This opinion piece was originally posted by Josef Bray-Ali on Flying Pigeon L.A.'s Blog, here.
It is 2007 and you are in an elevator in City Hall. A well-dressed black man is standing next to you with some fancy graphics printed on large poster boards. Is he a corporate lobbyist? A well-paid expeditor of plans for a big development?
“Say, what are those posters for?”
“Hi,” he says, “I’m Mike Echols, and I am trying to start L.A.’s first bicycle taxi service.”
When Antonio Villaraigosa was elected to office in 2005, he made a lot of great promises: one million trees; his commitment to ride a train to work once a week; speeding up car traffic; hiring 1,000 new police officers; making Los Angeles into “one of the greenest big cities in the nation”.
The mayor referred to “green tech” and “green jobs” so many times that in August of 2007, like a golem summoned by a rabbi’s incantations, a plucky hotel doorman at the Sheraton in Downtown appeared on the streets pedaling away on a bicycle taxi (or pedicab).
The story of Eric Green and his “Green Machine” was covered by a local transportation blog, MetroriderLA, and later by the L.A. Downtown News. Green had a business license, and appeared to be doing things right by buying a high quality pedicab, purchasing liability insurance, and generally being a nice guy.
News followed swiftly in September of 2007 that the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) demanded Green stop operating his pedicab. It turned out he needed “special permits.” In L.A., like in most cities around the world, that is a code word for “get out your checkbook”.
The City Council gave the LADOT Board of Commissioners authority over pedicab regulation in 1986, and the board adopted a restrictive set of rules, Board Order 456, that effectively killed the business in Los Angeles. The LADOT’s Board Order 456 was forgotten until the buzz around pedicabs started up in 2007.
Green got out of the LA pedicab business, but that didn’t stop others from trying their luck with the LADOT.
Mike Echols came to the table in a business suit, with $100,000 from an investor and an outreach campaign to neighborhood groups & downtown politicians. His idea was to employ a fleet of 10 pedicabs around the Staples Center, on game day, to help people get to and from transit stops, parking lots, and local businesses. While the roads were jammed, Echols’ pedicabs would be a pollution-free, fun, money maker for Downtown LA businesses – ferrying people around and making our urban core come alive.
It turns out that it wasn’t the cost or complexity of filing for special permits that stopped Mike Echols and his “Magicab Express” from getting off the ground.
When he came into office, Mayor Villaraigosa brought in out-of-town transit chief Gloria Jeff to head the LADOT – Los Angeles’ transportation planning agency which also licenses taxi cabs, writes parking tickets, and runs a bus line. Jeff, hired for her alleged ability to make it rain federal transportation grant dollars, had her department audited several times before being forced out, in September of 2007, by an angry staff mutiny.
Rita Robinson, former head of the cash-flow-positive, trash-truck-rich, Bureau of Sanitation and self-described “newbie” when it came to transportation, was appointed soon after Gloria Jeff got the boot.
Robinson was no stranger to running a large government organization, but her role at the LADOT was as a pass-through for Mayor Villaraigosa’s opinions on transportation matters. The mayor was elected, in part, on the promise to get rush hour car commuters home faster. The Vulcans at the LADOT had taken moving cars at high speeds as their prime directive for generations. Robinson was soon surrounded by a cadre of grey-haired transportation engineer advisors, and the Mayor’s vision for a green LA was increasingly at odds with the arrogant car-centric approach to transportation planning endemic in the old guard at the LADOT.
While the mayor made promises to improve air quality by reducing air pollution from trucks at the port with expensive new vehicles and subsidy programs, Eric Green and Mike Echols were having their pedicab businesses squelched by the LADOT. In a letter dated May 18, 2007, Echols had his business plans put quietly to sleep by Hiram Lim, an engineer at the LADOT. The LA Downtown News summarized that Lim “claimed pedicabs could pose a road hazard, blocking traffic and frustrating drivers.”
Until recently, Villaraigosa’s own administration has worked at cross purposes to itself on green issues and a car-centric transportation policy. This is highlighted best with the death of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency’s (CRA) “Downtown LA Alternative Green Transit Modes Trial Program”. The Green Transit program was an innovative idea to use electric-assist pedicabs to shuttle people between Union Station and City Hall. The idea was introduced by David Neubecker of the CRA, and awarded $800,000 by the Metropolitan Transit Agency (MTA) in their 2007 Call For Projects, a bi-annual cash grant fiesta.
