It didn't take much time with pedicab driver Jim Carter to experience firsthand the kind of treatment these no-emissions entrepreneurs endure on the surly streets of downtown San Diego.
An easygoing type who's been at the handlebars of a pedicab off and on for five years, Carter regaled a passenger one afternoon on the finer points of avoiding road mishaps, traffic tickets and the stern eye of police near Petco Park, where the city's estimated 200 or so human-powered people transporters are banned during ballgames and any other city events in an area ominously dubbed by city leaders as the "ballpark protection zone."
"Where I am now, this is illegal when there's a game," explained Carter, who had just breeched the intersection of Island and 10th avenues, three blocks north of Petco's main entrance. "Back there, I'd be OK."
Looking back, the interest in traffic-violation minutiae gave way to sheer passenger panic as a massive city bus barreled toward Carter's much-smaller pedicab, which he had stopped just momentarily at the beginning of a bus stop. Carter, ever the calm pilot, wheeled away into the street just as the bus slipped past with inches to spare. The bus driver didn't even acknowledge the near collision.
"Yeah, it's like that sometimes," he said. "That's about what bus drivers think of us, too."
Carter says "too" because there's a fairly prevalent opinion among pedicabbies that the San Diego Police Department has it out for them. And because the police don't like them, the thinking goes, it's only reasonable to assume the San Diego City Council-or at least some members-feels the same way.
The Harbor Police, on the other hand, seem to appreciate the work of pedicabbies, who annually take thousands of tourists and locals for spins all over San Diego's urban center. "The city police don't like us at all," Carter said. "The port police we get along with pretty well. The differences between the two are incredible. We actually hang out with port police sometimes just shooting the bull, but not San Diego Police."
Carter and some other pedicab veterans have had enough of what they view as transportational discrimination. Recently, Carter visited the website petitiononline.com and decided to begin a drive to have the City Council reverse its decision earlier this year to banish pedicabs from the ballpark district. As of this week, the petition had attracted 379 signatures-as well as words of encouragement for pedicabbies and derision for city leaders.
Frankie Sanchez, who has operated pedicabs in San Diego since 1996, was skeptical that Carter's petition drive would sway the City Council to reverse its January decision approving the transportation plan for the ballpark district, but he admired Carter's recognition of the problem.
"I signed it anyway," Sanchez said.
But Sanchez, who runs a fleet of pedicabs for his company, Frankie's Tours, is taking a more direct approach in dealing with City Hall. Last week, he filed a claim against the city, arguing that the transportation plan violates the state Vehicle Code by treating bicycle-related transport means differently from other vehicles. He says it also runs counter to federal law that requires the city to "promote bicycle transportation services."
The city, he argued, "did the exact opposite. Go to stadiums in San Francisco, Phoenix and Denver, and you'll find that pedicabs are the only vehicles allowed that close.... It just blows my mind that they allow taxicabs, cars and other motor vehicles that could be carrying a car bomb right up to the front door, but they don't allow bicycles up there."
San Diego is "not a bicycle-friendly town," Sanchez added. "It's really amazing. In San Diego, show me a bike lane and I guarantee if you go a mile down, it just ends. This town is so minimal on bicycle stuff, it's unbelievable."
Even at Petco, with its crowd capacity of roughly 46,000, there are only enough racks to hold 26 bicycles. This explains why bikes are tethered to practically anything-fences, poles, benches, even trees-near the ballpark on game days, Sanchez said.
San Diego police Capt. Joel Bryden said he's heard about the animosity between pedicabbies and cops but isn't buying it. "We don't dislike them," he told CityBeat. "They're small business owners just like anybody else."
But he echoed a similar refrain heard in other sunshine-dominated tourist towns that sport a pedicab industry. "There are a lot of them, and we think maybe there are too many, and that maybe there needs to be some type of regulation," the captain said.
"We want to fix this," he said. "If they think we're pickin' on them, that we don't like them, we want to get rid of that perception, because that's not true.