Fun, Healthy, and Green
Pedicabs fill a self-propelled niche in Downtown transport
As what passes for winter in Central Texas finally arrived a couple of weeks ago, those who spend their weekend nights pedicabbing are breathing easier. It's not just the farewell to extreme heat and relentless rainfall; last summer was particularly difficult for Austin's pedicabbing community. A highly publicized hit-and-run accident occurred on the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, pedicabbers were restricted from loading and docking at some of the most lucrative spots Downtown, and just when it seemed like Downtown couldn't become any more congested or the competition more fierce, the already precarious Austin pedicab industry expanded. In the shadow of the increasing challenges, company owners and their riders have been forced to set aside their differences and join together, confronting human tragedy.
On Aug. 24 around 2am, just as the bars were closing, a car traveling south on the Congress Avenue Bridge hit Russell Stinnett's pedicab from behind. The impact of the crash knocked Stinnett off the bike and passengers Jayne Tracy and Jeff Uribe out of the carriage. Uribe suffered the most severe injuries. The driver of the car has not yet been identified; a $25,000 reward is offered by Red Bull (Uribe's employer) for anyone who identifies the person responsible.
The incident highlighted a longstanding problem for bikers (pedicabbers and cyclists alike) riding on the bridge. "We've had a few bad wrecks in the past couple of years ... all of them on the Congress bridge due to riders taking the street rather than the sidewalk," said Steve Smajstrla, co-owner of Heart of Texas Pedicab. "A regulatory snafu has contributed to this, where it's actually legal to be in the ... road but illegal to be on the sidewalk, which is our company's internal policy. ... The police, whom we have been working much more closely with, have promised to change this and told us to go ahead on the sidewalk in the meantime."
The Lush Rush
Dealing with drunks, on foot or behind the wheel, is inherent to pedicabbing, but pedicabbers fear that the consequent negative media attention dissuades pedestrians from accepting rides. Smajstrla says that people often ask him about safety. His answer is that if a pedicab's brakes and lights are intact, it's safe – unless, like anything in traffic Downtown, it gets hit by a motorized vehicle. "I've seen pedestrians get hit; I've seen the horse carriages get hit, anything that's slow-moving Downtown. I guess we have a lot of drunk drivers."
Another safety issue, and a source of controversy that has divided the city's pedicab companies over the years, has to do with the different types of pedicabs. There are two basic types: 1) a trailer essentially hooked to a mountain bike or 2) a tricycle with a built-in carriage manufactured specifically for transporting people. Those who own or operate the more expensive tricycles assert their superiority. Bike-trailers "are unstable, inherently fall down, and have only the brakes which the bike comes with. They are usually poorly lit," said Greg Foulkes, owner of Capital Pedicab.
Owners of the bike-trailers defend the integrity of their pedicabs. William Schoebert, owner of ATX Pedicab, says that it's a matter of preference more than anything, his being the bike-trailer type, which he custom-builds. "You know there's been talk about, 'trailers jackknife, and tricycles tip over,' but that's just a bunch of people having a war with each other, and there's a reason for that – because it's a very competitive business."
Pedicab operators work anywhere there are pedestrians: during festivals, football games, large events where parking is scarce and people abundant – but especially on weekend nights Downtown. The most lucrative pedicabbing hours are during the "lush rush": Thursday through Saturday, 10pm-3am, when riders shuttle people from car to bar, bar to bar, and bar to car. Those who aren't independent operators (i.e., owning their own pedicabs) ride for a specific company and must rent a pedicab each night they ride. Depending on the company, the rent runs from $30 to $40, and riders pay an additional fee, either a flat rate or a percentage of their tips. Riders wait for customers at street corners, around hotels, behind alleys, around parking garages. To avoid dispute, they queue like traditional cabs; the pedicabber at the front of the line gets to take the first approaching customer(s). Riders are not paid directly by the companies but make their money in customer tips, which can range anywhere from nothing to $3 for a group of three people to $5 a person. (Pedicab owners discourage their riders from quoting prices.)
