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.
Novak says the word’s out in Serbia’s colleges that San Diego is the place to pick up summer money and learn English and keep fit, all at the same time. “This is a summer-vacation thing. Earn money, travel ’round California and maybe Mexico. I’ve been here 45 days. There are too many pedicabs, but the money’s not bad. Physically, you get in shape in two or three weeks. But it’s hard mentally. You may have a whole day with no money. Even if you don’t have a ride, you have to pay the daily lease of $35. But once you get above $35, you can relax. Some start at 8:00 in the morning and stay all day. I start around 1:00 in the afternoon and quit after last call. Most customers are tourists. Locals get in when they’re drunk. For me, the best tippers are foreigners. People from England. But tourists from Texas are good, too.”
A couple of guys cruise past, looking for business.
“We are Kurds, from Turkey,” Vahap says, when I catch up. He and Abdullah had high hopes for this trip. “We have been riding for two weeks. In Turkey, everybody says about USA, it’s a good country, everything will be good because you are students. We came here through a company. It cost us about $3000 in exits, passport, visa. We had to borrow.”
“We come to U.S.,” continues Abdullah, “and it’s really for us very bad. They lied to us. The company here is okay, but the Turkish company lied. They said we’d have a place to live. But they brought us to a hotel, and now we pay $600 each. Six living in one room. We have to work all day and night to pay this rent and then $150 a week for each pedicab. And we have to eat. We are not making any money. There are too many riders, not enough customers.”
“We gave $1200 for this form,” says Vahap, pulling out his J-1, the 120-day student work-study application. “But they are free.”
Vahap is a second-year student in Turkey, art history and journalism. Abdullah studies history and language. They’re both 21.
“We were keen to come here,” says Vahap. “But our families warned us. We have ten friends who flew back to Turkey this week. They couldn’t survive. We must work and at least have some money. We are planning to leave at the end of this month.”
Yes, says Abdullah, they knew Sukru Safa Cinar, the Turkish student who had the accident. “He has flown back to Turkey. I saw him. He was in a very, very bad state. He cried. He said [Mrs. Miller and her friend] came and asked the price. They sat down, and he started the ride, and the woman stood up on the bike and was dancing. He said, ‘When I turned back and saw her, she fell off.’ The other woman said he [Cinar] hadn’t made any mistake. That’s why the judge freed him. If she said he had [been weaving back and forth], he would have been charged. Yet now people say bad things to us. ‘You are killers!’ ‘I don’t want to die.’ Normally, we took about $60–$70 a day. Now everybody’s waiting for customers.”
Vahap and Abdullah have been friends since childhood. “We came here to see another culture,” Vahap says. “We have been working every summer since we were nine years old. But now, this fall, we will go back, and no money. It will be very difficult to afford books and accommodation at university. And it is already hard being Kurdish. Abdullah and I are the only ones. Turks don’t like Kurdish people.”
I can see from their struggles with English how much harder it must be for them to charm tourists than their more fluent brothers and sisters.
Paulie has no such problem. She’s a spunky girl-rider who has her pedicab parked near the Asti restaurant. “Yes, there are too many of us,” she says. “There should be a limit of 300. People are starting to get sick of us. It’s not like an entertainment thing in the city anymore. Too many riders shouting, ‘Pedicab! Pedicab!’ It’s not funny.”
Paulie says she studies economics at the New Bulgarian University. She learned about the pedicab job through an outfit called International Educational Exchange. She thinks the accident has been played up too much. “There is a crash with cars every second. It hasn’t helped our business. But I’ll stay till September 20, because I love the city. It’s beautiful, clean, so safe. And it’s sunny. That’s my god, the sun. I think San Diego is a city of heaven. Oh…excuse me.”
She has just spotted two men, potential customers, across the road. Men like to be driven by women, just as women prefer male drivers. I watch Paulie coast with her passengers down the gentle slope of F, toward Fourth. She turns in her seat and chats, and the guys laugh out loud. They’re having a good time, nice and slow. You don’t get this in a taxicab.
On the Embarcadero, most days, the J-1’s (as the American drivers call the foreign pedicab drivers) make their play at the Midway, where the aircraft carrier’s visitors come out looking for a way back to downtown. Americans stake a spot by the Coronado ferry landing, where folks from the ferry and the Star of India are likely to want a ride to Seaport Village or up to Horton Plaza. There’s nothing official about this. Just an unspoken territorial agreement.
