Dave Cohen peddles freight for the city of Berkeley . . . well, pedals it actually.
The city's Planning Commission has turned exclusively to human power for local package delivery, enlisting the services of an unusual new business that uses specially equipped bicycles to ferry freight as heavy as 200 pounds.
"It's a win-win situation," said Berkeley's senior transportation planner, Susie Sanderson. "It's cheaper, it's entirely without environmental harm and it complies with the city's policy to minimize noise, conserve energy and emphasize non-auto travel."
Cohen is a 33-year-old environmental activist turned entrepreneur who founded the business with two friends. Wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "One Less Car," he scoots through traffic, carrying cargo on a curious contraption called a "long haul" bike. It is nearly eight feet long, with a large watertight container bolted between the seat and the front wheel. The month-old company, called PedEx, has two of them.
Cohen says PedEx is one of only two bicycle services in the nation that can handle such heavy loads. The other is the Center for Alternative Transport in Eugene, Ore.--whose founder, Jan Vander Tuin, designed PedEx's $1,400 bikes.
David Blake, chairman of the city's Zoning Board, said he was all for bicycle delivery but worried that the PedEx contraptions would have trouble in the steep and winding Berkeley hills, where many board members reside. Cohen shrugs off that concern.
"I go up there all the time," even in the rain, he said.
The company's prices are slightly less than most motorized services charge, saving the commission about $70 a month over its current courier. In an environmentally conscious city like Berkeley, an inexpensive, non-polluting parcel delivery service is a shoo-in.
"Our city manager expressed interest in the savings," said Planning Department fiscal officer Bob Fleischmann. "If we find this to be a success, we're going to notify other departments."
The Planning Commission business would bring only about $2,500 a year to the fledgling company, but it's a start. With its 43 boards and commissions, the city represents a potential gold mine for PedEx.
Company officials say they're not necessarily in business to make money. Cohen and co-founder David Carcia are longtime advocates of alternatives to the automobile. Cohen himself goes everywhere by bike.
"I look at people in cars and they look so unfortunate," he said. "We're trying to bring back a very old idea of using human power. I mean, we've almost forgotten we have bodies, pushing down little levers with our ankles in order to get around."
Cohen also runs an advocacy group called Auto-Free Bay Area, which recently sued the California Department of Transportation, joining several environmental groups in demanding that the department consider alternatives before proceeding with a project to widen Interstate 80. Carcia is treasurer of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, a bicycle advocacy group. Mike Studebaker, the third partner, runs the East Bay's only standard bike messenger service, which shares an office and dispatcher with PedEx.
Over the next few years, the three hope to expand into an environmental cooperative modeled on their counterpart in Eugene.
Their vision, the East Bay Center for Alternative Transport, would be a "unique combination of business and advocacy," said Cohen. The cooperative would operate PedEx and Studebaker Messenger Service, build human-powered vehicles for others, and lobby local governments on transportation policy issues and alternative city planning.
In recent years, Berkeley city officials have toyed with the idea of making portions of the city car-free, and UC Berkeley has become the first university in the country to convert to electric buses to shuttle students around campus.
But Cohen has even higher aspirations. He speaks of bicycle trailers and flatbeds, bikes powered by two or three riders and capable of 500-pound payloads, trans-Bay delivery services using public transportation as a link, and the use of pedicabs for local transportation rather than merely as a tourist attraction.
"People would laugh at these things now, but we won't survive without environmental solutions," said Cohen. "The whole idea is to have cities where the pedestrian is No. 1. That's the way cities used to be."