Next time some well-traveled cosmopolitan type knocks your city of San Diego as too stodgy, too touristy or too ordinary, here's a nice two-fisted backhand you may now offer in response: Unless you're from India, pal, you're standing in the only other place on the planet where you can hitch a ride in an electric vehicle. (For the sake of argument, the trolley doesn't count: too structured.)
Yessirree, as of Aug. 17, we can all give a polite round of applause to antsy entrepreneur Greg Paquette and his artist partner, Paul Basile, for hacking through a busload of red tape and opening up the Mini Cab Co downtown, this hemisphere's first all-electric personal transportation service.
While so-called low-emission vehicles (or LEVs) are now mandated in India's pollution-saturated urban areas, the Paquette/Basile spin on the concept is purely experimental and born out of personal interest.
“Paul has lived downtown for seven years,” explains Paquette about his business partner, “and I've been down here for 14. Say we would be drinking at home and wanted to go somewhere, or we're eating at a restaurant and don't want to walk six blocks back home because we're too lazy. And we don't want to take a pedi-cab, and no one likes to call taxis because they're stinky.”
And voila! The plan for an open-to-the-elements, non-polluting transport business was hatched.
“The idea was conceived Jan. 15 of 2001,” Paquette says earnestly while seated at the wheel of one of his company's signature models—the bright-white Chrysler Gem, a four-seat, 72-volt baby that somehow makes putting the words “cool” and “golf cart” together seem natural. “It was a 15-second conversation—we'd probably had a glass of wine or two—and that was it. Done.
“That was the whole planning, the market research, the everything else.”
Then came the hard part. If there's one thing this town is notorious for, it's permits. Surprising it hasn't yet required one for breathing. Without fear, Paquette and Basile took their novel idea over to the city's overlord of public transit, otherwise known as the Metropolitan Transportation District Board.
The board discovered that it had no permit on the books pertaining to such a venture. But don't fret, MTDB officials said; “it just means that the city or someone would eventually have to create one, but that shouldn't stop me from working,” Paquette says he was told.
So they leased the old Greenbaum Market Building at 6th Avenue and J Street in East Village and opened with no fanfare in February. Within a week, however, the competition started getting bitchy. Taxi and pedi-cabs operators began raising holy hell with the city (“because they feared us,” Paquette indicts), then with the Port District and finally the police.
Suddenly, the Mini Cabs were getting pulled over. Paquette says a police sergeant phoned to inquire about the vehicles. He seemed puzzled, too. “He said, ‘Well, it's a pedi-cab.' I said, ‘Well, no it's not.' ‘It's a taxicab?' ‘No, it's not.' ‘Well, it's a pedi-cab that's electric.' I said no. ‘Oh well then, it's a DMV vehicle, and that's a taxicab.' And I'm like, ‘No, the MTDB already told me it's not a taxicab.'”
Unconvinced, the clearly bewildered sergeant said police would forthwith be citing Mini Cab drivers for wildcatting-in essence, driving a taxicab without a taxi permit.
Paquette said he then “politicked” the City Council, found a champion of sorts in Councilman Byron Wear and subsequently watched his ordinance proposal languish. Then came August and the council's “legislative recess,” a fancy term for vacation.
In the meantime, the persistent pair sought help from the state Public Utilities Commission, and after a month and a half of background checks, City Attorney consultation and obtaining “a metric butt-load of insurance,” the Mini Cab Co obtained what the PUC calls a TCP (tour charter party) license.
“And here we are,” Paquette smiles behind reflective shades. For now, here in terms of headquarters means a burnt-orange, fairly dilapidated warehouse within whistling distance of the rapidly rising ballpark, where Paquette hopes to be doing some exclusive business shuttling patrons back to their cars, 80 percent of which he figures will be parked to the north on C Street.
Whether he'll get that business is another thing. “I heard it somewhere,” he deadpans. “Rumors usually start things even if they haven't even started yet. Maybe a little tunnel under the pedestrian way....”
A Marriott will begin sprouting on his leasehold in about 18 months, so more attention will likely be paid to finding new recharging digs. But that's in the future, just like the partners' plans to build stretch LEVs and eventually personal submarines for transporting suckers-er, patrons-to their underwater casino off the coast in international waters. But again, that's future-dreaming.
Last week, Mini Cab Co had a contingent of five Chrysler Gems, seen glistening around downtown like water bugs on steroids. This week, Paquette is anticipating delivery of 10 Ford Thinks, that company's LEV (also sometimes referred to as LSVs, or low-speed vehicles-they are required to stay off roads with speed limits above 35 mph). Last week's staff of 10 will likely jump significantly this week as well.
Throughout a recent visit to mission control (complete with a Dean Martin CD leaning against the window of a tiny office inside), Paquette continually fielded calls inquiring about driving jobs. “Yes, and also bring a copy of your DMV report and a photocopy of your driver's license,” he barks. “And that's 11 o'clock sharp! Alrighty?”
While on a short jaunt around downtown last week, men and women alike stare at the round-edged Gem. “It makes you feel like a celebrity,” Paquette grins. “That's cuuuute!” a woman at an intersection coos, not knowing that it's the most common reaction. Later, an overheated truck driver in the next lane smiles our way and asks, “How can I get to drive one of those things?” Paquette shouts a phone number back. Cabbies lined up outside the Westin Hotel next to Horton Plaza scowl as Paquette zips silently between them and the entrance. He reacts with a high-pitched tweet of his electric horn.
Paquette, who says he has to start a new business every three years or he'll get bored (he still oversees his Internet firm, Znetwork), thinks he has found an underserved niche of downtown traveler. Mostly tourists and conventioneers-although bar-hopping residents seem to be warming up to the idea-who need middle-range transportation anywhere from the convention center to Little Italy, a top destination for the electric cabs.
“We're huge in Little Italy,” he says. “We'll go distances that pedi-cabs cannot or will not because they don't have enough carbohydrates in their system or because of hills. But still distances that are a little too short for taxicabs. Even though they'll take it, they prefer not to.”
Rates, posted in each electric cab, vary from $3 to $10 depending on the length of the desired ride (up to 30 blocks), not the travel time involved. And the fare is calculated, simply by counting blocks, prior to departure—not at the end. “We've all experienced the cab ride where they'll want to go down Fifth Avenue on a Friday night because you've got gridlock and, ‘Oh bummer, we'll have to sit here for half an hour' while going four blocks,” Paquette laughs. “And meanwhile the meter is running.”
Local organizations are jumping out of the woodwork to back the duo's efforts. “... sets a great example to other businesses,” chirped the local Clean Fuels Coalition. “We feel that the city of San Diego should embrace this exciting new business...,” crowed the Regional Transportation Center. “... a distinctive way to help bring the downtown neighborhoods together and facilitate commerce between them,” trumpeted the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation.
And a heck of a way to breathe in the atmosphere of downtown. Oh wait, does that require a permit?