Pedicabs on the Mall: Fun for tourists or unsafe ride?

John Kelly
Columnist July 4, 2011

Tourmobile buses are long and flexible, but there’s one thing they are not flexible about: the prospect of other wheeled conveyances encroaching on their territory.

“We’re the only concessionaire that is authorized to solicit on the National Mall for tours and transportation,” said Carla Longshore, president of Tourmobile.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

But where do pedicabs — human-powered bicycle rickshaws — fit into the equation?

No one seems to know for sure, but what is certain is that pedicab drivers who once prowled the Mall and monuments think there has been a crackdown on them in recent months.

“I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden this year, it’s come down in a weird way where Park Police have been making it very difficult for us,” said Brian Graber, who has driven a pedicab since 2009. Pedicab drivers tell me they’ve been rousted from their longtime waiting spots, ordered to discharge passengers and had to watch as U.S. Park Police and Park Service personnel tell tourists they shouldn’t use pedicabs.


Robert Hart, who works for Capitol Pedicabs, says that a Park Police officer recently kicked passengers — a family of four —out of his pedicab. (John Kelly/WASHINGTON POST)

Robert Hart, who pedals for Capitol Pedicabs, said that last month at the Jefferson Memorial, a Park Police officer told Hart’s passengers — a family of four, including two disabled children — that they had to exit his pedicab.

“Why are they making them feel like criminals for taking a pedicab ride?” Robert asked. (Robert said he pedaled a short distance away and picked the family up again.)

The Park Police did not return my calls asking for comment, but Park Service spokesman Bill Line said safety is a concern. “Driving cars the way Washingtonians drive cars, I’m fearful of somebody becoming severely injured” in a pedicab, he said.

Robert insists pedicabs are safe. He said he has seen more tourists take tumbles from Segways than pedicabs.

Part of the problem is that Washington’s pedicab fleet, about 85, is unregulated. Passengers haggle on the price. The bikes are not inspected. In April 2010, the D.C. Department of Transportation proposed rules — including no riding on sidewalks, no riding on streets with speed limits of more than 30 mph, seat belts for passengers — but they were never instituted.

Graber said he would welcome guidelines. “We’re not like a bunch of anarchists running around yelling ‘[expletive] the police,’ ” he said. “We would like to work in a manner that works for both of us. It seems to be that they don’t want us anywhere in sight. And that doesn’t sit well with us.”

Drivers say the city should be embracing them, since they provide a green alternative to taxis and buses.

I can see how it would be galling for Tourmobile to see pedicab drivers hanging out in spots designated for their buses, but banning them from the Mall completely seems extreme. Aren’t taxicabs allowed to pick up and drop off people on the Mall? (Not really, said Tourmobile. Yes, said cabdrivers I spoke with.)

“Until such time as the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior decide on a different mode of transportation on the Mall, I think we should adhere to the rules and regulations of the contract,” said Tourmobile’s Carla.

The last thing we need is for the blighted D.C. Taxi Commission to enter this, but it does seem that someone owes the pedicab drivers a straight answer to this question: How are they supposed to do their jobs? Or does the city not want them at all?

Send a Kid to Camp

I came across some letters my daughters wrote to me years ago from summer camp. They’re wonderful snapshots. Do you have any old camp letters that make fun reading? E-mail some snippets, with “Camp Letters” in the subject line, to kellyj@washpost.com.

And don’t forget that I’m raising money for Camp Moss Hollow, a camp that has served Washington’s neediest kids since 1966. To make your tax-deductible gift, go to www.washingtonpost.com/camp. Click where it says “Give Now,” and designate “Send a Kid to Camp” in the gift information. Or mail a check payable to “Send a Kid to Camp” to Send a Kid to Camp, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.

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