By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - T.C. O'Rourke has encountered plenty of nasty weather in his years as a Chicago pedicab operator - rain, snow and steamy summer heat.
But he has never pedaled into a headwind as rough as this year's blast from City Hall, which has imposed some of the toughest rules in the nation against the foot-powered tricycle taxis.
A city ordinance that passed in June, just at the start of pedicabs' busiest season, bans them from downtown Chicago during rush hour, and from Michigan and State streets, which are home to dozens of stores and restaurants, at all times.
The crackdown came just as Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration touts its progress on making the city more bike-friendly.
Supporters of the new law, which also requires licenses for operators and vehicles, cited safety concerns, including operators going down streets the wrong way and riding on sidewalks.
"I think it has had a pretty drastic impact," said O'Rourke, a board member for the Chicago Pedicab Association. "There are jobs lost and in this kind of economy where youth unemployment is at all time highs, I don't understand why you'd do anything to squelch it."
O'Rourke, who said he secured the city's first pedicab chauffeur's license, said he is not anti-regulation. But he thinks the geographic and time restrictions, as well as severe fines, are killing business.
The Pedicab Association is pushing the city council to amend the law. But a representative for Alderman Tom Tunney, who backed the law, said that while the alderman is open to taking another look at it, he sees no "major tweaks" until next year.
"The main rationale was safety," said Bennett Lawson, chief of staff for Tunney, whose ward includes the Boystown district, with its many bars and restaurants, and the famed Wrigley Field baseball stadium.
"It's one of the key businesses in the city that was not licensed. We were the Wild West of pedicabs."
Tony Rivera, president of the National Pedicab Association, said Chicago has the harshest big-city measure on the rickshaw-like vehicles.
"They can no longer operate where people want to be," Rivera said.
Kevin Monahan, 37, a Chicagoan who doesn't own a car, said he likes pedicabs as a sunny day alternative to a regular cab.
"They make all the sense in the world," Monahan said. "The air quality in the city is a challenge with all the automobile exhaust."
But he said many trips are no longer possible. A trip to the train station, for example, could violate the rush-hour ban.
Some 200 to 250 pedicabs operate in Chicago. Some operators work just for tips, while many charge $1 a block per person. Yet so far, the city has issued licenses for 15 vehicles, with 21 more ready to issue after a fee payment, and 53 pending.
O'Rourke sees the low numbers as proof that people are getting out of the business because they cannot make enough money to make the $400 annual licensing costs worthwhile, not to mention the cost of insurance.
Alderman Ariel Reboyras, a bike enthusiast, said he hopes the ordinance can be amended to "find a happy medium somewhere,"
"It's green," Reboyras said. "There's no engines running, there's no smog in the air and it's jobs. You're killing an industry that's worth fighting for."
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bill Trott)