When the brightly colored vehicles debuted in Tokyo’s fashionable Omotesando district in mid-October, they turned heads and passersby wondered if some special event was afoot.

Most people may ride the “velotaxis” as a novelty, but the streamlined pedicabs carry between 150 and 200 passengers per day, the operator of the service estimated.

“We aim to raise awareness that we can do something to protect the environment in cities,” and that this can be an alternative mode of transport, said Tomoko Hosoo of the Ecological-Cities Promoting Association, a Kyoto-based nonprofit organization that runs the 10-pedicab Velotaxi Tokyo service.

But whether the zero-emission taxis — which are classified as bicycles — can truly take root as a common means of transport for Tokyoites remains to be seen, given such obstacles as the capital’s notorious traffic jams and lack of bicycle-only thoroughfares.

The three-wheeled pedicabs, measuring 3 meters long and 1 meter wide, can carry two passengers at speeds of up to 15 kph.

The 10 German-made taxis ply an area within 2 km of the intersection of Omotesando Dori and Aoyama Dori. The charge is 300 yen for adults and 200 yen for children for the first 500 meters, and 50 yen and 30 yen, respectively, for every 100 meters after that. The fare is per person.

After being told the destination, the driver measures the distance in a straight line on a map to calculate the fare, which is paid in advance. Like an ordinary taxi, fares can either hail one on the street or call Velotaxi Tokyo for a pickup. The service is available daily between 11 a.m. and sunset as long as the weather is not too bad.

Velotaxis debuted in Germany in 1997. The pedicabs now operate in 22 cities in 12 countries across Europe.

The NPO started operating 10 pedicabs in central Kyoto in May, and carried more than 10,000 passengers in the first three months.

To pitch the eco-friendly service to young people in Tokyo, the group chose the trendy Omotesando area for its first foray in the capital.

Hosoo said that given current rider figures, she believes it will take less than three months for the Tokyo service to match the results in Kyoto.

The new cabs have also drawn attention as an advertising medium. Because the fares alone cannot cover the full cost of operations, the group invites companies to sponsor its movement by placing ads on the bikes. It charges 3.6 million yen a month for one ad on all 10 cabs.

The NPO said it is now being invited by many local governments, including Yokohama and Niigata Prefecture, to launch operations in their areas.

Experts question whether the human-powered taxis can become a viable form of transport, however.

Hitoshi Yamakawa, an assistant professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University who specializes in traffic and transportation, said the pedicab inroad is significant from an environmental viewpoint.

“However, when it comes to transportation convenience, two factors — time and cost — are vital,” he said, pointing out that it is difficult for the pedicabs to meet such needs of the ordinary passenger.

At present, if an adult takes a pedicab from Omotesando crossing to Roppongi crossing, it would cost 950 yen and take at least half an hour, whereas a subway ride can be as fast as 15 minutes and cost as little as 190 yen. And unlike a regular taxi, there is no cost advantage in sharing a pedicab ride.

Couple these factors with Tokyo’s busy streets, designed for motor vehicles, and sidewalks crowded by pedestrians, and the Velotaxis are relegated to mere novelty status, according to Yamakawa.

“As long as they are a novelty, Velotaxis may continue to attract passengers,” he said.

Hosoo said the novelty aspect is vital when considering the NPO’s purpose of building environmental awareness among young people. “(We hope) people will think about the environment while enjoying the ride,” she said.

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