Straight-to-camera, Guy Harinton yells, “Why can’t I kill one of them little fuckers?!” He’s frothing. Here, at the Embarcadero’s Coronado ferry landing, a foreign-student pedicab driver has just ridden off with a load of tourists who want to do the San Diego Seal Tours’ amphibious bus/boat ride that starts from Seaport Village.
“He’s taking them down there to the Seal tour, knowing it’s closed!
“You want to see me get upset? Now I’m going to get upset! I hate those little bastards, I hate ’em, hate ’em, hate ’em! God DAMN, those little fuckers are getting us! One of these times, I’m going to fuck them up real! God damn it, what has happened to this business?… I’m just going to start smashing them. No questions, no rules anymore, just smash them in the face.”
He cuts off when some tourists appear.
“Ladies, how about a little ride today…?”
This is how bad it’s gotten, the tension between local pedicab riders and the foreign students who swell their ranks in summertime till they outnumber locals about six to one. This explosion is part of 60-year-old ex-chef Harinton’s pedicab life, captured on video by fellow pedicab rider Paul Reeves and filmmaker Rigo Reyes.
But Reeves and Reyes’s documentary was made before the death-by-pedicab of visiting retired schoolteacher Sharon Miller last Fourth of July. She was a passenger in a pedicab ridden by a Turkish student. That event has worsened the conflict, bringing public attention to the perceived “problem” of downtown’s pedicabs: they’re overpopulated and underregulated.
And that’s what has brought me to Martin Luther King Promenade, between First and Second Avenues, alongside the trolley tracks.
It seems incredible that someone could die here, in this innocent spot. After all, it’s a pedestrian way fenced off from the craziness of downtown, the Gaslamp, and the ballpark, a place where you might saunter with a lover or meander with your dog. Yet here Mrs. Miller fatally tumbled out of San Diego’s most benign form of public transport, a pedicab.
Suddenly, people were calling pedicab drivers “killers.” Letter-writers wanted them banned, city councilmembers wanted updates on regulation recommendations. Above all, people complained, there were just too many of them competing for customers in the restricted space of the Gaslamp and competing with cars for space on the streets, especially on Fifth Avenue. City staff admitted they issued as many permits as were requested each year, about 500 for the actual pedicabs and over 800 to “operators,” that is, the pedicab riders. Training was up to the pedicab companies. Seat belts were mandatory, but not necessarily the wearing of them. There was also evidence of tension between some American pedicab drivers and some of the foreign nationals here for the summer. Pedicab owners hiring Americans accused other owners of turning the industry into a foreign-labor sweatshop, forcing foreign students to gouge customers just to break even. Owners of pedicab fleets who hired foreign students said that these students were more motivated than American pedicabistas. Ethicists debated the morality of using humans to physically pull other humans around town.
One thing has become plain: After a century in the shadow of the internal-combustion engine, the nonpolluting pedicab, the much-maligned rickshaw, maybe the first significantly green transportation initiative since the bicycle, is back.
Mrs. Miller’s fall from an open pedicab in a pedestrian area was a frighteningly arbitrary tragedy for the Millers, and for Sukru Safa Cinar, the 23-year-old Turkish student who was the rider that Saturday morning.
From the Channel 10 report:
The fatal accident occurred shortly before noon Saturday on Martin Luther King Promenade. Retired schoolteacher Sharon Miller, who was riding in Cinar’s three-wheeled pedal taxi with a friend, fell out as he allegedly swerved side to side on the pedestrian path, where he was riding in violation of posted signs, San Diego police Assistant Chief Guy Swanger said.
The 60-year-old Illinois resident, who was in San Diego with her husband to attend a national education conference, fell onto a sidewalk and suffered a severe head injury. She was pronounced dead Sunday at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest.
How much was the surplus of pedicabs — and the accompanying, sometimes hard-edged competition — the underlying cause of the accident?
It’s around 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday night, downtown, at Fifth and Market. It’s not yet kick-the-drunks-out time (that happens around 2:00 a.m.), but everyone’s buzzed. Cafés bulge with people sitting, chatting, laughing, spending beaucoup bucks. Table candles wink, glasses clink. A guy plays a beat-up sax, another sings on the sidewalk. Open pedicabs weave slowly through, some with giggling couples aboard, others empty, giving the scene a turn-of-the-century feel — the 19th–20th century. It’s like a Pissarro or a Renoir painting. Cars push up Fifth toward Broadway, but people, pedicabs, and the bicycle cops slow traffic down. Yet the cosmopolitanizing effect of the pedicabs is palpable. Drivers shout across Fifth, in Serbian, Russian, Turkish, Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, all letting “their own” know where the business is and talking about food, later, when things have calmed down.
But it’s not calm now. “Hey, Jack!” yells a boozed-up guy who stands at the curb. His buddy’s just coming out of a bar. “Race you back to the hotel!” He points to a couple of pedicabs, and a half dozen more descend. But the friends climb aboard the original two. They egg on their riders, who head off uphill, standing on the pedals, calves straining.
A block north, a blond-haired guy leaning against his pedicab calls out to a friend across the road something like “Idi uhvatiti! Idi uloviti!” He points at a couple coming out of a restaurant, hesitating at curbside, and his friend jumps on his bike and swoops in on the innocent couple.
“It means ‘Go and catch them!’ ” the guy says. His name is Novak, and he’s a final-year student in economics from Belgrade. “We help each other out. There are maybe 30 of us Serbs here.”
There are as many as 100 pedicabs cruising the area. Their most lucrative time is the feeding frenzy that takes place between midnight and 2:00–3:00 in the morning, when the Gaslamp’s hard-core partiers start emerging from bars and gearing up to go home — to lofts downtown or to convention hotels. The ride’s too short to be profitable for a taxi and too far to walk for a high-heeled date, especially if you’re both tipsy. It’s the perfect setup for pedicabs.