Asheville – On a 4-3 split, Asheville City Council voted in favor of awarding a franchise agreement to Blue Ridge Rickshaw. General statutes governing municipal franchise agreements require a second vote, which has been scheduled for February 22.
The rickshaws, marketed as Boardwalk Pedicycles, will not be pulled by persons on foot, as is often depicted in Asia. Instead, they consist of an adult tricycle, with a carriage bench for two fitted over the back wheels. A canopy over the bench gives the cycles a look reminiscent of Ford’s Model Ts.
The rickshaws would service the busy parts of town, connecting with neighborhoods as far away as West Asheville, UNC Asheville, the tunnel, and Biltmore Village. They would be available for tours as well.
The business would operate from 7:00 am to 3:00 am, seven days a week, even though proprietor Jordan Hrivnak will be the only operator until business justifies expansion. The contract allows Blue Ridge to operate up to five pedicycles. “I think crowding the city with these would be just not good for business,” explained Hrivnak.
To ensure fluid traffic circulation, the rickshaws will not be allowed on roads with speed limits over 35 mph or to stop more than three minutes at a time. Loading and unloading of passengers will be forbidden in traffic lanes on major arteries, and the franchisee is forbidden to wrap his rickshaws with third-party advertisements.
Assistant Director of Transportation Jessica Morriss reported staff believed the rickshaws would have a minimal impact on traffic flow, and the police department and a couple other review committees approved of the franchise. Although Hrivnak is a resident of Asheville, he told members of council he has successfully operated similar businesses in other communities.
Councilwoman Kim Roney stated, “I do understand that folks may have some trepidation around a business profiting off use of our public rights of way when we have lacking infrastructure needs for the people who live and work here, but I’m going to be supporting this because it’s an opportunity for us to move the people who live and work here, as well as our visitors, without the use of fossil fuels or [indecipherable] traffic.”
Councilwoman Gwen Wisler asked how Hrivnak was going to charge customers. To this, City Attorney Brad Branham explained staff was seeking a franchise agreement in order to set some parameters on the business. Pricing was not included in the documents presented to council, and nobody suggested amending the documents to do so.
Mayor Esther Manheimer remarked, “I have a great deal of reservation about this. I hear a lot of complaints about the Pubcycle, and we only have one of those. We briefly had a horse-drawn carriage, and there were a lot of complaints about that, and we ultimately stopped having a horse-drawn carriage in Asheville. I’m just concerned that this kind of activity will primarily and probably only be used by tourists, and not for the broader community with transportation needs.”
She continued, “I have seen rickshaws used in other tourist cities like Charleston and Savannah and places like that – They appear to be being used by tourists, it looks to me in those communities. I guess I just want to pause here and think about whether that’s the direction we want to go.”
When Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith requested that city council conduct an annual review for the first two years of the agreement, Manheimer contributed that the city has the power to give 30 days’ notice and terminate the franchise agreement without cause. Another factor influencing her opposition to the agreement was that terminating a franchise becomes more difficult once somebody has established a thriving livelihood. Antanette Mosley and Sage Turner cast the other two opposing votes.
In his defense, Hrivnak said he didn’t consider his business to be “in the same category” as the Pubcycle, as he would operate mostly point-to-point, “So, I would try not to be clogging up the roadways. I’ve definitely been stuck behind that Pubcycle, and it’s kind of a pain.”
Hrivnak said his rickshaws would be a “novelty thing” that would fit well into the local ambience. His rickshaws in other cities were a “big hit” with locals for “any event” like concerts and sports. He said that while Asheville was a tourist town, he was definitely going into business first for the local population. While he wanted to “provide for the community,” he was not yet sure exactly how. One suggestion was to hand out free-ride coupons to locals.
A lot of fatal conceit and audacity can be read into comments from members of council. To the casual observer, they were once again appropriating money-making opportunities to themselves. Lowly citizens can’t rent Airbnbs short-term to gig workers, thus increasing their income and helping with the housing crisis. That’s capitalistic. Instead, councilmembers want to tax residents so they can pay for the construction, purchase, and even management of apartments for low- and middle-income workers. Were they now saying the same about transit options?
Actually, council did have some legitimate say on the rickshaw matter because it concerned a private use of public rights-of-way. Unfortunately, Roney’s mere mention of “profit” was likely enough to trigger some of the young Marxists who frequent public input at these meetings.
Wisler’s concern, apparently about price-gouging, seemed invasive at the least, since conventional wisdom teaches that the burden of pricing falls on businessowners, with the expectation that they’ll charge as much as sustaining customers will pay. Such price theory, however, would likely fail this post-capitalist city council’s equity lens.
As Wisler noted, however, the city does set fares for conventional taxis, for reasons that all have strong counterarguments. Worldwide, of course, taxi companies are losing customers to lower-overhead jitney services.