Cabs for the Carfree City

velotaxi business.jpg

Velotaxi is an idea whose time has come. The firm started in Berlin in 1997 and gained its first high-profile exposure at the Expo 2000 in Hannover. The German firm has since reintroduced the rickshaw to Japan (where it was invented in the 19th century): Velotaxi was the only passenger pedal vehicles in service when they started business in 2002 in Kyoto and Tokyo. Banned in Mao's China because they exploited the drivers, this slick new rickshaw is regaining credibility not only with tourists (who are always willing to rely on the locals a little more than they would at home), but also with natives: Velotaxi reported in 2003 that 45% of the passengers in Berlin were Berlin residents. Now, with the FIFA Worldcup coming in 2006 to Germany, you will be glad you heard about velotaxi here first, so you can impress your friends before the vehicle the Germans know as the "cult-flitzer" becomes a household word.
The company is design focused. The velotaxi is aerodynamically designed, with a semi-recumbent seat for better comfort and power transmission by the driver. Two adult passengers with day bags can sit on the upholstered seat behind the driver and are protected from the worst of the elements while retaining an excellent view. The cab is 3m long, 1.5m high and 140kg with a special mechanism to keep the turning radius small. The body is 100% recyclable polyethylene on a steel frame with 21 gears for optimal pedal-power; an electric motor assists with start-up or with heavy loads and can be regulated by the driver or switches out automatically at 11 km/h. And future developments will further enhance the modular construction so that the vehicle can be converted, for example from a mobile ice-cream store to a newspaper delivery vehicle by one person in two minutes.

The business model is modern. Drivers pay a minor fee (5-10€ per day) to cover service costs for the vehicle, sometimes receiving a cell phone and uniform as well. The Velotaxi partner firm maintains the vehicles, and makes its profits from contracts with firms that advertise on the trike's shell as their source of profit. And firms are thronging to be seen on the side of the velotaxis because they have become a cult icon, not only turning heads on the street but receiving more than their fair share of exposure through media attention. Nothing says cool more than having a velotaxi in the background during your photo shoot.

Of course, modern also means supporting a strong lobbying effort. Taking a passenger over seven years old on a bicycle was forbidden by German traffic law when the firm started business. In 2004, the firm finally fully established the concept so that the Velotaxi is today legal with only the business license, freeing the drivers from the need to present their "special exception" papers on demand to the authorities. Perhaps this will be the greatest contribution of Velotaxi to the concept of the modern city: promoting a new way of thinking. In addition to 9 cities in Germany, the aerodynamic moving billboards can be seen in 10 European countries, the Middle East, and in Japan; they are coming soon to Korea. The question now is: can it work in USA/Canada?
[by © C. Lepisto, 2005]

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