Ken Ott (r) driving passengers around Oakland

For the last year, Ken Ott has taken to the streets of Oakland late at night, offering rides to anyone who wants to hop into his pedicab.

Passengers usually take a short ride – to a restaurant or bar, or a trip back to their car. Ott doesn’t charge anything for the service. He just asks for a tip.

Now Ott wants to offer Berkeley revelers a chance to get around town in a person-pedaled pedicab. He thinks his green, ecologically sound, non-polluting taxi service is a perfect match for progressive Berkeley.

There’s only one problem. He can’t get a permit.

Ott has approached the city twice in the last year for a permit, but he keeps getting bounced from department to department, he said. He has gone to the Finance Department twice, only to be referred to the department overseeing taxis, which then refers him back to the finance office.

“It feels like one of those Kafka-like situations where no one wants to deal with it,” said Ott, 31, who attended UC Berkeley but who now lives in Oakland.

To set up his business in Oakland, Ott merely went down to City Hall and got a business license. It’s not so easy in Berkeley, it seems.

In frustration, Ott has mounted an online petition drive aimed at convincing the Berkeley City Council to give him a permit for his pedicab taxi service.

Titled “Overturn Berkeley’s Bicycle Taxi Ban,” the petition appeals to Berkeley’s competitive green instincts.

“The residents, businesses and municipality of Berkeley take pride in being “greener” and environmentally forward thinking,” Ott writes in the petition. “Recent examples include biodiesel use in the city’s fleet, Mayor Bates’ pedometer, Measure G, BP’s Energy Biosciences Institute, school vegetable gardens, being named 2009’s city with most solar paneled homes, and being named “7th greenest” US city. However, there are no bicycle taxis in the city. This is odd.”

“We have approached the City twice in two years to apply for a business license only to be turned down each time. There is in effect a ban on pedicabs in Berkeley.”

“We are being asked by Berkeley residents and businesses to provide service in Berkeley, but cannot because there is no rule on the books. No rule to us means no-regulation, but to the Permit office it means no-way!”

City offices were closed on Friday due to budget constraints, but a person at Berkeley’s Customer Service Center said that the Finance Department would be the place to start for a pedicab permit. She cautioned that the police would have to do a  background check and fingerprint anyone who wanted to drive a taxi, even if it was a human-powered bicycle taxi.

Ott points out that San Francisco, San Jose, Portland, DC, New York, Austin, Boulder, Denver, Santa Cruz, and Walnut Creek permit human-powered transportation services.

One of Ott’s vintage pedicabs
One of Ott’s vintage pedicabs

Pedal Express, which offers package delivery services by bicycle, has been in business in Berkeley for 16 years.

Ott got the idea for the petition drive from CupKates, the Berkeley-based cupcake truck that sells cupcakes around the East Bay. When Berkeley city officials gave the owner a hard time about where she could park her truck, she asked her clients to write their city councilmen. The public support helped her get her permit.

Ott admits that cupcakes may be more popular than pedicabs, but he still intends to fight. “It is not quite the same allure. I don’t know if the petition will help or not, but it’s the best chance I have to get the city to move.”

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...