“All right, sir…
where can I take you today?” asks Rudy Diggs, wheeling his pedicab to intercept a line of tourists that climbs the gangplank from an arriving ferry. Diggs is tall, African-American, and he doesn’t have to shout, not with his resonant tones. He’s full of come-on one-liners. “Young ladies? Save those feet, use this seat. Sunglasses get discounts. Why stroll when you can roll?”
“Take a carriage, save the marriage!” chimes his buddy Matt Williams. Matt has weathered cheeks and a red beard and has been pedicabbing for ten years. He wears a green T-shirt that says, “Sometimes I pee when I laugh.”
“Save the heels, use the wheels,” Rudy says. “Actually, that line’s better in the evenings.”
“Carryout to the Marriott…”
The guys, including a taxicab driver named Mark Stauffer, who leans against his orange Ramona Cab car, all laugh. Mark’s been stationing his cab here for 30 years.
“If you get somebody to smile, it breaks the ice,” Rudy says.
None of the ferry passengers takes the bait. “When the J-1s leave in September, then I start prospering,” Matt says. “Except, then, right around Christmastime, here come the J-1s from South America. It started with a trickle, maybe 10 Brazilians, like four years ago. Now it’s climbed to 150, from Colombia, Chile, all over South America.”
“Why do they let so many [foreigners] come?” says Rudy, who is himself relatively new to the game. “They should have a ratio, like two of us to every one of them. Not four of them to one of us.
“This is what I do to eat, pay my bills. I mean, I know this is America: This is the melting pot. People are going to come from everywhere. Still though, man, when people are just out here visiting and they’re taking [our jobs], it really hurts.”
“I feel bad for the people who have to deal with it, like the tourists,” says Mark. “Some don’t even speak English. They give tours when they’re not even from here. Me, I’m San Diego born and raised. I speak English. I consider myself a professional conversationalist. Most of the rides go to Seaport Village, the Star of India, Gaslamp, ballpark, tours. It’s a fun way to get somewhere. If it was up to me, I’d just let Americans be out here. [The foreigners] trick people. They say ‘$10.’ Then they get to the destination, and they say, ‘Oh, I meant $10 a person.’ That gets us all a bad name.”
Farther down the Embarcadero, I again run into Abdullah Akan, the Kurdish student, riding toward the Star of India, trolling for business. In the daylight, I notice that his left arm has been badly burned. “That happened when I was a child, and the Turkish army attacked our village,” he says. “They came through in armored cars and started machine-gunning our houses. My mother and I lay down on the floor. A pot of boiling water was knocked down by the bullets.” He says how lucky people are here in America. How everything is done by machines. “Traffic is safer. In Turkey, every ten minutes there’s a crash.” And, he says, nobody here has to spend three months going up into the mountains to collect wood (for fires to heat the house) for the next winter. “It’s very different here, about life, arts, culture. But the big shock for me was seeing many homeless people. At home, if somebody has a problem, everybody in the community helps them. Here, people are harder than I believed.”
How do American pedicab drivers treat him? “Some, not good. An American driver in front of the Hyatt said, ‘I have worked here five years. All Turkish drivers need to go home.’ We have to wait in a line for the customers, while they go straight to the front and take customers. Every time.”
He points to the old sailing ship. “Here, I took from the Star of India four people. The American rider said to my passengers, ‘Just give him a dollar.’ I took them four blocks, and they gave me just one dollar. I didn’t say anything.”
A motorcycle cop rumbles past. I notice he’s been speaking to some of the American pedicab guys at the ferry wharf. I’m on my bike, so I pedal like crazy after him and ask if we can talk. “Come under the pine trees where it’s cool,” he says.
Officer Scott Thompson says that, yes, he knows quite a bit about pedicab issues because he’s one of two officers who have been working out the regulations the city council is considering to clear up some of the problems.
“It’s not an easy issue,” he says. “Bicycle laws are in place, but the vast number of pedicabs makes them difficult to enforce. My partner and I have been working on the new ordinance for two years. The aim is to create laws that are easier to enforce, to reduce the numbers, and to bring pedicab [laws] more into line with those for cars.”
And, yes, he interviewed Sukru Safa Cinar, the Turkish student whose passenger died. “He was devastated when he found out the woman died. He was a good student, hoping to do his master’s here in the U.S. He was clearly remorseful. He in no way anticipated that she would fall out of his cab, hit her head, and die. Witnesses said he was moving from left to right. I think he was probably just showing the ladies a good time. Pedicab owners are required to maintain $1 million in insurance. I’m sure they [the company he leased his pedicab from] will be hearing from the family. The pedicab did not have seat belts.”
