter to the attention of the City Council.

He said the council will most likely send it to the Transportation Committee for review and recommendations before sending it back to the council. If the council concludes that public safety overrides the popularity and charm of the three-wheelers, the pedicabs could go the way of the train that once rumbled up and down Main Street.

Just ask Seth Tuton, the owner of the now-defunct North American Rickshaw Co. in Santa Barbara.

After hearing of numerous complaints, ranging from rickshaw wrecks to questionable behavior of a few pedicab loose cannons, the Santa Barbara City Council passed an ordinance last year that requires pedicabs to pay $55 for a city license fee and obtain insurance. The ordinance took effect Jan. 1.

The overhead forced Tuton to park his 15 cabs. He claims the new policy would force him to pay $1,200 annually to stay on the right side of the law. He says that cost proved to be the fatal blow for his popular company.

“I understand they’re concerned about safety,” he told the Los Angeles Times last December. “But we really haven’t had any problems. Why doesn’t the city try to help someone who is trying to do good?” He was referring to the hundreds of free rides his company dispatched to help broke, drunken denizens get home safely.

Locally, response to what would happen if the same law were enacted in Chico ranged from a shrug to “That’s a stupid question.” Point taken. It’s midnight at “Pedicab Junction"—Fifth and Ivy in front of Riley’s Bar, where the pedis are backed up 10 deep. No one has much interest in answering this hypothetical inquiry when business is booming.

Asked if he’d ever been hassled by local law enforcement, four-year veteran Joseph Mix replied, “Not really. Once I almost got ran over by a cop on a Code 3. If you have the right lights, they don’t bother you.”

Chico Police Sgt. Dan Fonseca was very succinct on his department’s outlook. “The law doesn’t require them to be licensed.”

Most operators rent their cabs for $20 a shift—9 p.m.-2:30 a.m.—from Chico Pedi-Cab.

Meanwhile, Beaver, who says American fields 800 to 900 calls every 24 hours, feels the city under-appreciates his service. “We get a lot of intoxicated people off the street. They act like they don’t want us around. I wish they would work with us instead of against us.” The Yellow Cab owners side with Beaver, but until the city meets this spring to reconsider the law, it’ll be business as usual.

A philosophic and optimistic Ort meanwhile says he and his fellow hacks do have one strong, if sometimes fickle, ally this time of year in their ongoing war with the pesky pedis: the rain.