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The other people mover

It’s environmentally friendly, but will it take off in Motown?

People power: Steve Christensen gives the author a lift.
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Published 8/31/2005

Game day for Detroiters means one thing — lots of walking. Most of the major parking lots downtown are a considerable distance from the stadia. Closer lots are usually exorbitantly priced and snarled in a nightmare of traffic.

Detroiter Steve Christensen has a simple and fun solution.

While downtown on one of his many biking excursions, Christensen passed a surface lot near Comerica Park and noticed a sign that advertised a five-minute walking time to the ballpark.

“I thought to myself, I can get there in one minute,” Christensen says.

Motor City Rickshaw was born.

The rickshaw, common in Southeast Asia, is a foot-powered taxicab; a runner draws a two-wheeled cart that can hold two passengers. In the late 1800s in India, traders in the packing districts used them to transport goods, and Chinese rickshaw operators applied for permission to move human cargo in 1914.

Rickshaws were typical first jobs for peasant migrants to the major cities of Southeast Asia. Their popularity grew into the image of Asian transportation now typical in such areas as Edinburgh Place on Hong Kong Island.

Today, cycled or electric-powered rickshaws called pedicabs have replaced runners — hand-rickshaws are being banned around Asia as an inhumane practice. In the United States, pedicabs originated in San Francisco in the early 1990s as an environmentally friendly mode of transportation (and a popular tourist attraction). The idea soon spread across the country to New York, New Orleans, San Diego, Denver and other cities.

In 2002, Christensen registered the name Motor City Rickshaw with the city of Detroit as a D.B.A. (doing business as). At the time, Christensen was attending Wayne State Law School and couldn’t find the time to get the company moving. But after failing the bar examination, he found himself with plenty of time on his hands. “I had the idea and now I figured I’d give it a try for a while,” says the impossibly energetic rickshaw proprietor.

Before Christensen can operate Motor City Rickshaw, Detroit City Council must pass an ordinance setting forth regulations for the operators. In his attempts to set parameters for using rickshaws in Detroit, he noticed that two other industrious people had already petitioned the city for an ordinance; he added his. Along with his petition, Christensen drafted a proposed pedicab ordinance and submitted it to the city planner.

“I researched ordinances in San Diego, Windsor, Traverse City, Ashland, [Ore.,] and others,” Christensen says.

His ordinance designates licensing regulations, standards and maps of where a pedicab can operate. The ordinance — in conjunction with the city clerk’s wishes — describes the implementation of standard rates (i.e. no screwing the tourists).

For now, Christensen offers free rides downtown to friends and onlookers to establish his business until the ordinance is passed. “I want to make this a legit business,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the renegade rickshaw guy and piss off the city.”

Rickshaws are made in many countries, including the United States. Main Street Pedicab (pedicab.com) of Broomfield, Colo., operating since 1992, sells a variety of pedicabs costing from $1,000 to $4,000. That’s before upgrades, like electric assist motors, canopies and personalized advertising frames.

Main Street Pedicabs owner Steve Myer says, “The typical buyer is someone interested in operating pedicabs as a business. Then another type of buyer is someone with a vacation home, typically near the coast where it is difficult to park or get around. Pedicabs are a way of getting the family around on a bicycle.”

Main Street also offers pedicabs for other types of transportation. The Pedal Express is a 21-speed cargo bike outfitted with a sort of luggage carrier in tow. The 21-speed Pedal Pick-Up is the burning chariot pedicab — minus the fire and horses. These more versatile versions of the standard pedicab can become pricey, ranging from $4,000 to $6,000 — about the cost of a decent used car. Myer says people are buying these types of pedicabs because they’re practical.

Christensen bought his pedicab on eBay for just $300 — including shipping and handling from China. “It came in a huge box with sparse instructions in Chinese,” he says.

Unlike the spiffy brand-new models, Christensen’s rickshaw is comfortably worn and creaks with every pedal push from the chatty driver. The brakes are similar to those used by carriages of the late 19th century, with a pull-handle and a leather strap that squeezes the flywheel, causing the wheels to slow and stop. The seat is bright red, the leather faded in spots by many a traveler’s behind. Yet, the ride is smooth because Christensen obeys all traffic signals and smiles amiably at perplexed Detroit bystanders. He insists that his current ride is a starter, and gets animated when discussing his hope of upgrading to a pedicab with electric turn signals and a drum braking system.

The slightly graying 33-year-old Renaissance man (he’s also a musician) makes for a charming cabbie with agreeable banter and a manic passion for his profession. Christensen is never short of polite conversation. He has a fixation on providing Detroit with an environmentally friendly option and a means for a pleasant “strolling” tour of its historic buildings.

Christensen works as an energy educator for WARM (Weatherization and Retrofit Maintenance) Training Center of Detroit (warmtraining.org), a nonprofit operating in the Detroit area for more than 20 years, instructing residents on weatherization, sustainable energy and basic construction skills. WARM also sponsors a car-sharing program in Detroit to conserve energy and fuel.

Christensen, in keeping with WARM’s tenets, is operating a “100 percent people-powered” pedicab. “None of that motorized crap,” he says. “If I was to do something like that, I would want it to be sustainable energy — electric motor charged up by the pedicab itself.”

He remains optimistic that City Council will formulate and pass a legal and safe pedicab ordinance for him and others to follow. Calls to the City Planning Commission, City Council and city clerk provided no answers on the status of the ordinance.

Christensen has a vision: rickshaws weaving through traffic-jammed and polluted streets, a human-powered vehicle integrating seamlessly into the car-worshipping culture of the Motor City.

“I want to become part of the city’s landscape,” he says with a hopeful smile.

 

For more info, contact Christensen at motorcityrickshaw@yahoo.com.

Dustin Walsh is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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