So are foreign students the root of the town’s pedicab problems? “They’re causing competition, that’s for sure,” he says. “And the foreign student may not have the pride in the industry that [local drivers] do. Someone who’s only here a few months may be more likely to gouge the consumer pricewise because they’re leaving. Unlike these guys.” He points to where Matt and Rudy and others are still gathered at the ferry landing. “They have to keep their reputation.”
There’s no way the city can set quotas for foreign students, Thompson says. “That’s an immigration issue. The State Department is currently allowing J-1 students to operate pedicabs. So we can’t step in.”
Thompson says the recently passed city ordinance, which he helped to craft, should help. “Hopefully, the ordinance moves forward. Then a lot of things begin to take effect — the licensing of the pedicabs, equipment requirements, and vehicle inspections — in order for them to get their permits next year, starting in January. The number hasn’t been solidified, but pedicab-leasing companies would be required to reduce their fleet by certain percentages.”
He says the current proposal is to limit the number of pedicabs in restricted geographical zones, places where oversaturation causes traffic problems, to 250.
So is the city borrowing ideas from other cities — New York, for instance? “Actually, no,” Thompson says. “New York has had a problem with pedicabs for years. They’ve limited their numbers.” And the result? “They’ve had court injunctions placed on that because of restricting fair trade.”
Why would San Diego set itself up for similar suits by restricting cab numbers here?
It’s Gay Pride Saturday. Roasting hot in the sun. The blast of music and cheers echo as people head to the post-parade concert. Dozens of pedicabistas have puffed up the hill from downtown to capitalize on what was traditionally one of the most lucrative days on their calendar.
The scrappy blond guy at the head of the line is Sergei Kslytsyn. He looks fresh and cool in the full sun. “It gets hot in summer where I live. I am from Siberia. From Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake. I’m a Russian fighter, hand-to-hand fighter, kickboxing. I am going to Vladivostok to compete when I get back. I study at my university in Irkutsk to become an engineer in oil drilling. I will work for British Petroleum — BP — over there. This job is quite difficult. I am making maybe $200 a week. But we must pay for our boss $150 rent. I am working 15 hours a day. I start at 7:00 in the morning and work till bars close. There are maybe 100 Russian students here. I looked for this job, any job [in America], on the internet in Siberia.”
While we talk, a Gay Pride reveler jumps into another pedicab that’s behind Sergei in the line. The pedicab takes off.
“Hey!” calls Sergei. I wonder if he’s going to use his hand-to-hand fighting skills.
But I’m already on my way to the 7-Eleven’s parking lot at Fourth and Robinson. I’m hoping to find Paul Reeves, the pedicab documentary-maker.
Today, Paul’s like all the other pedicabistas. He’s out to make a buck off Gay Pride craziness.
“I started doing this in May of 2006,” he says. “I was living downtown and saw a lot of [pedicab] bikes and thought it would be good exercise and would supplement my income. I was teaching ESL [English as a second language] at the time. It was a perfect match with the pedicab business, because with both, you’re dealing with people from all over the world.
“I started riding and realized I could just solely ride and pay my bills, which afforded me other opportunities. With teaching, you have to stick to the course book, and once you finish, you go back and start over. It didn’t leave much room for creativity. So I went full-time with the pedicab, and that left me time to study for my real-estate broker’s license. And soon I started to sell some real estate. But, of course, lately that market hasn’t been good, so I’m relying on my pedicab. I strive to make $500 a week, not including special events. Today, Gay Pride, I should clear $500. We’ll have this, New Year’s Eve, St. Patrick’s Day, Comic-Con. These are like bonuses.”
But then the accident, Sharon Miller’s death, happened. “The larger part of our business comes from females because they wear high heels, and they don’t like to walk as much, and men want to impress them by paying for a pedicab. They are good for our business, so this was really unfortunate. And the police have reacted. Before that accident, I hadn’t had a pedicab violation for two years. Since, I’ve had three tickets. I got two for being in a three-minute loading zone, and I was there less than three minutes. I got a ticket less than half an hour ago. I pulled over in a red zone to take a drink of water. Within 30 seconds, two police officers drove up on me. I think it’s a $650 fine, but the judge will drop that down. I believe it was more harassment than keeping the streets safe. I don’t want to badmouth the police, but that accident has fostered a negative relationship between them and us.”
