ST. PETERSBURG — Once made fun of for its ubiquitous green benches and senior population, St. Petersburg could be on its way to being known for green-powered, bar-hopping vehicles cruising the waterfront at the glacial pace of 7 mph.
If city officials give their approval, 25-year-old entrepreneur Rhett Reynolds will soon launch his "pedibus," a quirky mode of transportation designed to be propelled by close to a dozen pedaling riders. Reynolds' company, City Cycle Tours, will provide the driver, who will steer, brake and control the speed of the digital-age bicycle built to party.
Last week, Reynolds' proposed venture went before St. Petersburg's public services and infrastructure committee, which discussed the unusual mode of transportation, proposed routes, insurance and alcohol. In the end, members voted to ask the staff to return on Sept. 29 with a modified vehicle-for-hire ordinance and a license agreement. The committee also asked for information about additional insurance to cover medical treatment in case of accidents.
Getting to this point in St. Petersburg has been a long, hard slog, said Reynolds, who took out a home equity loan to develop and manufacture the $200,000 prototype he used to launch his business in his home state of Minnesota three months ago.
"I approached St. Petersburg, probably in August (2010). Basically, the city came back to me and said there would be a need for an ordinance change," he said.
His vehicle — as wide as a horse and buggy and without a reverse mechanism — has raised concerns in St. Petersburg about safety, tipsy riders, traffic congestion, city liability and what laws might govern it.
"The difficulty we have had with it is that it is not a vehicle that is recognized by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Is it a bicycle? Is it a carriage? What is it? Is it a bus? We have been in the process, along with the police, to define what this vehicle is and what it can do on the street system. It can't back up, it can't go very fast. It's got restrictions that we have to work through,'' said Joe Kubicki, director of transportation and parking management.
"I think it's a cool idea and there are no other applications in the state of Florida, so we're writing the rules."
Now another company, PedalPub — which Reynolds' fledgling enterprise competes against in Minnesota — wants to traverse the streets of St. Petersburg.
The eco-friendly concept found a supporter in council member Karl Nurse early on.
"It seemed to me that this is an obvious thing to add life to our waterfront,'' he said.
"It is compatible with the type of pedestrian-oriented downtown we are trying to do. It would create a couple of jobs along the way and business for the restaurants and hotels."
Reynolds, who got to know the Tampa Bay area during family vacations and while studying at the University of South Florida, decided that St. Petersburg with its scenic waterfront would be the right spot for his venture.
"One of the nice things about St. Petersburg is you've got a much larger tourist industry,'' Reynolds said.
Not to mention more conducive year-round weather, he noted.
The pedibus idea originated in Europe, but Reynolds had his vehicle specially designed by a St. Paul company, Caztek Engineering.
"Now we have the most advanced vehicle of this type in the world,'' he said, touting its enhanced safety features, six-speaker sound system with iPod hookup, two 66-liter coolers under the floor panels, room for a keg, custom four-link rear suspension and 17-inch Enkei rims.
As St. Petersburg works through concerns about the vehicle, Reynolds operates it in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
He said demand has come from customers who have hired it for bachelor and bachelorette parties, corporate events, birthday parties and other functions. The service is most popular with the 22-to-45 age group, he said.
"We rent it out like a limousine service,'' he said.
In St. Petersburg, though, the city's legal department determined that the current vehicle for hire ordinance would not permit the open-air transport.
"It is a very unique vehicle,'' said Kim Proano, a lawyer in the department.
"The Police Department was concerned about having alcohol on the vehicle, considering we do have open-container laws that would need to be addressed.''
Kubicki said in a memo that though alcohol would not be allowed on the vehicle, "it is likely that riders could be intoxicated while pedaling and there will be a propensity" for them to attempt to take alcohol onboard. He recommended that riders sign waivers agreeing not to do so.
Other proposals include requiring riders under 16 to wear a helmet. The vehicle, which can carry 14 riders — 10 pedaling — will not be allowed to operate with fewer than four pedalers.
Reynolds is relieved that his wait to launch his business in St. Petersburg appears to be almost over.
"They've had me on the ropes for so long now,'' he said.
Nurse puts it in perspective.
"I remember when the first person wanted to put tables outside their restaurant, it took several months from the time they asked until they had approval,'' he said. "I think this is one of those things.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.