All this week people in Houston, Texas have been going to parties and events tied to the Super Bowl, the big American football game that will be played in that city on Sunday. Many visitors are getting around the downtown area in a mode of transportation that is more than a century old, yet seen by some development experts as the best transportation option for the future.
Houston's newest and most hi-tech addition to its transportation system is a light rail train that connects downtown with Reliant Stadium, where the Super Bowl will be held. The train system, which opened on January 1, is sleek and quiet, but there have already been 10 accidents involving the train and motor vehicles.
In recent weeks, a safer and even quieter method of getting around downtown has appeared on the scene.
There are now dozens of pedicabs circulating around the downtown area, mostly driven by young, healthy men who can take up to two passengers on either short hops to nearby venues or on easygoing tours of the city. Pedicab is basically a bicyle with a two seat carriage attach.
Nate Lubke manages one of the main pedicab companies in Houston, known as Space City Bike Cab. "It is a neat way to look at the city. It is a safe way to look at the city. You are going around the city at a walking pace, but you do not really have to walk 20 or 30 blocks to check out the city. These are not "get-me-to-the-airport-I-have-to-be-there-in-20-minutes rides." These are "my wife and I are going to dinner, can you take us there?" rather than get a taxi and most of the time, in cities, taxi drivers do not want to go on the short rides we do," he says.
Many of the events people come downtown to attend during the Super Bowl week take place at night. Even in Houston, with its sunbelt weather, nights can be chilly at this time of year and taxis can be hard to find.
Nate Lubke says the pedicabs operate very well on city streets at night and that during such events as the Super Bowl, business after sunset can be as good or better than it is in the daytime. "We do get a lot of the business at night, especially when they have these festive things going on. You know, they have the Main Event downtown and the Super Bowl parties and stuff like that, so there is a higher volume at night. In other cities that have high tourism rates, your day shift is equal or comparable to your night shift," he says.
Mr. Lubke started working with pedicabs in San Diego, California, where local authorities placed restrictions on the vehicles that sometimes hurt business. He says other cities have also cited safety concerns and worries about liability in either banning or restricting pedicabs and rickshaw devices.
But such actions are shortsighted, according to Walter Hook, Director of the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. "These pedicabs are perfect for these very short-distance trips because they do not take up much road space, less road space than taxis do, and they do not generate any air pollution or any noise," he says.
Mr. Hook says cities should be looking to pedicabs and bicycle transportation in general as a way of reducing motor vehicle traffic congestion and the air pollution it generates. He says safety concerns can usually be addressed by creating special lanes or corridors where pedicabs can operate. "A certain amount of bicycling and pedestrian activity in the corridor will slow people down and that alone will actually increase the safety of the corridor," he says.
But, in most cities, slowing traffic down is not a goal. Cities are looking for faster ways to move people around and pedicabs sometimes do not fit into the plan. Unfortunately, Mr. Hook says, even many cities in Asia where rickshaws and pedicabs were once common, are opting for more motorized transportation. Shanghai, China recently announced a plan to ban all bicycles from major roads. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy is working throughout the world to counter that trend and show the efficacy of non-motorized vehicles in sustainable development.
Perhaps the effort will be helped a little by the use of pedicabs here in Houston. Images of the city's streets are being shown around the world as part of the mass media's Super Bowl coverage. Locally, pedicab companies are hoping to use the Super Bowl festivities to boost awareness of their service so that not only visitors to the city, but many of its residents and downtown workers will see this mode of transportation as something that is cheap, effective and fun.