By the time of the accident, Paul was wrapping the movie-length documentary Human-Powered (uandiproductions.com) that he and his friend Rigo Reyes had been making since last summer. They concentrated on one man, possibly the oldest pedicab driver in San Diego, Guy Harinton, who was 59 at the time of filming. Paul gives me a DVD of the doc. I take it home and watch 90 riveting minutes of Guy Harinton facing the daily frustrations of the pedicab rider.
Like, nighttime, down near the convention center.
“Folks! How about a little ride back to the hotel. Star of India? Ten dollars per person for that much of a distance. It’s a great deal.” A woman in a group of three revelers says she won’t pay more than $20 total. The men with her agree. “I can’t compete with a cab, folks,” Guy tells them. “I can’t go all that way for $20, folks. That’s a mile or more. I’m not doing that.” The group gets out of the pedicab and goes looking for a standard taxi.
There are occasional moments of relief, such as after last year’s profitable Comic-Con run. Harinton, a one-time compulsive gambler, heads off with his money to lose big at Del Mar. Later, after rebuilding his savings, he goes down to TJ for a little (fully documented) fun with the ladies. Throughout the film, he expresses frustration with the competing summer students. The most explosive moment comes when he boils over at the Embarcadero. He erupts after a Turkish rider takes customers in search of the already-departed amphibious bus tour.
“God, I hate them,” he says with fervor. “Why can’t I kill one of them little fuckers? In fact, you want to film me hitting that guy? You can. I’ll allow you to do that. If he gives me any lip, I’m going to smash him right in the face. And then I expect you two to back me up on that. Witnesses. You will, won’t you?”
When the real, actual Guy Harinton turns up here in the San Diego Harbor Excursion’s Bay Cafe, he’s a lot more relaxed, tanned, in shorts and T-shirt and baseball cap. That doesn’t mean he’s learned to love the foreign students.
“The first few years I did this, I got along with them fine,” he says. “One of my best friends is Turkish. He lives up in L.A. now. He got out of the business. A very, very nice young man. Most of them are not that way. But, see, he’s Americanized. A lot of the ones that now have their own companies started out as riders. They rode and rode and saved their money, and they have their green cards. I have no problem with that. It’s just the ones that come over for the 120-day visas.”
He checks the little yellow page he writes up each day, so he doesn’t miss any “appointments,” opportunities to intercept partying travelers. “Let’s see: Amtrak; the Coaster for the ballgame; hotels for dinner hour. Now, today, there aren’t any concerts or anything, so I put down what I have to get at the grocery store. I do my shopping on the bike. I live downtown. It’s much easier.”
Often, one of his “can’t miss” reminders is for Pat Edmundson, a Willis Allen Real Estate agent who lives and works downtown. Edmundson uses Harinton regularly for trips around the area. Having regular, local customers is new for Harinton. And who knows? This might be the harbinger of a greener, more pleasant way for everybody to get around downtown. “Pat used to use friends [of mine] who had pedicabs. But they moved to Texas. So she said, ‘Guy, I’m going to start calling you.’ That was 2 1/2 years ago. She called me today. We would all love to cultivate regulars from those who live downtown. But hardly any of the guys have them.” One reason Harinton does is because “I’m always available because I ride so much, year-round, not just in summer. I clocked 3810 miles this last ten months. That’s like San Diego to Florida and up to New York. Also, most wouldn’t be able to take Pat because she’s demanding. She has to be places on time. The nice thing about me is I know where she goes: her hairdresser, her chiropractor, her office next to Dick’s Last Resort. Then to Ralphs. She goes there a lot. I charge her $7 each way. A normal customer would be $12.”
But can you earn money at this game? “Saturday in Balboa Park at the Gay Pride weekend, that had to have been one of my record days,” Harinton says. “I rode almost 33 miles in one day. Earnings-wise, I made about $450. Last year I made $700. That was because of Proposition 8. They were all assuming it wasn’t going to pass. They were all happy about that. But this has been a down year. Not as many people from out of town. Comic-Con used to be really good. My first year, 2004, I made over $1350 in three days. I didn’t even work the Sunday. But last year, I made about $700.”
He has insight on the accident because Sukru Safa Cinar leased his bike from the same shop where Harinton keeps his. “[The owner] Danny’s a good friend of mine. He’s a Brazilian, and he leased this bike to the kid, and wouldn’t you know, that was one of the only ones he didn’t have the chance to put the seat belt on. And the way I understand it, the kid took it by mistake. And wouldn’t you know that would have to be the one?”
