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Caught in Los Angeles rush hour? Hail a rickshaw!

A new mode of locomotion is being peddled on the streets here - and the pedaling is picking up the pace of the chic human parade in this West Los Angeles enclave.

Not quite as dignified as the traditional limo, the ''pedicab'' is fast becoming the average person's affordable way to see and be seen here - one of Los Angeles's best people-watching spots. The pedicab also appears to be a way to reduce traffic and parking problems and to create jobs.

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A fleet of the open-air, pedal-powered rickshaws have been plying Westwood's streets since the beginning of the year, with increasing success. And if their popularity among teen-agers, movie-industry types, and tourists is any gauge, promoters think the pedicabs will be lining urban streets across the country.

Although the three-wheel pedicabs have all the visible earmarks of another fad flashing out of southern California for a brief season, they could become more than just a passing fancy. They are a quicker, cleaner, and cheaper option to local driving. In this busy village, pedicabs are a tempting alternative for drivers who would rather skip lunch than hassle with traffic and parking or a long walk on a short lunch hour.

Further, they offer jobs to nearby UCLA college students, who fill waiting lists at both Sun Shuttle and First Class Pedicab companies for a chance to rent a shift driving a pedicab. What's more, says one Chamber of Commerce official, ''they contribute to the ambiance (of the bustling, high-priced village), like the horsedrawn carriages in Central Park.''

The huff and puff of the pedicab driver may not substitute for the rhythmic clip-clop of a carriage ride, but the ambiance is unmistakably southern Californian. The pedicabs slip unhurriedly through, but certainly move faster than, the traffic here. The passenger sections are filled with sunlight, or streetlight at night, and the passenger's choice of FM radio sound.

Drivers are picked ''for their polish and personality'' as much as for stamina, says Sun Shuttle owner Jim Kirkwood. Indeed, pedicab driver Marco Ledesma, a UCLA English major, says he likes to meet people and drives pedicabs ''for social reasons,'' though he admits he makes as much as $100 on his occasional evening shifts.

Ridership - at $3 a ride or $5 per 15-minute cruise around the village - has picked up enough to support 32 pedicabs in the two-square-mile Westwood area.

First Class Pedicab manufactures the $3,000 bikes and rents them to drivers in the Westwood area. Owner Kenny Griswold says, ''We have 900 bikes on order from us in 20 different cities now.'' Sun Shuttle, a competitor that was started by two of Mr. Griswold's former employees, also has orders for nearly 100 pedicabs, says Barry Johnston, owner of Intercontinental Carriage, an affiliate and manufacturer of Sun Shuttle's pedicabs.

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Griswold, who pioneered the local pedicab market after seeing similar vehicles used in the Orient, marvels at the success of such a simple idea. ''I was looking at three problems at the time (when he started the business), and they were energy, pollution, and unemployment,'' he explains. The pedicab business seems to offer resolutions to each of the problems, he adds.

''It just looks cute, and you can't help but laugh at the simple nicety of it ,'' Griswold says of a visitor's first impression of the row of pedicabs, chrome polished and radios ablare, waiting for fares on Westwood Boulevard. But he adds that the business is growing fast and becoming serious as competition gets stiff.

Both pedicab companies are staking out territories across the United States and Canada. They target well-trafficked areas, especially near universities where there is no dearth of muscle to power the pedicabs. Also, Griswold says, he has recruited several business school students in university towns to start pedicab businesses in their areas.

Meanwhile, Westwood cyclists of a different sort are launching an effort to construct the nation's first elevated ''veloway,'' or bicycle freeway. Citizens for the West Los Angeles Veloway has won a $67,000 grant to study of the feasibility of a project that would include 20 miles of bike paths at ground level. The system would wind around West Los Angeles and onto the UCLA campus.

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