by Oliver Hunt
Every pedicabber submits to chaos. We know that going in. That's the one thing we all have in common, from the dirtiest hippy's trike-hacks to the most clean-cut, uniform fleet riders. Granted, everybody lives in chaos anyway, but pedicabbers grow more attuned to it. We know how to make the chaos work. We're out in the open, in the moment, naked to the raw natural, political, and economic forces making up the moment, vulnerable to what the moment throws at us: rain, heat, headwinds, belligerent drunks, and beat cops in a mood. We have no safety net, no workman's comp, no health insurance, no retirement plans. We can't file for unemployment in slow times or off seasons. There's no time clock. Unless we're in a fleet that's been hired for a temporary promotional gig, we don't get paid just for showing up.
Old School Matt pedicabbed for one of the first actual fleets in Chicago. There were five of them. They rode the kind of rickety, unstable Chinese-style pedicabs I'd damn any current pedicab fleet for using, but they'd started in the early eighties, when there weren't even twenty-one gear mountain bikes to be had, let alone pedicabs.
Matt, with his white beard and imposing build that contrasts with his affable nature, resembles a sinewy, slightly feral Santa Claus. Having broken the rear axle on his pedicab, he crafted a traditional pull-cart rickshaw by outfitting a pedicab body with two large, wooden, Amish-crafted wagon wheels and two long wooden pull-handles. Instead of pedaling people up and down Clark and Waveland, he mule-hauls his passengers on foot. This stroke of theatrical anachronism is pretty typical of Matt. His pedicab, which had been painted black and yellow to resemble a taxi, its handlebars adorned with a model eccentric's collection of horns, bells and whistles, was spectacle enough in and of itself. Matt comes from an older school, when people didn't know what to make of pedicabs and referred to them only as “those funny bikes,” so spectacle naturally made up a better part of the trade.
Actually, according to Matt, one of the first pedicabs to operate in Chicago was procured from a toy store display window in 1970. That makes sense. It's fitting. To me, pedicabbing feels like a toy job in a toy life. There's an unreality to the line of work—an adult, pulling people around on a tricycle, getting tax-free cash for the service. It's like a lemonade stand. It hardly seems real until the real world encroaches, and then some of us have to choose between the real world and pedicabbing.
Here's an idea of what's wrong with pedicabbing now: Imagine you're a cab driver. You've hacked a couple of years, you make your lease, maybe you've even invested in a medallion. You know how to be personable without being cloying or saccharine, honest enough that you won't pad your meter with a longer route, and it's a decent living. You get to travel around the city, meet a few interesting people and take a few interesting rides—so you have a few stories—and it may not be what you want to do with the rest of your life, but you don't hate it.
Now, imagine taking your cab out one night, and you notice a bunch of cars—of every make, size, year and model—with the word TAXI sloppily spray-painted on their sides. None of these “taxis” queue up at designated cab stands. They pull up ahead of where your legitimate cabs are lined up and snag the first people coming out of any hotel or restaurant. They don't use meters, they tell their fares they'll take them wherever they want to go for “a generous tip,” or for “just whatever dude.”
These cab drivers don't even really live in your city; they just roll into town to make a few bucks and roll out when weather, road and legal conditions aren't as conducive to their hustle. As a result, not only do they snag your fare, they have the nerve to ask you how to get to their fare's destination. Furthermore, imagine you feel pressured, by even some of your legitimate cab drivers, to suck it up, play ball, because you don't want to be the one to mouth off and launch an all-out taxi war.
In short, there are too many pedicabs. I know, because I'm one of too many.
Because Pedicabbing in Chicago remains unregulated, we're pretty much ground zero for any and every out-of-town fleet and indie owner-operator to come in and shark the waters. The streets are already saturated with locals.
Motley assortments of tricycles and trailer-bikes swarm, crowd and clog the paths and entrances to any (though not every, not anymore) event in Chicago—any concert, any ballgame or sporting event, any street fair. The hacks—operating at varying levels of skill, experience and sobriety—tie up foot traffic and create a desperate cacophony of dinging bike bells and hollered pitches. Nobody can enter or leave without passing a bike and being pitched to, sometimes threateningly and aggressively.