Cinar’s other big mistake, says Harinton, was taking the ladies to the Martin Luther King promenade. “This was Fourth of July. He had to weave around pedestrians. I don’t believe he was weaving [to show off]. That’s why they’re classifying it as an accident. He was weaving [to maneuver] around people. But you don’t have to weave if you don’t go where you’re not supposed to [the narrow walkway beside the trolley tracks]. The sign’s right there. ‘No pedicabs.’ But again, a lot of them can’t speak English too good. I say if you can’t read and understand English, why are you here? Personally, I would not allow the J-1s. These kids, from Turkey and Russia, most of them, no matter how new they are when you bring them in, the ones who are [already] here are going to teach them to rob people. That’s their m.o. Especially the ones from Turkey. They hate Americans. They’re Muslims.”
Maybe the only person more anti-J-1 than Harinton is 27-year-old Alex Atkin. Atkin’s Little Italy–based pedicab business, Alley Cabs, refuses to lease to J-1s. Atkin is cynical about the council’s rush to action with last month’s recommendations to cap the number of cabs as well as the number of drivers. He’s sees a lawsuit–rich atmosphere favoring what he calls the “J-1” shops and believes the city’s solutions are an ill-thought-out knee-jerk reaction to the accident.
“I’ve been coming to the city council since 2004,” he says, “and the city has dedicated absolutely no attention or political will to addressing this problem until now. And now they’re just focused on passing these rules that have not been debated in the public. At the committee meeting that passed these rules, 3 spoke in favor of them, 20 people spoke out against them. The 3 in favor all owned 70-plus cabs.”
The problem, says Atkin, is that all ships will sink equally when the mandatory shrinkage of pedicabs occurs. So Atkin’s, who are American and operating year-round, will be treated on an equal footing with summer-only students from ’Stanbul.
“What they did is, there is a list of all the companies and how many permits they bought as of July 31. Like, my company says 27, Ballpark says 130 or something, West Coast says 80. And, basically, they just took every company and chopped it in half. That is not a good way to do it because not all companies are equal. It’s going to cause me to lose half my bikes. I have about 30 people. And such a small percentage of the [drivers out there] are American. Like, right now, there might be 50 drivers on the street. About 45 of them are ‘visitor’ drivers. Only 5 are American. [The other shops] would like to be rid of the Americans. That includes the owners.”
And Atkin says that the city proposal doesn’t address price gouging. “The city says they’re going to have a standardized size of the font [for the lettering on a fare sign], but they’re going to let the drivers make up their own language for how much they want to charge. This market is so easy to work in, there should be a standardized rate sheet for every driver, for everywhere in the city, $5…$10 for every 15 minutes. There’s guys out there right now, they’ve been here for a week or two, and [their rate card] says, ‘$20–$50 per person.’ That ruins it for everyone. That’s the exact opposite of what you want to have happen. You should be doing a lot of inexpensive rides. Because if people don’t get in pedicabs, they get in taxicabs instead. So you get taxicabs taking people a couple of blocks. That’s unprofitably short for taxis. Pedicabs should be complementing the taxicabs.”
Atkin believes you can regulate the market best by only regulating the number of drivers. “The market only needs 150–250. When the city says, ‘We’re going to cap the market,’ the bikes are a less important component than the drivers are. These guys have their bikes in empty garages. When their drivers show up, their company is working. You can’t have a company without drivers. But the city is saying, ‘We’re going to place all the value on the bikes.’ In 2007, Ballpark Pedicab recruited 400 drivers for their 100 bikes. So they’re recruiting at a four-to-one ratio. Is that going to stop, just because they don’t have as many bikes to rent out? Are they going to fight with their lawyers over every permit every time they have an opportunity? Are they going to push out the little guy? Whenever there’s a permit available, Ballpark is going to buy it up, buy it up, buy it up, until they own all of them.
“There’s a vehicle cap and an operator [driver] cap. I support [only] an operator cap because that way we can prevent the flood of drivers that comes in.”
Atkin has mixed feelings about Officer Thompson, too. “He has good intentions, but he’s not trained to write legislation. He is very involved, and he’s good about talking and people. But the rules that Thompson’s proposing put the burden on the police, who don’t want to deal with this problem anymore. It’s ‘Okay, the cops are going to write a lot of tickets, and that’s going to clean things up.’ But the city doesn’t have the resources to play cat and mouse with the pedicab owners. I would set an operator cap at 250. And starting January 1, come and buy one. You only buy one for yourself. Once you sell 250, you stop selling it. That’s it. It doesn’t cost anything. It would last for a year. Or quarterly. Right now, the city sells the permits for $25 each, and last year they sold 1500 of them. So it’s about $40,000 and 1300 people. That’s a huge burden to have that many people. My position is, just sell 250 but sell them for $400, and that way you make $100,000. So you’re more than doubling your [city] revenue and cutting way down on the amount of paperwork. The city wins with less work, and fewer rules to write and enforce, fewer drivers in the street. We want to have a small group of qualified local drivers. Not a large group constantly turning over.
