Exclusive: The Electric (Assist) Pedicabs of Provincetown

AUG 9 2015 BY TDILLARD 6

Not an hour and a half’s boatride from Boston, or an interminably long drive out the length of Cape Cod brings you to a particular slice of idyllic Summer heaven called Provincetown – “PTown”, actually.  And can we go on vacation?  Sure, up until we hear a familiar whizzing sound as a pedicab loaded with tourist-types goes by at a slightly higher speed than what you’d guess that 110lb twenty-something young woman could be pedaling.  Sure enough, what looks like a 500W hub motor is hanging off the front wheel…  and we had to start asking questions.

Bruce Van Allen at the office

Bruce VanAllen at the office

Say hello to Bruce VanAllen – a proprietor, chief-cook-and-bottle-washer and one owner of PTown Pedicabs, based right outside of the Commercial Street center of Provincetown.

Bruce and friend, Randy McDonald, founded the company about 13 years ago, and 12 years ago decided that they needed some help for their 200lb pedicabs climbing the sand dune hills of the outer Cape, especially in light of the fact the kids they attract to power these rigs were often young students sometimes tilting the scales at under 110lbs.  They looked around and found the Heinzmann 500W, 36V hub motor from a company in the midwest, started stringing them on their front wheels, and never looked back.  Randy passed the baton to Charlie Hamilton, a driver turned owner, in 2007.

Pedicabs on the prowl

Pedicabs on the prowl

The pedicabs are a product sold by Main Street Pedicabs, and have some modifications specific to the conditions in Provincetown.

Human drivetrain

Human drivetrain

Reinforced frame

Reinforced frame

Disk brakes

Disk brakes

Their battery system is a sealed-lead-acid, 36V 5aH pack, much like what you’d see on a scooter, which will give them about 12-15 miles on a charge with normal pedaling effort.  They’ve used lithium in the past, but for their use they were far too expensive and complex, plus, the added weight and space for this vehicle wasn’t a problem.  Their charging system uses small “wall-wart” chargers, and in a normal 6 to 8 hour shift they’ll go through two or three packs.

Battery charging station

Battery charging station

...chargers

…chargers

Modified, longer life connectors

Modified, longer life connectors

VanAllen said that back 12 years ago, the Heinzmann motor/controller combination was all he could find, that could deliver the performance he needed.  And yes, he was the first, and still one of the only – possibly the only electric assist pedicab running in the US, and possibly the world.  (We’ll throw ourselves on the resources of our knowledgeable readers to validate that, but we’ve not found anything like this. )

Motor controller, mounted under seat with the battery packs

Motor controller, mounted under seat with the battery packs

Rest stop

Rest stop

The drivers generally rely on the assist, but are keen to point out that it’s just an assist – considering the 500W pulling power and the fact that they’re often pulling nearly 1000lbs of bike and tourist around, there’s still a fair amount of muscle power going in to the equation.  Then, of course, there’s Angela – who’ll tell you (with a sly grin) that unlike the boys, she doesn’t need the motors at all.  Then, of course, there’s the quaint local custom called “Bear Week“.  Everybody uses their motors during Bear Week.

All the drivers go through a “driver training” session, where they learn how to control the throttle while handing the shifting, learn that the cabs turn by steering, not leaning, as with a standard bicycle, and the cabs go through a brake and drivetrain safety check every morning before the shifts start.

Angela, showin' up the boyz

Angela, showin’ up the boyz

There is, as you’d expect, a great deal of bravado and camaraderie amongst the riders, and, interestingly, this holds them to an honor system of pay as well.  The pedicabs are a “pay what you feel it’s worth” structure for passengers, and for the drivers, they pay the company a share of what they earn, based solely on trust.   As far as being held to a standard, Bruce says when the team notices that any particular driver doesn’t come up with what seems like a full share for a shift, people talk.  As Bruce says, “Karma’s a bitch”.