In 2009, the Los Angeles Board of Transportation Commissioners tried to have Board Order 456, the set of rules governing bicycle taxis in Los Angeles, revised to allow the CRA’s Green Transit program to proceed before the CRA would be forced to give the MTA their money back.
The revisions to Board Order 456 that came from the car-loving engineers at the LADOT in 2009 were horrendous: mandatory helmet use for passengers on pedicabs; dress slacks, dress shirts, and dress shoes for pedicab operators; restrictive routes for pedicab use pre-mapped; and more.
Like Eric Green and Mike Echols rickshaw dreams, the CRA’s Green Transit program died a quiet death. By 2009 it was clear that money, energy, planning, outreach, and public support didn’t mean a thing. The LADOT stood firmly on their institutional car-only bias, and the mayor’s transportation chiefs went right along with it – killing three real green job creators in favor of the vaporous promises of L.A.’s mayor.
It took a reckless taxi driver and a broken elbow while riding a bicycle in July of 2010 to make Mayor Villaraigosa interested in bicycle issues. By the time he’d gotten his cast put on, the mayor had received a bag full of well wishes for a speedy recovery and mentions of his accident from across the developed world. The hollowness of his proclamations about making LA a green city at the 2010 Copenhagen Climate Summit started to hit home at the same time his bicycle injury story was becoming international news.
It was a mathematical certainty that he’d never get close to his million-tree promise and his green diesel truck program would need 20 to 30 years before ever impacting the air quality in LA in any significant way. With bicycles, however, the mayor could completely reform L.A.’s transportation for, what, $6 million in Measure R dollars and two years of road re-striping?
Compared to the sticker prices on some of his other “green” ideas, and the time required for those to pay off with positive news stories, installing bike projects made a lot of sense to Villaraigosa. Bike projects, the mayor found out, are one of the best 21st century political returns on investment an elected official can make.
By the time the mayor had figured out bicycle planning could save his green reputation, pedicabs weren’t on anyone’s radar, passing the L.A. Bike Plan was. Rita Robinson left the LADOT in the Fall of 2010, replaced by LADOT insider Amir Sedadi. Sedadi crashed out of the position after a series of scandals hit the department. In 2011, the mayor appointed his former transportation deputy, Jaime De La Vega, as new head of the LADOT.
Robinson’s departure and the quick failure of Sedadi, her DOT-insider replacement, signaled a big change to the old guard. In 2010, the city’s growing budget crisis forced out legions of senior civil servants with early retirements – leaving the LADOT with several gaping vacancies that are gradually being filled with a new generation of holistic transportation planners.
The 30-year-old engineers in the LADOT have read Jane Jacobs as undergrads, and were raised watching Captain Planet and dreaming of making the world a better place—and not just a better place to drive.
A few of the new Bikeways Section staff were often seen at bike rides and parties when they were lowly grad students at local universities. They have bike community friends all over city hall now: junior level staff in Planning, Field Deputies in progressive councilmember’s offices, part-time staff in numerous local non-profits, and bloggers and journalists they have shared a few magical Midnight Ridazz rides with. They are leveraging the slow oozing of the middle class back into the city and the Internet to create a different kind of dialogue in City Hall.
Villaraigosa’s newfound fire for cycling has left it’s mark on L.A.’s streets: a massive new lane on 7th Street; L.A.’s first buffered bike lane on Spring Street; a green bike lane running on 1st Street in Boyle Heights; “Sharrows” on numerous streets in the city; CicLAvia, a regular bicycle and pedestrian street festival; a Bicycle Plan Implementation Team that includes any interested party from the general public mixed with high-level city staff engaged in implementing the plan.
Now is the time for bicycle taxis to make their return to L.A.’s streets. The old grey-haired, car-obsessed, traffic engineers of the LADOT’s past no longer hold sway. The mayor and a majority of the council support (and have supported) pedicabs in their district. People need good, working class jobs they can do in-between acting gigs, teaching, and raising their kids.
If properly implemented, the pedicab trade in LA can become just another way for people to get around town. Operating a pedicab can become a decent livable wage paying job that keeps people fit, engaged in the life of this grand city, and pushing more of us into a high quality of life that doesn’t require so much pollution, waste, and excess. Plus, riding in a pedicab is really, really, fun.
The Eric Greens, Mike Echols, and Dave Neubeckers of Los Angeles were a few years ahead of their time, now it is time for the rest of us to catch up.