“The whole idea of having people who are traveling to San Diego and working while they’re living here for the summer isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s just wrong when you’re recruiting people only to come and pedicab. I’ve had plenty of people…like a guy from Australia is here for two years. I’m happy to let him ride the bike. He lives here. His main function isn’t to sap money to take home with him. He’s a functioning participant in the economy here.”
Atkin says, yes, he’s been called a racist. He laughs. “It’s difficult.” He pauses. “The pedicab industry has been hijacked by a visa scam. And nobody wants to do anything about it.”
So, does it take a woman’s death to force the city into action?
“Alex and I have spoken,” says city councilmember Marti Emerald, who runs the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, charged with looking into this issue. “I think we’re pretty much on the same page. It’s important to not only regulate the number of cabs and to make sure that they all have permits and insurance and safety equipment but also to limit the number of people who can operate the permits. Because, right now, these pedicab operators are not required to have California driver’s licenses. It’d be a permit, a city-issued permit that would limit the number of drivers and the number of pedicabs as well. As a journalist, I did some stories on this issue for Channel 10. And the business model that’s being used by some of these pedicab companies is driven by the foreign students, who are enticed to come here with promises of lucrative jobs. They wind up starving, paying cash up front to rent these pedicabs. So the owners of the pedicabs are making out because they’re making free money, and these kids are out there scrambling, working very long hours. They don’t know the rules of the road, they’re not licensed drivers, and some of them don’t even speak our language. They don’t understand. And they’re so desperate for money, they wind up gouging consumers, nickel-and-diming consumers on rides, and what we saw a few weeks ago was that, in some cases, that could endanger the passengers. This poor woman, Mrs. Miller, who died when she fell out of a pedicab, that was a worst-case scenario. It was part of our concern when back in June we first started talking about it in my Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, and [it’s] why we approved a draft ordinance to create more oversight and some regulation to protect the public.
“What I would want to do is limit the number of operator — rider — permits to two per pedicab, so you create two jobs on each pedicab.”
Finally, Emerald says, she wants to have every pedicab driver obliged to have a California driver’s license before they venture out. That could take another year to organize.
From the citizen’s point of view, it’s a Hobson’s choice. On the one hand, it would be good to get predictable prices, less of a scramble out there, maybe even designated pedicab lanes, and qualified drivers. On the other hand, this whole Prague Spring, which has created such a spontaneous United Nations atmosphere in the Gaslamp, in summer, at least, would probably fade. Many feel that the purist approach to Old Town has sapped some of its essential spirit: Might we lose something by being puritanically fair?
As for Guy Harinton, despite his prejudices, which don’t make a pretty sight, there’s a lot to admire. Not least, the health benefits of what he does.
“About 2 1/2 years into this, my doctor at the VA said, ‘Guy, do you mind me asking what you do for a living? Because whatever it is, I’d like to do it too. Your vital stats are amazing for a man of your age!’
“I told her what I did, and she said the only exercise she’d put ahead of what we do riding pedicabs would be cross-country skiing. A normal person would burn 1000 calories in a day. Pulling weight, on a day like Saturday, I probably burned 6000–8000 calories. I had a really bad back when I started this, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. I have fused vertebrae. I was overweight, I was in constant pain. My arthritis has been bothering me lately, but not when I pedal. Because it moves the knee. She said, ‘With arthritis in both knees, how do you [do it]?’ But I don’t even struggle. I don’t breathe hard. One night about a year ago, I took five people — almost 900 lbs. — [from the waterfront] to Horton Plaza, going uphill. Nine hundred pounds! Three sitting down, two on the lap. They said, ‘No way!’ I said, ‘Folks, I can do it. I’m not going to go very fast.’ I was in 1-1, the lowest gear. I was going to charge them $75, $15 per person. I charged $70. That was a lot of work for me. They gave me $110, a $40 tip. The guy said, ‘We’re just amazed that at your age you were able to do this.’ So it’s not all bad. And, hey, I enjoy going to Tijuana. I’m almost 60 years old, and that’s how I get my fun and entertainment. I’m thankful to the good Lord that I can still do, well, you know what. But that’s thanks to the riding.”