It's an exhausting job, nobody's getting rich, and health insurance or other benefits are nonexistent – yet most who drive pedicabs say they love it. "There are a few that do this strictly as a job, but the majority of the riders out there do this as a lifestyle," said Seth Bounds, co-owner of Dikes on Bikes. "They have given up the internal combustion engine for a simpler, healthier, more environmental-friendly, less consumer way of life." Nathan Lipson, who owns Metrocycle Pedicabs and has been pedicabbing for three years, feels the same way. "Pedicabbing is a fun, healthy, and green alternative to motorized transportation," Lipson said. "The human, pedal-powered nature of pedicabs is what makes this service unique. The idea is you need to be fit and physically capable to do this job, and, consequently, people tip you in appreciation."
Sixth Street Crossroads
The most severe setback dealt to the pedicabbers this summer was the implementation of new zoning regulations. "Because the number of pedicabs is growing in Austin, we have started to impede the flow of traffic," Bounds said, "which is good [because of] the high-speed flow of drunk traffic." The congestion itself can be dangerous, and city staff took notice this summer when pedicabbers on Sixth Street hindered the progress of an ambulance. According to Cmdr. Michael Jung, of the Downtown Area Command: "On most weekend nights, the number of visitors to the Sixth Street entertainment district overwhelms the pedestrian infrastructure; therefore, for public-safety reasons, APD often barricades some of the streets to vehicular traffic in this area. The current ordinance dealing with pedicabs prohibits them from operating on streets that have been barricaded to vehicular traffic."
Before the ambulance incident, once the barricades were up, pedicabbers could cross Sixth and ride up to the intersections to pick up pedestrians; after the incident, pedicab owners received phone calls from the Austin Police Department, announcing new regulations for Sixth Street. "[APD said], 'You won't be allowed to go to Sixth Street at all,'" Smajstrla said. "'You won't be allowed inside the barricades between Fifth and Seventh streets, Brazos and Red River,' which honestly would destroy our entire business. ... Pretty much our whole industry is dependent upon APD allowing us to be inside those zones to get access to Sixth Street, and that's always made me kind of nervous, because it seemed like a weak spot in the stability of things."
If the regs had been immediately enforced, it could have been devastating to the pedicab business. In August, a meeting was convened among the pedicab owners and APD, the transportation section of the Public Works Department, and Emergency Medical Services. "The recent meetings between the pedicab owners and APD were an opportunity for each side to hear the interests of the other and then collaborate on a plan that would work to achieve those interests in a more formal manner," Jung said. "Essentially, for the pedicab owners, that meant accessibility to and for their customers; for APD, the primary concern was providing a safe environment for a dense pedestrian crowd and accessibility for emergency responders." APD agreed to work with the pedicab businesses and to start reopening intersections, in a limited way.
"Most of the drivers are avid cyclists and comply with traffic regulations, though there are occasional violations," Jung said. "The meetings we had allowed us to clearly define where the pedicabs can be and how they can operate. ... Since that time, the cooperation we have received has been commendable." John Fisher, owner of Roadkill Pedicab, said that the meetings have resulted in a welcome opportunity for the pedicab community to open the doors of communication with APD, as well as an opportunity to improve relationships within the pedicab community. "You've got all the pedicab companies together. ... They're all attending the meetings and outside of meetings discussing things in a real cordial matter, so we can do things right for the greater good for the industry here in town," Fisher said. "We're all getting along real well ... there are little squabbles that come up now and again, but in general we're doing a pretty good job of policing ourselves and being cohesive, so we can continue to function and get business done."
How Much Is Enough?
Yet limited access for numerous pedicabs can create new problems. According to Marcy Cardona, administrative specialist of the Transportation Division in Public Works, nine Austin companies are authorized to operate 99 pedicabs. There are currently 10 pedicab companies in Austin, most operating fewer than five cabs. Metrocycle owns 10, Heart of Texas generally fluctuates between 20 and 22, and the recently expanded Capital Pedicab, with 45, is by far the largest. "The policy allows open entry into the market for applicants that meet the minimum standards, allowing service demand to regulate the number of pedicabs," Cardona said. "Evidence of declining service quality, equipment condition, and/or unsafe activities related to competition could result in limiting the number of pedicabs."
