Look, rolling up North Concourse Drive: It's a party! It's a carnival ride! No, it's Super Bike!
The seven-seated pedal cycle called a Conference Bike may be on its way back to Philadelphia after a brief and inauspicious debut three years ago in Center City.
This morning, City Council is scheduled to consider in committee a bill that would legalize the bike and other multiseated, people-powered machines.
The latest proposal comes from father and son Samuel and Yaser Kuttab, who want to establish a mile-long route for the bike in West Philadelphia between the zoo and the Centennial area of Fairmount Park, including the Please Touch Museum, the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, and the Negro Leagues monument. Samuel Kuttab was behind the aborted Center City venture in 2006.
The first draft of the legislation was written by a relative of the Kuttabs who works for Council. The bill has been expedited for possible approval before Council breaks for summer June 18.
"In discussing our project with various elected officials, including members of the Mayor's Office, we have found overwhelming support for this unique activity, and we would like to receive permission from your office to proceed," the backers of Philly Super Bike wrote in their proposal to Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, whose district includes the zoo and who proposed the ordinance.
Rina Cutler, the city's deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, was not effusive.
"There obviously are some concerns about how it will interact with traffic and vehicles and pedestrians," said Cutler, who said she was "willing to look at it" in "a very limited number of venues where we think it could safely operate."
Those might include Fairmount Park or Penn's Landing, she said.
"It's mostly a tourism piece," Cutler said, "So if people want to put it out there as a tourism amenity, and we can figure out the safety issues, we'll let them try."
The Conference Bike is a head-turning piece of machinery invented in 1991 by American artist Eric Staller. It has six seats arranged in a circle, with riders facing the center and pedaling toward a common axle. A seventh rider, called the captain in the Philly proposal, steers and brakes.
In an e-mail from his home in Amsterdam, Staller said that there are 250 Conference Bikes in more than 16 countries and that only in the United States has it met with resistance.
Staller said the bikes are used for tours in Berlin, Baltimore, and Budapest; as a tool for corporate team-building in Amsterdam; and as a way for blind people to bike in Dublin. He said it was misused in Times Square in New York City, where it only contributed to congestion.
The Council legislation was introduced last week and was quickly scheduled for a hearing at 9 a.m. today so it could be given a first reading at the 10 a.m. regular meeting, allowing it to come up for a final vote June 18.
The bill would establish a new category for cycles of four seats or more, which ostensibly could include the four-wheeled surreys popular at the Jersey Shore. Anyone wanting to use such pedal cycles would require a route approved by the Streets Department "if the department finds that the route is safe and that it does not unreasonably hinder traffic flow," according to Blackwell's bill.
But the driving force for the legislation is the Kuttabs' proposal to use the bikes they tried to introduce in 2006.
Samuel Kuttab first tried out his bike between Old City and City Hall along Market Street, said Brian Abernathy, spokesman for Councilman Frank DiCicco. The city issued a cease-and-desist order until the Streets and Police Departments could declare the bike safe to operate in the city. That never happened.
The new legislation was written by William Nesheiwat, legislative director for Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller. It was then rewritten by the Law Department and Blackwell's office.
Nesheiwat said he was careful to craft the ordinance so it would apply to all multiseated cycles and not just his cousin's company. One of Nesheiwat's parents is a first cousin of Samuel Kuttab. It is not against city or state conflict-of-interest laws to assist his cousins; if the Kuttabs were his siblings or parents, helping them would violate ethics laws.
The Kuttabs could not be reached for comment yesterday. Yaser Kuttab did not return a phone message, and Nesheiwat said Samuel Kuttab was out of the country. Samuel Kuttab once played a central role in city Democratic politics as a fund-raiser allied with U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, chairman of the city committee, and former party secretary Carol Ann Campbell.
Samuel Kuttab was sentenced to 32 months in prison in 2002 for conspiracy and tax fraud connected with his now-defunct Central Security Agency, which had won almost $3 million in city contracts to provide guards at city sites.
The Web site listed on the Philly Super Bike proposal is not in operation, and the phone number is temporarily disconnected.
The proposal's chief advocate in Council has been Sharif Street, lawyer, lobbyist, and son of former Mayor John F. Street.
Sharif Street said he had asked Blackwell to put the legislation on the fast track so the Streets Department could consider routes for the summer. The Kuttabs plan to hold community meetings in West Philly to show how the bikes work, he said, and added that the bill would not allow anyone to operate such bikes without Streets Department approval.
"It's not like they pass this and all of a sudden the bikes are on the street," he said.
John Boyle, advocacy director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, planned to ask at today's hearing what the city was trying to accomplish with the legislation, especially when it banned rickshawlike "bike cabs" in Manayunk in recent years.
"I hope we're focused on making bicycling a better option for Philadelphians," Boyle said.