Some Austin pedicab drivers are getting a boost just in time for the spring festival season by installing electric motors on their vehicles as part of a new city pilot program.
The Austin Transportation Department and Austin Energy have teamed up for the yearlong pilot to see how electric pedicabs perform in the city before potentially going to the City Council to shape an ordinance that would make them a permanent feature in town.
“I think it’s a great joint effort to come together to reduce the carbon imprint downtown,” Transportation Department division manager Jacob Culberson said Tuesday. “Hopefully it will be a great last-mile option for a lot of the commuters and eventgoers because they’ll be able to reach greater distances and bring people into the downtown.”
The city has already granted 42 permits to companies in Austin to operate the electric pedicabs, which feature a motor, speed controller, throttle and battery.
Philip Reyna, who owns Kween Cab, said the new gear makes it easier for drivers to start and stop the cabs, travel up Austin’s high, winding hills and travel long distances. The technology is similar to an electric bike and will allow drivers to travel up to 15 mph. They don’t have to use the electric assist all the time, Reyna said, just on parts of the ride that normally present difficulties.
“I hope it gives more opportunities for others to seek employment,” Reyna said. “Without the electric assist, it requires a lot of physical activity on one’s part. With the electric assist, it’s going to give more availability for just the common person who wants to perhaps get in shape but isn’t necessarily there to become a driver.”
Reyna said it will also improve safety, since drivers won’t stall on hills, impeding the normal flow of traffic.
Pedicab operators say it costs as much as $600 to install the equipment on one cab, and companies are footing the bill themselves at no cost to the city. However, Reyna said, the technology will pay off for drivers.
“It keeps them in the game,” he said.
The new electric cabs are already on the road and marked with special plates so riders know they are participating in the pilot program. Riders will be asked to scan a QR code to take an online survey and submit feedback on the experience.
The electric gear is also linked to an app that will record ride usage details and transit data so the city can get real-time information and see whether the technology is making a difference.
Rides in electric cabs will cost the same as a traditional pedicab, and drivers will operate in the same area they are allowed to now, from 38½ Street in the north to Oltorf Street in the south, and from MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) in the west to Pleasant Valley Road in the east.
The pilot program was approved by the Urban Transportation Commission by an 8-1 vote in August, with members heeding a call from industry leaders pushing for more energy-efficient transportation options in town, Transportation Department spokeswoman Marissa Monroy said.
“Austin Energy really supports and sponsors the rapid development of emerging technology that deals with electric mobility,” Austin Energy project lead Kevin Chandra said. “This is electric vehicles, electric bikes, scooters, motorcycles, mopeds and now electric-assist pedicabs. Kind of increasing the options in our ecosystem of transportation.”
The pilot program will be up and running through two South by Southwest festivals and Austin City Limits, which will give city leaders a full picture of how the cabs operate during peak times of year. “It’s going to be a fun ride,” Chandra said.