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Teenager Colin McCarty’s first startup is a pedicab business serving Minneapolis’ Warehouse District.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Electric pedicab idea sparks City Council debate

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER
  • Star Tribune
  • July 6, 2012 - 9:36 PM

The Minneapolis pedicab industry has grown from nothing to 80 drivers in just four years. Now some at Minneapolis City Hall want to give the pedal-powered people movers an electric boost.

Following a change in state law, Council Member Cam Gordon is proposing new city rules that would allow pedicabs to have small motors that aid in pedaling. It could pave the way for European-style pedicabs that, unlike current models on Minneapolis streets, are semi-enclosed and heavy enough to necessitate electric assistance.

"It will be an economic opportunity for lots of individuals," Gordon said. "It has the potential to expand the use of pedicabs when it's raining, when it's colder outside. That I think will encourage people to use their car less."

But the proposal, which got a nod from the city's Bicycle Advisory Committee, has prompted fierce opposition from one of the most prominent pedicab advocates on the City Council.

"Once you start allowing electric motors to assist, you ruin the authenticity and the charm and the purpose of a pedicab," said Council Member Gary Schiff, who thinks the change is unnecessary and "will alter a really good thing that we have going in Minneapolis."

Schiff also worried that it will lead to vehicles that are more focused on advertising revenue than transportation.

The man behind the idea is a 40-year-old warehouse worker, Bill Beekman, who had a dream of bringing German-engineered pedicabs with polyethylene shells to the streets of Minneapolis. They feature battery-assisted motors which make pedaling easier, but do not independently move the cab.

When he approached city officials, Beekman learned that both state law and city ordinances made his plan legally impossible.

An assist from the Legislature

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, took up the cause and introduced legislation including electric-assisted bicycles in the state definition of a bicycle, allowing them to use bike trails and bikeways. The bill, which targets motors creating under 1,000 watts of power and incapable of creating speeds over 20 miles per hour, passed this year.

Dibble said he learned about the issue from Beekman, but soon realized that electric-assist bicycles have broader recreational benefits for the area's aging population. "These are the kind of bikes that allow people to keep biking," Dibble said.

Now Beekman needs to change Minneapolis ordinances, which state prominently that "a pedicab is not power assisted."

"We took great pains to exclude these," said Schiff, who authored the language.

Progressive or purist?

Beekman concedes that Schiff's objection "makes sense," but says it represents a "purist opinion." "My retort to that would be anything that can get people away from combustion engines I think is progress," said Beekman, who also drives part time for Twin Town Pedicabs.

Gordon said people would still have a choice and the free market will decide whether this is a viable idea.

"But right now we've got a major obstacle on some small businesses that want to try and do something different," Gordon said.

Colin McCarty, owner of Twin Town, the largest pedicab operation in the city, said they do not have a firm position on Gordon's proposal. He hopes that any change will not disturb the "warm fuzzy feeling" people have about pedicabs in Minneapolis.

McCarty has a few electric motors for pedicabs in his shop, but does not plan to start using them on a daily basis if the ordinance changes. "I might use them on the rare occasion when I was doing a wedding and had to bring people up a huge hill or something," McCarty said.

Gordon announced his intention to introduce the proposal last Friday. The exact language may be released in several weeks.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper

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