NEW YORK -- Bicycle taxis are weaving through the clogged streets of midtown Manhattan in a movement growing so rapidly that the city is proposing regulations before it spins out of control.
Known as pedicabs, these vehicles look like giant tricycles with a passenger carriage in the back. Some tourists and New Yorkers see them as an affordable, pollution-free way to see the city and sail through gridlock.
The City Council is examining whether this fad, grown from a centuries-old form of transportation, needs safety and insurance standards and rate regulations.
Reminiscent of Asia's hand-pulled rickshaws, pedicabs have rolled into many US cities -- including Denver, Boston, Houston, and San Diego -- often swarming stadium parking lots during major concerts and sporting events.
A number of cities are considering regulations or have already adopted them. Las Vegas banned pedicabs from the Strip as a danger to both riders and pedestrians.
Last Friday in Manhattan, two British tourists said they felt totally safe on their ride through Central Park. ''I was a bit skeptical," said Emma Carter, 23, after they hopped out. ''But it was great. A fun experience."
Pedicabs began arriving in New York a decade ago when a group of entrepreneurs tried to market the novelty to tourists near the World Trade Center and Battery Park.
Pedicab drivers soon discovered that midtown -- from the Empire State Building on 34th Street up to Central Park, with Times Square in the middle -- is paradise. They pluck passengers from the throngs of tourists and pick up commuters who want to get across town at rush hour or after a Broadway show.
''I always ask my passengers whether they have taken a pedicab before, and quite often their reply is 'All the time -- it's faster than a car,'" said Craig Molino, a Manhattan pedicab driver for five years.
Officials estimate there are 300 pedicabs on the streets of New York, mostly in midtown. Main Street Pedicabs, a major supplier based in Colorado, has been sending the vehicles to New York by the truckload, owner Stephen Meyer said.
Meyer's model features a fiberglass cab and is fashioned like a mountain bike, with a steel alloy frame and 21 speeds. The base price is $3,400.
In New York, a number of companies lease the cabs to drivers, while other drivers work on their own. Most charge their passengers a starting rate of $1 per block, but fares are negotiated according to such variables as the number of passengers, their weight, and the weather.
Unlike horse-drawn carriages and yellow cabs, pedicabs are not regulated. There are no restrictions on fares, and officials estimate that half the pedicabs are not insured.
No fatal pedicab accidents have been reported in New York, but some passengers have been injured in collisions with cars and buses. A 2001 pedicab crash in which a passenger hurt his shoulder resulted in a settlement of nearly $2 million. In San Diego a few weeks ago, a rider suffered a serious head injury when he fell out of a pedicab and was hit by a car.
''It is disconcerting that New Yorkers and tourists are riding in these devices without oversight in place, noninspected devices that may not have proper safety equipment or insurance," said Iris Weinshall, New York's transportation commissioner. ''We simply cannot wait for a tragic accident involving a pedicab to occur."
The City Council is considering rules on licensing, training, and insurance for drivers. A council committee is also looking at whether the fare-calculation process should be posted in the cabs.
Drivers and pedicab companies say they welcome regulations to help weed out the freewheeling operators who may be cutting corners. ''There are renegade drivers out there," Molino said. ''God forbid, something happens; it's a bad reflection on the whole industry."