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After hundreds of miles pedaling around Boston, two Wentworth grads reinvent the pedicab

Posted by Scott Kirsner  September 4, 2012 07:45 AM

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As riders for Boston Pedicab, John Pelkey and Eric Crouch have ferried passengers from Fenway Park out to Brookline, from the North End to the Garden, and all around the waterfront. And they couldn't help but start making a mental list of some of the flaws they noticed in the vehicles they pedaled: fiberglass elements that cracked easily, chains that slipped and ground as they changed gears, spokes that broke. And, of course, the vehicles' weight: about 175 pounds. At times, they hauled three adults in the back, or two adults and two kids.

They turned their observations in to a senior thesis project at Wentworth Institute of Technology, building a prototype pedicab, and went on to win the top prize of $10,000 in the university's very first Accelerate Innovation and Entrepreneurship Challenge this summer. And now Pelkey and Crouch are talking to owners of pedicab fleets about placing orders for their new vehicle, which still doesn't have a name. (Pelkey is on the right in the photo.)

pedicab-test.jpgI got to take it for a spin last week at Brigham Circle, with Crouch as my passenger. It was surprisingly maneuverable, and the gear shifting was so smooth it was imperceptible. (The prototype uses a continuously-variable planetary transmission made by NuVinci.) I was ready to start picking up fares and carting them around town — or at least around the big plaza in front of JP Licks.

"We realized that these are horrible products, and we thought we could do better," says Pelkey. "We wanted to design a pedicab that was more reliable, easier to maintain, and lighter weight." They relied on their own experiences, and also talked to mechanics at Boston Pedicab about what broke most often. Instead of a fiberglass passenger area prone to cracking, they use fabric wrapped around lightweight aluminum tubing. They created a step to make it easier for passengers to get in and out, and added extra legroom for passengers. (See photo below.) They specced out a "lefty" hub for the rear wheels, intended to be only supported from one side and less likely to break.

pedicab-step.jpg"We designed this pedicab for Boston," Pelkey says. "If a cab works year-round in Boston, it'll work anywhere."

But the size of pedicab fleets is still tiny compared to taxis: New York allows 850 on the streets, and Boston just 35. And a Colorado company, Main Street Pedicabs, dominates the North American market.

Crouch says their target price for the new pedicab is $4700 — more expensive than many Main Street models. But, he adds, "with our reduction in maintenance costs, our cabs are projected to pay themselves off within two years of service."

Pelkey and Crouch say they're currently considering whether to raise money to manufacture the cabs themselves, or license out the design. The duo just earned their undergrad degrees (in industrial design and mechanical engineering, respectively) last month. They say they haven't been earning much money as pedicab operators this summer; they were too busy building and test-riding the prototype, often with a person and 500 pounds of cement bricks in the back.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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