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San Diego puts the brakes on pedicabs

It’s a beautiful summer day and tourists are enjoying the waterfront delights: harbor cruises, the carrier Midway museum, seafood restaurants, the tall ship Star of India.

A quaint addition to the scene are the pedicab operators eager to pedal visitors to their next destination: a restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter, perhaps, or the stores of Seaport Village. Or maybe back to their hotel.

But the tourist tradition has become a civic nuisance as the number of pedicabs has soared in recent years. Competition for customers can get ugly, and some operators are breaking traffic laws, prompting calls for stricter city regulation.

The issue came into sharper focus this month when a 60-year-old Illinois woman died after tumbling from a pedicab in an area where such vehicles are banned. The pedicab did not have the required seat belts.

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Drivers from San Diego grumble about increased competition from foreign students who come to town on four-month visas to operate pedicabs. The students -- mostly from Turkey and Russia but also from Brazil, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Croatia and elsewhere -- worry about making enough money to pay their rent or next year’s tuition.

“It’s tough. The bikes are many, and there aren’t enough people to take rides,” said Emmanuel Baidoo, 22, who studies civil engineering in his native Ghana. “You need to be very psychological to convince customers to come with you.”

Most pedicab drivers sit forlornly, unable to snag any customers.

“We’ve become beggars on bikes,” said Clark Guild, 22, a San Diego State international business graduate and a pedicab driver since his teenage years.

The crush of pedicabs has turned some operators into scofflaws: cutting in and out of traffic, parking in no-parking zones, violating the no-pedicab zone next to Petco Park, racing along Harbor Boulevard in front of the Convention Center, blocking entrances to restaurants and stores.

“Any time you have something that is profitable and unregulated, you’re going to run into problems,” said pedicab owner-operator Paul Reeves, 34, a UC San Diego graduate in political science and an aspiring documentary filmmaker. “It’s gotten out of hand.”

After taking a laissez-faire attitude for two decades, the city is moving toward restricting the number of pedicabs, imposing safety and insurance regulations, and banning them from busy thoroughfares.

“We’re not trying to do away with pedicabs; they serve a useful purpose,” said acting Assistant Police Chief Guy Swanger.

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“But we are trying to create some sense of order.”

The push for pedicab regulations began two years ago when the number seemed to skyrocket as job-seeking foreign students responded to Internet ads. The reform move stalled as the city grappled with more immediate problems, including its busted budget.

In 2007, 338 pedicab permits were issued. In 2008 the number was 643, and in the first six months of 2009, 426. So far this year, 817 operator permits have been issued. A permit for a pedicab or an operator costs $40, good for 12 months.

The City Council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee passed a proposal in June to limit pedicab permits to 250 a year but place no restrictions on operator permits.

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Then, on the busy Fourth of July weekend, a retired Illinois teacher from Illinois, visiting with her husband to attend a convention, fell from a pedicab and suffered a fatal head injury.

The cab, driven by a 23-year-old student from Turkey, did not have the seat belts required by city ordinance. The driver was in an area, the Martin Luther King Promenade, where pedicabs are forbidden; some witnesses suggest he was acting recklessly.

“It really was the tragedy that was ready to happen,” said Councilwoman Marti Emerald, chairwoman of the public safety committee.

The driver was booked on suspicion of gross vehicular manslaughter. The district attorney declined to file charges, apparently deciding that the incident was an accident and that a criminal conviction was unlikely.

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With the holiday death as a backdrop, Emerald hopes the council will toughen her committee’s proposal when the matter is considered later this month. Before she was elected to the council, Emerald was an investigative reporter for a local TV station, and some of her stories focused on the pedicab industry.

Operators say they’d welcome some rules. “I don’t think any of us like it anymore,” said Guy Harinton, a pedicab driver for the last five years. At 59, he’s believed to be the oldest.

The locals would like the State Department to limit the so-called J1 visas that allow the foreign students to come for the summer. But an entreaty from City Hall on the J1 issue was unsuccessful.

A year ago, Los Angeles city officials, considering whether to allow pedicabs near Staples Center, invited the San Diego police to make a presentation. Whether what they heard scared them off the idea is unclear, but no L.A. pedicab plan is on the horizon. In San Francisco, pedicabs have long been popular with tourists in the Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf areas.

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San Diego police issue scores of tickets to pedicab operators. “Some of the operators just run amok,” said motorcycle officer Scott Thompson, moments after writing two tickets for illegal parking.

Harinton has gotten 28 tickets in five years. Part of Emerald’s proposal would address a quirk in the law that makes a ticket for a pedicab operator more expensive than one issued for the same offense to the driver of a car.

Reeves, whose documentary on the pedicabs and Harinton is called “Human Powered,” said he can make $100 on an average day, and $200 to $300 on a very good day. On New Year’s Eve, he raked in $800 as tipsy revelers rode to after-hours joints or their hotels.

The good days are dwindling, Reeves said. He backs Emerald’s proposed regulations.

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“I believe in a win-win situation,” he said. “Right now, nobody’s winning.”

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tony.perry@latimes.com


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