Motors for Minneapolis pedicabs: Would they bring business or broken bones?


Imagine a vehicle with a souped-up electric motor and weighing over 750 lbs. barreling around downtown at 20 miles per hour, operating in bike lanes and narrowly dodging bicycles and pedestrians.

Now picture a pedal-operated vehicle that has an enclosed cabin, keeping the passengers warm as they traverse the cold Minnesota winter all the way from downtown Minneapolis, up the big hill on Hennepin, to their home in Uptown.

 FULL DISCLOSURE: The author is a bicyclist and occasional pedicab driver.

Opponents say changing Minneapolis City ordinances to allow electrically-assisted pedicabs would make the first scenario possible, while supporters paint the second picture. 

Pedicabs are three-wheeled, pedal-powered taxis that in Minneapolis currently mostly operate downtown. Electric-assist pedicabs would have an electric motor on the bike, but the motor only adds power, or assists when the driver is pedaling. The motors are designed to help more at low speeds, and cut off completely at 20 mph. The City of Minneapolis currently does not allow electric-assist pedicabs.

At a July 20 City Council meeting, Ward Two council member Cam Gordon introduced the subject of changing city ordiances to allow electric-assist pedicabs. City government staff are currently researching such a change to the rules, and in couple months will make a recommendation to the City Council on if and how they should change the ordinances.

Gordon said, “[Electric-assist pedicabs] offer an opportunity for entrepreneurs to try out a business model.” He added, “pedicabs could be heavier so they can be bigger and offer more weather protection so they operate later into the winter and start earlier in the spring, take more people, go up hills easier, and go farther.”

Gary Schiff, the Ninth Ward council member, however, has concerns. “Electric assisted pedicabs go to 20 mph,” Schiff said. “Having a vehicle going 20 mph on the bike paths is something I as a bicyclist would be concerned about.” 

He added, “It’s very easy to take the governor off on the electric-assist, flip the switch and make it a wholly electric vehicle and go faster.” He said operators could make such modifications after the pedicab passes safety inspections. “We won’t have the capacity to do stop checks,” he said.

Gordon said tampering with the motors is possible. “So we need to have the rules really clear,” he added. “I think the operators will comply because they think it’s the right thing to do, and we will have inspections.” He also said, “Users can report complaints if a pedicab doesn’t seem to be operating properly, just like they do with taxicabs, horse-drawn carriages, and other businesses.”

Changing the laws could also change the pedicab industry in Minneapolis. Gordon said, “Hopefully it will add some business and jobs. It’s hard to know, though. We could change the law and nothing could happen.

Gary Schiff is not as optimistic. “We’ve got a very successful pedicab industry in Minneapolis,” he said, “To allow electric vehicles more akin to golf carts would be quite a change. We shouldn’t ruin a good thing that we’ve got going.”

Colin McCarty owns Twin Town Pedicabs, the largest pedicab company in Minneapolis. He said he is not sure what his stance is on allowing electric-assisted pedicabs. “There is currently a warm, fuzzy feeling about the pedicab industry in Minneapolis,” he said, “I’m for anything that supports it and against anything that takes it away.” 

He said they are not needed in downtown Minneapolis because the area is so flat, but he added they may be helpful in other pars of the city. He also warned adding electric assist motors makes pedicabs heavier and faster. “Whenever an object goes faster and is heaver it has more potential to be dangerous,” he said.

“I personally don’t see a true need for them. The pedicab industry in Minneapolis is doing well. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.

Any change to the Minneapolis pedicab industry will have a big impact on Twin Town Pedicabs, that industry’s biggest player. I have worked as a pedicab driver and rented the pedicab from Twin Town Pedicabs. On weekend nights I have worked this year, about 20 pedicabs would be operating, and Twin Town owned all but one of them.

McCarty also said to his knowledge there are three or four operators who own one pedicab, and Target Corporation, which owns eight.