Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C. pedicabs still struggle with evolving regulations and Park Police

February 23, 2012 - 11:11 AM
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A transportation rogue? (Photo: flickr/joebielawa)

A D.C. pedicab operator was arrested for assaulting a Park Police officer last fall but he insists he's not guilty — and that his arrest is indicative of a far broader problem involving harassment and murky regulation haphazardly applied to the pedicabbing industry, a nascent form of transportation in the District. As spring and summer approach, Washington, D.C. still lacks a clear resolution regarding a past year of pedicab friction, but key officials recognize a need to come together soon.

"Mine was the third arrest of the year," the young man known as Oskar Mosco, legally Scott Myerson, told me when standing next to his lawyer Jeffrey Light in D.C. court chambers on Jan. 10. "At least a dozen pedicab operators have had citations. Both the arrests and citations are harassment."

Last week, the prosecution dismissed Mosco's case, and the pedicab operator says it's no surprise because there was no case to begin with. The legal actions simply represented more harassment, in his opinion. Mosco says that operators' citations have typically been contested and subsequently dropped. Last fall after his arrest, he helped start the D.C. Pedicab Operators Association, which now has 19 dues-paying members but expects more soon. They joined together, according to Mosco, to create a unified voice of pedicab operators against a tense front of unclear regulations and alleged conflict with the Park Police. They talk every couple weeks or so, often by phone, but expect to communicate more and in person once the weather warms and pedicab season begins in earnest. "We want to be included in this new transportation plan on the Mall," said Aaron Stanley, a 26-year-old part-time pedicabber and Financial Times's D.C. bureau manager, who has joined the nascent organization. Pedicabs have emerged as a major form of transportation for the District's tourists over the last half decade, especially in hot spots like the National Mall. Mosco expects the association will meet with both DDOT and NPS in the near future.

"I'd say 95% of our conversations are about Park Police and regulations," Mosco said in January. "The reality is we haven't met, we haven't talked about anything."

Both NPS and DDOT have told me they plan to meet with pedicab operators in 2012 before the new season takes off. Mosco criticizes how the city handled the regulations issued last summer by the District Department of Transportation and finalized in December. He says the comment period happened during cold weather when no pedicab operator knew or paid attention. Yet these DDOT regulations don't even matter in most of the conflicts with Park Police — all the contention on the National Mall involves the National Park Service, not DDOT. The city says it has met with pedicab operators in the past and plans to meet with them again in 2012.

"We do want to meet with them again," DDOT's Alice Kelly told me last month. "We will include everyone."

Chocolate strawberries
Park Police. (Photo: flickr/runneralan2004)

Kelly has worked on the pedicab regulations for months and hasn't personally known Mosco but is familiar with his vocal complaints. He'll be welcome to join any discussions, she said, but did note the "irony" of all these conflicts happening not under the DDOT province but that of the NPS. Bob Vogel, NPS superintendent for the National Mall, expressed an openness toward "green-collar jobs" and alternative transportation options like Capital Bikeshare and pedicabs at an NPS town hall last fall. "We do think pedicabs have an appropriate role on the National Mall," Vogel told the gathered crowd.

Mosco sought to rally attention from local media around the new year. He described his own November arrest as the result of "quietly waiting for a passenger outside a memorial when the officer approached and threatened arrest for merely being present." He told me that he "was on the dirt area" when the incident happened and not even "on the curb." In person, Mosco and Light emphasized the failure of the city government. "DDOT isn't even contacting us," he said to me in the court chambers, "they're going straight to the media ... They're doing all these things in the winter time when no one is paying attention."

Kelly disputes that idea. She explains how DDOT, which first began focusing on the pedicab operators around 2008 and 2009, drafted regulations in summer and instated amended regulations in August. These August 5 regulations classified pedicabs as bicycles, ruled that operators couldn't bike intoxicated, mandated emergency bells, and said pedicabs couldn't operate or park on sidewalks, among other things, and were the ones finalized in December. Mosco suggested more attention to definitions and brought up how National Mall sidewalks are far bigger than standard ones — but as Kelly said, that's an NPS issue and not one for the DDOT regulations. NPS has told DDOT its regulations will "mirror" DDOT's, which they've also told me. The Park Service's Vogel, like DDOT, says he wants to meet with pedicab operators soon — perhaps in about a month. He wants these NPS regulations in place by May, if not earlier, and establish designated areas where tourists can find pedicabs.

"We are going to emulate the District of Columbia's regulations," Vogel told me. "We will invite all pedicab operators and anyone from the public ... The goal of this meeting is to make our visitors know where they can get this critical service."

But why the growing conflict between Park Police and pedicab operators? Mosco believes it began this past year and may have come from a misguided directive from the now-dead Tourmobile to Park Police. Yet I know one former pedicab operator who says he encountered hostility as long ago as 2009. In mid-December, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton requested that NPS, Park Police, and pedicab operators meet: "I am concerned about the increased instances of confrontation between pedicab drivers and the U.S. Park Police," Norton wrote in a Dec. 13 letter to the Park Service's Vogel and Peter May. "Drivers lack clarity on the current rules, particularly since the emergency transportation regulations recently expired." Even now in winter, Stanley said he hears about "a steady stream" of pedicab operators receiving tickets.

Kelly suspects it's a matter of "two people in a bad mood." Stanley sees multiple factors at work — "the personal prerogative of certain [Park Police] officers," the lack of clear rules, and a broader image problem that pedicabbers have faced nationally as "more or less shadier people" (a perception Stanley questions). The pedicab operators wonder whether the Park Police troubles come from a few fiery personalities or an institutional directive. I've tried repeatedly this week to get Park Police spokesperson Sergeant David Schlosser's take on the conflicts to no avail, nor was I able to speak with the Park Police's Captain Kathleen Harasek, who oversees the National Mall, but I'll happily include the Park Police's thoughts if I hear back. Such confusion is all the more reason for DDOT, NPS, and the Park Police to meet with pedicab operators to hammer out the details of NPS regulations, potentially amend DDOT's, and talk about how to coexist. Kelly also still "has some concerns about the streets they're on after dark," such as on Independence heading to the MLK monument. Is that really safe?

Stanley said that pedicab operators haven't felt included so far but acknowledges the difficulty of rallying a group of workers who are often part-time, "fiercely independent," and with "different levels of involvement." Those qualities make it "difficult to round us up," he said, but he hopes the association will help create "one unified voice."

"Hopefully we can create some clarity," Vogel remarked about the NPS meeting loosely planned for a month from now.

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