Most pedicab owners and riders say the competition is friendly and welcome, but, as has been true of motorized taxicabs, more pedicabs on the street means it's harder for owners or drivers to make money. Capital Pedicab's Foulkes admits to being unpopular among other owners. "Pedicab operators never want to see more pedicabs," Foulkes said. Some owners have tried to convince the city to put a cap on the number of cabs a company can own (as is already true of taxis). "The Transportation [Division] rejected [the proposal]," said Smajstrla, "saying that basically the market will sort itself out, and [they] don't want to interfere." Cardona says that while the pedicab industry is the largest it's been since she started at the city in 1999, she doesn't view the growth as a problem. "The department has received no customer complaints about pedicab service," she says, and as yet she sees no evidence of declining quality or other negative consequences of too much competition.
So You Want to Drive a Pedicab
To legally operate a pedicab in the city of Austin, you must be at least 18 years old and licensed as a chauffeur. Then you may apply to one of the various pedicab companies in Austin (for a list of companies and their contact information, visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/publicworks/downloads/limoadd.pdf), or you can buy your own pedicab and ride independently.
Go to the Texas Department of Public Safety documentation office at 108 Denson, and get your driving record and criminal history. Be sure to check box 3A on the driving-record request form, and ask for a certified criminal history. Once you've found out which pedicab companies are hiring, bring your certified documents to the interview, and fill out an application. The city's chauffeur's permit application can be found at www.ci.austin.tx.us/publicworks/downloads/chauffeur-rev.pdf.
The pedicab owner likes you and thinks you have the body and mindset to physically transport humans for a living? Go to the Ground Transportation Office at 1111 Rio Grande with your documents and the signed application, and take the city of Austin pedicab chauffeur license test. Provided you pass the test and all your documents are in order, you'll receive your license that day.
Where can you find a pedicab Downtown? Follow the foot traffic. Pedicabbers tend to wait (in line) in alleys or street intersections, next to hotels, around parking lots, in front of clubs. If they're not waiting, they're riding around, scouting customers. Hail a pedicab through simple eye contact, or you might need to call out or wave. There are no set rates; the cost of a ride is a voluntary tip at your discretion, but there's no need to be stingy – especially considering the amount of money you could be spending on a taxicab.
It's not easy work, and you should always factor in the length of the ride, steep hills, number of people sitting in the carriage, and weather conditions to your tip. Speaking of consideration, pedicab drivers do not appreciate belligerently out-of-control or drunk passengers. Do not harass the driver, try to touch him or her, tell him or her to go faster or race with other pedicabs (or cars or horse-drawn carriages). And if you feel your body rejecting one too many overpriced cocktails, don't climb into someone's pedicab; just walk it off, tiger.
Austin pedicab operators are required to follow the guidelines in Austin City Code, Chapter 13: "Transportation Services." The code that specifically applies to pedicabs is found in 13-2-272 through 13-2-275. Among other regulations, operators must follow traffic laws – riding on the correct side of the street, stopping fully and completely at stop signs and red lights, using turn signals, etc. All pedicabs must pass the city's inspection, and any parts of the pedicab that are damaged – lights, brakes, chains, etc. – must be repaired before riders may transport passengers. Pedicab companies determine their own hours of operation but are restricted from operating during rush hour, Monday through Friday, 7-9am, 11am-1pm, and 4-6pm. Existing City Code prohibits pedicab drivers from operating on closed streets, such as those closed by APD on weekend nights, without permission from APD or whatever city authority is enforcing barricades on a particular area. The pedicab businesses have asked City Council to amend City Code so that it expands their operating locations and times, and the city and APD are working with the companies to find solutions to increase business while maintaining safety. APD has agreed to include pedicab owners in the planning process for large events Downtown, such as South by Southwest in March.
Austin's Pedicab CompaniesATX Pedicab – three cabs
Dana Schoebert, firstname.lastname@example.orgCapital Pedicab – 45 cabs
Greg Foulkes, email@example.comDikes on Bikes – four cabs
Seth Bounds, firstname.lastname@example.orgHeart of Texas Pedicab – 20 cabs
Steve Smajstrla, email@example.comLone Star Cyclery – three cabs
Bruce Swan, firstname.lastname@example.orgMetrocycle – 10 cabs
Nathan Lipson, email@example.comPortland Pedicabs – one cab
Brandon Smith & Alexander Zeisberg, firstname.lastname@example.orgPower Bike Tours – seven cabs
Amy Kelley & Rafael Viancos, email@example.comRoadkill Pedicab – three cabs
John Fisher, firstname.lastname@example.orgTriciclo Pedicabs – two cabs
Shannon Montgomery, email@example.com