Unregulated and unlicensed: I-Team uncovers Chicago's pedicab problem

August 26, 2013 (CHICAGO)

They're novel. And when you're looking for a quick lift on a crowded street, they are appealing. But they could also be a risky ride because-- unlike other cities-- in Chicago they operate with almost no oversight. The ABC7 I-Team has learned that could change shortly after Labor Day, when the city council may crack down.

"I think they're awesome, it's a great way to get around," said Amy Coleman, pedicab passenger.

But consider when things go wrong, such as in San Diego on July 4th, 2009. Police say a pedicab being driven erratically through downtown ejected a downstate Illinois woman. Sixty-year-old retired school teacher Sharon Miller was killed.

Or in Scottsdale, Arizona, last January. Two Fiesta Bowl fans suffered serious head and spine injuries when their pedicab was hit by a car.

Those cities have now imposed strict pedicab rules, unlike Chicago, where just about anything goes.

"There are no laws on the books today, and it's literally, it's the Wild West," said Alderman Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward.

Little overhead or local regulations are part of the reason pedicab drivers from across the country are coming to Chicago. This driver left Scottsdale, Arizona when tough new pedicab regulations went into effect there.

ABC7's Chuck Goudie asks a pedicab driver, "Do you have a driver's license?"

"Currently, no, I don't. But I've never had an accident either," said Amber Higginbotham, pedicab operator.

Many pedicab drivers we spoke to say they do have insurance coverage through the bike rental companies. But here in Chicago it's not mandatory and even some of these operators agree Chicago needs guidelines.

"A uniform standard, I'm sure everyone could benefit from," said Cargill Kelly, pedicab operator.

This proposed pedicab ordinance includes issuing licenses, proof of insurance, registration decals and operating permits. Fares would have to be posted and safety equipment would be required on bikes, including lights and brakes unaffected by rain or wet conditions.

"I've seen near-misses, I've seen pedicabs trying to wind, slalom through traffic, and so the ordinance is going to need to be pretty comprehensive if this industry is going to fit in Chicago," said Ald. Reilly.

Some owners warn excessive regulation could backfire by discouraging a clean and efficient form of transportation, and some are concerned about who's peddling.

"The city has a reputation in the pedicab industry across America that anyone can come here and work," said Roger Brownworth, owner, Roger Rickshaw.

This operator tells the ABC7 I-Team at the urging of friends he came here from Macedonia with no experience driving a pedicab.

"We are going to hopefully earn some money and that was it," said the pedicab operator.

Some Chicago pedicab drivers say the city council should establish a residency requirement for licensees to help curtail the number of foreign pedicab operators. The U.S. already has a ban on foreigners with student visas from being employed as pedicab drivers. That followed the death of the retired Illinois teacher in California, where a Turkish student was driving her.

Getting a local ordinance on the books in Chicago may help bring more order to this growing industry.

"They should at least say go get insurance. You know, luckily nothing bad has happened in the city of Chicago and I hope nothing ever does," said Brownworth.

Backers of the ordinance are said to be working out details, with revisions possible after next weekend.

Until some action is taken, riders need to do their own policing. In Chicago, unlike taxi cabs, the city has not set rates. To avoid gouging, passengers need to negotiate the cost and drop-off location before getting on board. Ask the driver to show proof of insurance, and check the bike yourself, look for lights and other safety features.

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