Pedicab Junction in NYC

A Manhattan Rickshaw Co. bicyclist steers through the city's mean streets. Common in Asia, rickshaws remain a novelty here. "It's fun and environmental and fills a niche," company owner Peter Meitzler says.
A Manhattan Rickshaw Co. bicyclist steers through the city's mean streets. Common in Asia, rickshaws remain a novelty here. "It's fun and environmental and fills a niche," company owner Peter Meitzler says. (Main Street Pedicabs)
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008

Among the experiences that make one go "Eek!," tooling around Manhattan in a rickshaw ranks high, falling somewhere between a cab ride during rush hour and walking through Times Square after the theaters let out. Some of the bike-drawn buggies come equipped with seat belts; others don't. You decide your threshold of thrill.

"There's a real rush going through traffic," said Jacob Press, a tour guide with the Manhattan Rickshaw Co., the longest continuously operating pedicab outfit in New York City. "We can always find a way through."

I have explored the City That Never Stops by foot, bus and bike. But on a recent trip, I wanted to sightsee in a vehicle that was intimate with the urban landscape but didn't require any energy expenditure. So I called Manhattan Rickshaw a few days before my visit and booked Press and his quads.

Rickshaws are pervasive in Asia, where the economical bicycles with big back seats jostle for space among mopeds, cars, beasts of burden and swarms of pedestrians. In the United States, they're more of a novelty than a necessity but are a rousing ride nonetheless. Though passengers are not as vulnerable as the biker, they're still thrust into the chaotic street scene.

"It's a combination of entertainment and transportation," said Manhattan Rickshaw owner Peter Meitzler, who was instrumental in bringing pedicabs to New York. "It's fun and environmental and fills a niche."

In 1994, he and a group of entrepreneurs brought a dozen pedicabs to Manhattan, a nervy experiment in a city so dependent on taxis. To drum up interest, the rides were free. Today, a number of companies send nearly 500 pedicabs onto the streets. The taxi alternatives, which can be hailed on nearly every busy corner, charge $15 to $40 for a 10- to 30-minute ride.

In Central Park, where I met my driver, pedicabs congregate alongside horse-drawn carriages, vying for passengers with a romantic streak. Some operators also employ licensed guides capable of pedaling, pointing and narrating without crashing.

"We cover a lot of ground," Press told me as I climbed into the 150-pound contraption, stashing my bags in a small compartment. "In the pedicab, you can see the landscape change and are close enough to see New Yorkers in their daily life." (Press and I vaguely discussed price and route beforehand. My only request for the 90-minute tour was to cruise through Times Square during rush hour; he balked, then conceded.)

Currently a full-time law school student, the 29-year-old New Yorker also has a master's degree in urban planning and was keen to share his advanced-degree education. "You see layers of the city," he said while pedaling away, his steady voice cutting through the street noise. "It's looking forward and backward."

In my case, I was hoping Press would spend more time glancing forward, at the oncoming traffic, than back, at me. We started with a breezy spin through Central Park, where he singled out the "Ghostbusters" building and Sheep Meadow, named for the lawnmowers of yore. As we exited the park and joined the stream of traffic, staying to the far left, Press described the passing structures, his eyes ping-ponging between me, the sites under discussion (e.g., the Plaza, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Trump Tower) and the surrounding bedlam. "We're faster than traffic," he said, swooshing around a double-parked minivan, then seamlessly returning to the bike lane.

Seated on a padded bench protected by elbow-high sides and a convertible canopy, I felt as if I was nestled in a cocoon and was at ease enough to give Press 90 percent of my attention. (The remaining 10 percent was busy being a back-seat driver: "Parked car on left!" "Pothole ahead!" "New Jersey plates coming at you!")

"We've had fender benders, but no fatalities," he said. Well, that was comforting.

From the Central Park area, Press cruised through Midtown and cut through the heart of Times Square. At 45th Street, he removed the top, and with clear skies over my head, I watched the giant faces of billboard models float by like clouds. At a red light, I eavesdropped on sidewalk life, listening to a couple discuss their theater options. I wanted to grab their newspaper and circle "Xanadu," but the light turned green.

Onward we coasted, through a living documentary of landmark structures (the Chrysler Building, the New York Public Library, the Flatiron Building), complete with narrative. Press never gasped for breath or faltered for topics. He explained such architectural designs as art deco detailing and cornices. ("They make you feel so cozy and warm.") Then he riffed on ill-behaved drivers. "I've given up on out-of-town cars," he said, referring to a sedan from Maryland that cut us off. After a Jersey driver gave us the middle-finger salute, I asked him about vehicular abuse. "I've had coffee thrown on me," he said, "and almost got doored."

When we reached Greenwich Village, about 50 blocks from Central Park, Press steered us onto narrow streets girdled by centuries-old buildings. We stopped briefly to peer through the nondescript door of a former speakeasy, then hopped back into our respective seats for a spin through SoHo and Little Italy, where Press's description of the clam pies at Lombardi's (America's first pizzeria) made me wonder if he was carb deficient.

Evening was now approaching, and Press started heading uptown. As we crawled through Chinatown, the smells of dinner scenting the air, Press pointed out one final attraction: the spot where he almost got smacked by a car door.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company