NEW YORK -- Even in an era of $500 hotel rooms and $18 cocktails, the $442 that a Texas family paid for a ride in a New York City pedicab has become notorious.
The outrageous fare made headlines in the city's tabloids over the summer, and since then, officials have been pushing for a simplified pricing structure so tourists don't get taken for a ride.
Even operators of the pedicabs _ essentially adult tricycles with a padded seat that can carry three passengers _ say publicity over the mother of all shakedown fares has given all of them a bad name.
"It was not good for us," Souleymane Toure said as he hawked riders for his pedicab in Central Park. "Because any time you stop somebody for the ride they say, `Are you going to charge us $400?'"
Pedicab operators are allowed to charge whatever they like as long as their prices are posted on the side of the cab. But listed prices are often based on a confusing formula _ for example, an initial charge of $5, plus $1 or $2 per short block and $3, $4 or $5 per long block. And not all rate cards state clearly that the charges are per rider. A loop through Central Park can be $40, $50 or more per passenger.
That was what led to the $442 fare, which Councilman Dan Garodnick cited during a hearing on the issue last week.
The driver told the Texas couple after their 14-block ride that there was a $100 fare for each additional passenger, even though the daughters, who sat on their parents' laps were 7 and 9. It was technically illegal to have four passengers, but such a trip for three people ordinarily costs $80 to $100.
A proposal before the City Council would scrap the rate cards for a per-minute charge that each driver could set. "They would set it, they would post it and that's the story," Garodnick said. "What we don't want are surprises at the end."
Drivers say they would support changing the current system, but not all agree on what it should be changed to.
Greg Zuman, the vice president of the New York City Pedicab Owners Association and a pedicab driver himself, acknowledges abuse of the rate cards but said he does not support the per-minute system.
His group, he said, would prefer a requirement that prices be quoted before the ride starts. "The prices aren't quoted up front right now, and that's a huge problem," Zuman said.
Tourist Alan Albright, of Kansas City, Kan., said he made sure to negotiate the price before he and a friend boarded a pedicab for a loop around Central Park.
"They told me it was $120," Albright said. "I told him I would only pay $100."
He added, sheepishly, that the original price would have been fair: "We're two people that are a little overweight, so it was a little hard for him to pedal around."
Pedicabs were introduced to New York City in the 1990s as a cheaper alternative to the horse-drawn carriages that operate some of the same routes around Central Park and midtown Manhattan. They have become increasingly popular ever since. There are currently 1,335 licensed pedicab drivers.
On a recent sunny day, a swarm of pedicab drivers tried to entice people waiting for a cab outside Penn Station to ditch the line and take a human-powered cab instead _ sometimes just as fast on Manhattan's crowded streets as motorized means.
"I'd feel like a plutocrat, and I hate plutocrats," one man said as he declined.
Jeff Marcus, who lives in suburban Bellmore and works in the city, was tempted by a pedicab sales pitch but stayed in the taxi line instead.
"I know there's been some issues with people getting ripped off," Marcus said. "But if you ask how much it is before, and you agree to a price, you're not going to get ripped off."
Marcus said the pedicab driver quoted a price of $25, but he figured a taxi to his East Side destination would be closer to $10.
"If he'd said $15, I probably would have got in there and it would have been a different experience," he said.
Several Central Park customers said they had enjoyed their rides.
"We saw bridges from movies and fountains from movies," said Kellie Hopkins, of Shrewsbury, Pa., who paid $90 for her loop through the park with daughter. "The man was nice and very personable and he knew everything."