A pedicab in East Village / Photo by Maya Srikrishnan

As city leaders have considered various regulations on pedicabs over the years, they’ve focused almost exclusively on the Gaslamp Quarter and other areas near downtown where people who’ve been drinking might want a ride to a nearby bar, club or restaurant. Rarely – if ever – have those discussions included San Ysidro, the community next to the border that is not much of a destination for bar-hopping.

Yet Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who represents San Ysidro in the state Legislature, is aiming to bring back what had been a burgeoning pedicab industry back to the community.

Just under a decade ago, pedicabs emerged as a potential solution to a mobility issue in San Ysidro. Tens of thousands of people cross into San Ysidro every day – and ample business, including two major shopping outlets, have emerged to serve them.

But for thousands of people crossing on foot, traveling several blocks, often uphill, meant they would forgo stopping at local businesses. The businesses were too close to take a taxi or the trolley, but often too far to walk – especially with the communities’ poor sidewalks and a steep incline between the San Ysidro East pedestrian crossing and the local shopping outlets, said Jason Wells, CEO of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce.

Pedicabs haven’t been able to operate in San Ysidro since the city stopped allowing electric-assist pedicabs. For years, they helped people who crossed the border on foot scale the hill leading to the Las Americas Premium Outlets. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Pedicabs haven’t been able to operate in San Ysidro since the city stopped allowing electric-assist pedicabs. For years, they helped people who crossed the border on foot scale the hill leading to the Las Americas Premium Outlets. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Between 2013 and 2016, two pedicab operators who employed about 40 drivers made roughly 800 rides a day, Wells said. They would charge only a $1 to $3 per ride, making them more affordable than taking a taxi or an Uber a few blocks.

“The industry was just getting started, but it was obviously promising,” he said.

The growing industry in San Ysidro came to a screeching halt around 2016.

In 2015, permitting of pedicabs switched from the city’s Transportation and Stormwater Department to the San Diego Police Department. SDPD stopped permitting electric-assisted pedicabs because the state vehicle code, as the department interpreted it, specifically defined pedicabs and bicycles as powered only by people. That, plus other regulations and fees tacked on the industry later in 2018, led to a decrease of about a third of pedicab operators citywide, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported in July.

Both of the pedicab operators that had started in San Ysidro stopped working there. One went out of business completely. The other also owned pedicabs that drove downtown, and continued to operate only downtown, Wells said.

The drivers needed the electric assist, which gives the operator some additional power as they’re pedaling, to make multiple trips a day up the large hill between the San Ysidro East border crossing and the shopping outlets on the other side. When the operators couldn’t get their permits renewed for electric pedicabs renewed, they just couldn’t make it work in San Ysidro any longer.

In 2018, the San Diego City Council looked at several changes to pedicab regulations, including a proposal to drop the ban on electric-assisted pedicabs. But the city attorney interpreted state law in the same way as the police department, saying it prohibits electric-assisted pedicabs.

That opinion sparked confusion, including from City Councilman Chris Ward, who’d written the proposal and whose district includes the Gaslamp and the harbor, where pedicab operators are concentrated. At a July 2018 City Council meeting, a deputy city attorney said that overturning the electric pedicab ban wouldn’t comply with state law, since the state vehicle code defines bicycles – and therefore pedicabs – as “propelled exclusively by human power…so adding pedal-assist devices or e-assist devices would take that outside the definition of what a bicycle is.”

“And this is all a quirk of a technical definition under state law?” Ward asked at the meeting. He apologized to the operators who had come to speak at the meeting for not being able to change the rule on the electric-assisted pedicabs.

Ward wasn’t the only one who was confused.

Gonzalez said the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce came to her in 2016 to discuss how the prohibition on electric pedicabs would stop the industry from operating and growing at the border. When she sought clarity from state officials, she said they told her the vehicle code didn’t prohibit electric-assist bicycles being used for pedicabs, but local officials continued to insist to her that it did.

“This has been a hyper-local issue in my district,” Gonzalez said. “It’s taken up so much of my time for what it is, but I’m using up one of my bills because I have now been hearing for years that it is an issue. Everyone appears to say, you don’t need a bill for this, but this way, if we specifically make it allowable under state law, we can get down to whether or not it will continue to be prohibited by the city.”

Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, an SDPD spokesman, said he doesn’t know yet if the bill would change how SDPD handles pedicab permitting.

“If the proposal passes, we would take a look at it because we always follow state law,” Takeuchi said. “If there’s a change to any state law, then we always re-examine what our policies are to ensure we are in compliance.”

Gonzalez said the clarification could clear up similar issues in other cities. An expansion of electric-assist pedicabs could help solve first- and last-mile issues, to better connect people to transit without cars. She pointed to the expansion of electric pedicabs in Austin, Texas, as an example.

Jason Wells is the CEO of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce / photo by Adriana Heldiz

“People cross the border on foot to go shopping,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t want them driving or catching an Uber to get to shops in San Ysidro.”

The pedicab issue, though seemingly small-scale, has been a big priority for the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce in recent years.

“The major issue I have with my members – whether it is Walmart or the mom-and-pop shop on the corner – is accessibility to their businesses,” Wells said. “That is why we focus so much on maintaining an open border crossing. That’s why figuring out how to get people from the border crossing to businesses is so important.”

And the need for transportation alternatives in San Ysidro is just going to increase, Wells said. The recently completed San Ysidro Port of Entry expansion tripled pedestrian capacity at the border crossing.

“There will be more people than ever who need to get around San Ysidro,” he said.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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