Pedal power thrives in Germany

Ad-friendly and environmentally sensitive, human-powered taxis are flourishing across German cities.

Like many of Germany's 5 million unemployed, Jens Indorf trudged out each morning in a futile search for a job. His year-long quest ended when he took a job as a Velotaxi driver. Now he gets up each morning with a spring in his step - a product of days spent pedaling his tricycle taxicab along the banks of the Main River, under the blossoming cherry trees, and past the tall glass towers that are the trademark of continental Europe's banking capital.

Mr. Indorf is part of a new fleet of taxi drivers that have flourished on the gridlocked streets of Germany's big cities. Pedal-powered, mouse-shaped Velotaxis, or "cult-flitzers," as they are called here, ride streets, bike paths, and pedestrian zones to transport tourists and city dwellers. They've transformed Indorf's life. And they could transform the way cities fight car pollution.

"I love to sweat," says the former car mechanic, hauling his 308-pound steel tricycle through nooks and crannies unreachable to buses and taxis. One of 60 seasonal Velotaxi drivers in Frankfurt, Indorf pays 6 euros ($7.72) a day for the vehicle, insurance coverage, and repair service. The rest he keeps. He earns between $50 and $130 a day.

Relaxing in one of the two upholstered seats in back, passenger Yvonne Spiess says she felt bad at first about having somebody physically work to transport her. Velotaxis evoked frail men running with rickshaws in developing countries. But Indorf convinced her otherwise.

"Now I'm seeing my city from a different perspective," says Ms. Spiess, a dance therapist, as her cabdriver pedals his way through the city's municipal square. "I feel closer to it."

Equipped with 21 gears, disc brakes, and an electric auxiliary engine rechargeable by batteries, the $9,000 Velotaxi is a far cry from India's rickshaws.

The cab is the brainchild of Ludger Matuszewski, a former Daimler-Chrysler project manager from Berlin. Bored with his office job, he dreamed of fulfilling a social mission. His idea? Bring to Berlin an environmentally friendly alternative to expensive taxis and cars. He came up with the concept of a modern rickshaw. To finance the project, he sought advertising.

Thus Mr. Matuszewski created not only a new mode of transport but also a new mode of advertising. Velotaxis are often used for group functions like weddings.

The Velotaxi firm dominates the European market. In Germany, where registration is difficult, it is the only company authorized for bicycle transport.

It took years of clearing bureaucratic hurdles for the cruisers to be allowed to ride city streets. Under German traffic laws, transporting people on bicycles was forbidden. But Berlin's Senate, police, and taxi associations finally agreed that the "cult-flitzer" could be integrated into the city's traffic flow. Germany's highest court later ruled that transporting people on bikes was legal. Today, with the federal environmental department backing the idea, Velotaxis face few bumps in the road.

The Velotaxi boom comes at a time when Germany, under pressure to comply with new European Union regulations governing pollution limits, has been scrambling to cut down on fine-dust particles emitted by diesel cars.

"Velotaxis have been a great eye-opener," says Christoph Rau of the European Academy of the Urban Environment, based in Berlin, which helps cities reduce traffic. "They've increased people's awareness about other forms of transport."

It was at the Hanover Expo 2000 that the company gained recognition outside Germany. Now its pedicabs have become hot sellers abroad - operating in 22 countries, including Spain, the Baltic States, Saudi Arabia, and Japan.

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