As Paula Murgia determinedly pedals her tricycle up Park Avenue, she turns to the passenger in the back seat. "You know, someone gave the Dalai Lama a golden tricycle when he was a child," she says with a great grin. "There's something very spiritual about them."
If not spiritual, the three-wheel "taxis" called pedicabs are certainly enlightening, at least about the city of New York. Over the past few years a small band of courageous tricyclists has taken to the treacherously packed streets to give city dwellers and tourists an environmentally sound, human-powered alternative to New York's gas-guzzling yellow cabs.
The experience provides far more than a fast way around the taxis and semis stalled in gridlock. The open-air ride offers a unique window onto the city's history, giving a close-up view of its lovely old buildings and remaining cobblestone streets. It also gives new insights about its inhabitants, many of whom are quick to look up and smile at the oddity on three wheels wending its way through cars and chaos along the avenue.
George Bliss, who brought the first pedicabs to the Big Apple, calls the phenomenon "transpor-tainment."
"Transportation should be a wonderful experience, not a miserable experience - that's my main motivation for doing this in New York City," says Mr. Bliss, standing amid the pedicabs and wheels that clutter up an old gas station at the intersection of Broome and Thompson streets. "A lot of people complain about automobiles, but not too many are trying to put an alternative out there."
Pedicabs are exactly what they sound like, foot-powered taxis - or tricycles with a seat over the back wheels. They've been mainstays in parts of the developing world for generations. But in the past few years, as cities like Jakarta in Indonesia have tried to stamp them out as an archaic traffic nuisance, they've begun to flourish in New York, Berlin, and London.
When Bliss started his PONY Cabs of NY eight years ago, he had just a handful of pedicabs. Today, there are three other companies and more than 80 trikes on the tarmac - almost the same number as horse-drawn carriages that roll through Central Park. And the numbers keep growing.
"It was certainly a gamble when we started, nobody knew if they were going to allow pedicabs in a city like this, where there's almost a million dollars invested in medallions [cab licenses] alone," says Bliss. "It's a very political thing to put a new kind of taxi on the streets."
But so far, there's been little resistance to the pedicab presence. Many of them pedal around Times Square, picking up patrons after the theaters let out, when an empty yellow cab is rarer than a camel sauntering down Broadway. They're also popular in midtown at rush hour, when, in one of New York's most frustrating traditions, most cabs are off duty, preparing to switch shifts. And then, of course, when it rains.
"We basically pick up two kinds of people, the desperate and the adventurous," says Steve Smith, a pedicab driver and musician who just graduated from City College. And then there are those who are just looking for some fun. James Green took his daughter Paloma for a pedicab ride on her fifth birthday. "I thought it would be fun to have a go at it," he said, as his daughter nestled into the seat, nodding and smiling.
But for those looking to the future, particularly to 2020, when some scientists predict the world's oil supplies could dry up, pedicabs are a very serious business. "There's no question the oil is going to run out," says Walter Hook, executive director of The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York City, which has introduced modern pedicabs in India and Bangladesh. "Human-powered is definitely going to be part of the alternative, and pedicabs are definitely going to be a part of that."
Bliss also wants to ensure that pedicabs become a permanent fixture in New York's traffic pattern. Currently, they're unregulated. Anyone can rent one and pedal away. Bliss makes sure all of his riders are properly trained. But as the industry grows, he's working to establish safety standards.
"If there was one serious accident, something that landed on the front page of the [New York] Post, the city might just shut down the industry, so we're actually pushing for regulation," he says. "But you have to have all of your ducks in a row before you get to the City Council."
As Ms.Murgia wends her way up the street, she's careful to follow all of the traffic laws, signaling for turns, stopping at all of the red lights, and ringing her bell to alert cabbies she's there. It's the people and the exercise she really loves. "When we exercise, we get happy and then we spread that to people when they're riding with us," she says. "There's a real joy element in it." And that's what she sees as the pedicab's practical spirituality.