...trolling for fares

…trolling for fares

The town has embraced the cabs from the beginning as a tourist pull and a revenue source, but also as a strategy to keep car traffic down, particularly in the pedestrian-heavy areas around the gallery and restaurant districts.  The Cape Cod National Seashore, an immense tract of land set aside as a National Park by the JFK administration, gave them some trouble in getting permission to navigate the narrow bike trails, as well as operate a powered vehicle, but after a few years of persistence some permissions were granted.  Beyond that, however, VanAllen and the drivers try to get their fares out to places and sights that they normally wouldn’t be able, or know, to see.  VanAllen’s love of the outer Cape is infectious – and possibly the biggest driving force behind the company.

Provincetown

Provincetown, Commercial St West

They run two shifts – Noon to about 6, and 6PM to 2 or 3AM, have 8 cabs running and will cover anywhere up to about 500 miles in a shift.  Most passengers are too busy checking out the sights to notice the electric assist, but if they do start asking about it, most of the tech-savvier drivers will go into the details, but stressing the “assist” so as not to cut into their compensation too much…

...your ride is waiting

…your ride is waiting

OK.  Back to why we came…  (rum drinks in paper cups on the beach?  Anyone?)

Herring Cove beach

Herring Cove beach

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6 Comments on "Exclusive: The Electric (Assist) Pedicabs of Provincetown"

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sven
“And yes, he was the first, and still one of the only – possibly the only electric assist pedicab running in the US, and possibly the world. (We’ll throw ourselves on the resources of our knowledgeable readers to validate that, but we’ve not found anything like this.)” ?w=720&h=480&crop=1 PTown first? Forgeddabowdit! Ted, you should come down to NYC next time the Sox are in town. After the game you can go down to Central Park or to Broadway to see if there are any pedicabs giving tourists electric-assisted rides on the down low with concealed illicit electric motors. I honestly don’t know how long the electric pedicabs were riding on NYC streets before the City Council banned them in 2008, but it’s possible NYC may have beat Provincetown to the punch. In NYC electric pedicabs are prohibited, but a good number of operators were (still are?) flouting the law with hidden EV motors on their pedicabs. The illicit EV pedicab drivers are (were?) pissing off drivers of 100% human-powered pedicabs, because they are able to go faster and longer allowing them to get more fares at the expense of 100% human-powered pedicab drivers who are slower and tire out, needing… Read more »

I wonder if a solar PV panel as a roof for the passengers would make a significant improvement to range?

Pushmi-Pullyu
Well, according to one source: “the AVERAGE clear sky sun provides around 893 Watts/m^2 (which is about 283.6 Btu/ft^2/hr or very close to 100 Watts per square foot)” (see source below) Well, that’s a lot better than I thought. This might be useful. Let’s say we have solar panels which are 20% efficient. You can get ’em more efficient, but they get very expensive very fast, and I can’t see using ~33% efficient solar cells on something as cheap as a pedicab. Let’s be generous and say that we have a large canopy, 6′ x 3.5′, entirely covered by solar cells; that’s 21 sq. ft. With a 20% efficient solar panel, that’s potentially 420 watts, which is darn good considering the hub motor is only a 500 watt motor. Of course, this is very much a back-of-the-envelope calculation; I’m using an average insolation figure rather than the correct one for Boston, and I’m ignoring the fact that the panel needs to be angled toward the sun. On a pedicab this isn’t practical, so it will have to be flat, which means it loses some efficiency. And of course, that’s the maximum solar energy at around noon on a sunny summer… Read more »

I think a 250W panel is ~5′-4″ x 3′-3″, and if it gets good sun for ~8 hours, that is 2kWh.

It would also provide some shade and shelter from rain (although very little energy during a rain).

Seems to me we have had Electric Assist Pedicabs in Toronto for about 5 years. I know I have seen them doing Rides at shows and such back in 2010 or 2011.

taser54

Never visited P-town, even when living on the Cape: not my scene. Hyannis had the beaches we frequented.

Thanks for the article though. Interesting to see the evolution of electric assist. I wonder if Martha’s Vineyard has something similar? Perhaps a vacation there to do some, “research” is warranted?