Jose Prats, founder of LA Bike Taxi pictured in front at the Awareness Film Festival Thursday night. (Photo by Joni Young)

(Note: This post was originally published on Streetsblog Los Angeles)

It’s now been more than a week since pedicabs started operating in Santa Monica and I can confirm that the circles of hell have not come unleashed upon the fair city of Santa Monica. Traffic congestion in popular areas is often slow going, but that has always been the case. So we have Santa Monica, much the same as it has been, but plus some pedicabs now.

For those interested in the possibility of pedicabs elsewhere in California, I think it’s also worth noting the conclusion of City Attorney Marsha Moutrie in discussing the new ordinance was that the city had no legal justification to completely deny their operation within the city and could only justifiably regulate certain aspects of their operation and requirements.

It is interesting to see the fear and rhetoric about what it would be like start to dissolve into the reality that it’s not really a big deal. Right now there are very few that have been operating, with LA Bike Taxi the first entrant (and Santa Monica Pedicab looking to launch soon), so conceivably they could become more of an “issue” at some point, but I can’t imagine pedicabs ever being anywhere as close to a potential annoyance or hazard to the public as the many taxi’s  are (which I’ve seen speed and squeeze through bike lanes to cheat turns among many other offenses). Automotive taxi operators have been known to use their revved up motor and a “flexible” approach to road regulations, to speed and take short cuts, but pedicabs by their inherent limitation of moderate speeds are a less potentially threatening presence.

The pedicabs are a bit of a novelty transportation mode, really more of a tourist driven thing, which some critics are fond of pointing out. Some proponents also seem to under appreciate how much truth there is to that, sometimes overselling the pedicabs as a viable mode choice for just about anyone to fill various gaps. Although relatively high fares compared with transit service and limited coverage areas keep their function limited more to short hop trips. However I don’t see a niche for more novelty transportation as such a terrible thing, and can add to the draw to places.

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I’ve seen various debates about transit services as utilitarian functions foremost versus experiences that can be aesthetically appealing, nostalgic or “sexy.” My inclination is toward utility as more important for our publicly operated systems, and that well functioning service is that which builds ridership and serves that ridership the best. However so long as more tourist driven or novelty circulation is not coming at the expense of any significant public resources needed by our primary systems, I think they can coexist in complimenting ways. I’d rather the tourists get around by just about any means other than cars for those distances they feel are too far to walk.

Santa Monica Free Ride parked at Lowes Hotel on Ocean Ave.

Another new entrant into the world of local transportation, that slipped in rather quietly is the Santa Monica Free Ride. It’s an open air fully electric vehicle I’ve seen around recently, and  is operated with space to seat 5 passengers in addition to the driver, and will give free rides within the targeted service zone to anyone who flags it down or finds it parked. In Santa Monica’s case the coverage area is a box including west of 4th, north of Marine St, and south of Wilshire Blvd. Nothing is ever truly free of course, and the way they operate is through promotional advertising on the attention grabbing vehicle, sometimes with hand outs or take aways for passengers.

I have mixed feelings about the Free Ride, because I’m generally opposed to advertising creep, although it has no more than is found on city buses already, and less advertising than appears on many big tour bus wraps. One of the most despicable vehicles in my book is the rolling billboard which takes up a lot of room in traffic and spewing out fumes, for no other purpose than to carry a billboard in traffic, a practice I’d prefer be banned outright. At least the Free Ride actually does something besides take up space, offering localized circulation, and it is quiet without tale pipe emissions.

The Free Ride does not appear to be something you can really count on for service, at least not yet with only one vehicle in the fleet, and advertising is really their business, transportation is secondary. It’s more like something you can make use of if you happen to see it, but it has got me thinking that perhaps a real reliable taxi service could be developed from similar non-highway rated EVs. For exclusively local circulation that was less intimidating to pedestrians and bicyclists in the downtown area. (Update: Santa Monica Free Ride now has 6 vehicles & is working on an app to make it easier to flag vehicles)

As we make the transition away from the petroleum dominated age of transportation (U.S. oil consumption has already been contracting since 2005), I’m sure we’ll see more local experiments with vehicle types and transportation services that rely on different energy sources, or use energy more efficiently. Pedicabs and light weight EV’s might feel like oddities to some now, but I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them in the future.