You'll see every cute and dirty trick pedicabbers play to snag the fare from the other hacks: pulling up to the front of a queue, pulling up in front of a staged cab, posting his bike to where it blocks the other bikes, undercutting your price, going against traffic in the bike lane. Basically, if you can think of a way to screw a rider out of a fare, it's been done, and, at this point, it's kind of a sport among the other riders.
Between all of these trike rats crawling all over each other to snag fares, there are a few different types of riders: the ones who gouge, the undercutters and tip workers, the daredevils and the overly cautious.
More symptomatic of the transplanted New York vets—who are used to living and working in an expensive city, where tourists and Wall Streeters more readily accept the price of things—the gougers won't take you a block for less than twenty, and a mile could be up to fifty. Maybe more.
Tip workers just want to keep people in their cab, and are willing to roll the dice on a fare's capacity for generosity and fairness. It drags us down, because everybody starts expecting that, but I understand their system this little bit: you'll quote a price, and be told the price is too high by your potential fare. You may or may not go down on your bid; you may or may not reach an agreement. But if you don't get the ride, you always wonder if you should've. You always wonder if, had you sucked it up and agreed to the lower fare, would your passengers have changed their minds and made it worth your while at the end of the ride. Working only on tips pretty much guarantees you'll always have people in your cab, and you may or may not luck out.
Also, every pedicabber has a desperate moment. He's gone an hour or two without a ride and will do anything just to get a couple of bucks in his pocket and some semblance of momentum. Still, negotiating a fare is a power game. You know the worth of your work, and you demand that worth be recognized. So for people to come in, declaring they work only for tips, is to cut you off and cede the terms to people who don't really appreciate your work.
The daredevils, drunks and clueless take health and safety risks with themselves and their fares through carelessness. The overly cautious are a danger—and a drag—because they don't know common sense traffic assertion, which is as simple as signaling and making eye contact with drivers.
All told, there's the ideal—which is professionalism, pure and simple—and what surrounds the ideal, which is everything else. Problem is, everybody thinks that they're the ideal. Everybody thinks they're right and swears they know what they're doing. Nobody does, not really. We're all making it up as we go along. Some of us are just more consistent than the others.
The job itself is one of the most pointlessly exhausting and frustrating ones you could ever hope to have. But there's a big ‘however' to consider.
The big however: if you do it right, it's the most graceful way you can travel. When you roll past the NBC building on Illinois, then down Columbus Avenue, you feel the rise and the drop, you take in the sky, streets and air completely. Everything surrounds you. You feel the weight of the people you're pulling as they experience it with you. There's a transaction that goes beyond the money, something else being passed back and forth—a shared awe in the giant diorama you're rolling through. If you're good, and you're fare is cool, it's like a shared high. If you're good, and you're graceful, you're a blood cell fluidly traversing the city's veins, you're water flowing through and between all that blocky red brick, steel and concrete urban matter. You swerve and glide through neighborhoods and business and bar districts in balletic curves and parries, surrounded by the cityscape, surrounded by all the cement and glass canyons.
You're not blocked off from everything, encased in a vacuum of steel and glass, sitting in the artificial air conditioning, maybe getting wind through a crack in an open window, maybe with the radio playing and everything outside sliding past in silence.
No, you're out there in the world, in the it, where skyscrapers and power lines and all the city's energy looms over you like the weather. Because you're pulling strangers along, and saying this is my city, and this is why I'm still in love with my city even though it's dirty, corrupt, dangerous and can be a hell half of the time.
And this is why so many people in other cities want to do this. Not every city is a monolithic steel and glass metropolis, no, but every city has its own face and character. Every city has something cool, secret and hidden that needs to be shown, and shown by astute, self-appointed cash ambassadors.
This is why cities such as Austin, New York and San Diego get overcrowded with pedicabbers, to the point where it's been called an outright war. A few pedicabbers I know who'd done it in New York said that, working Central Park, they'd seen not only knives but guns. A September 2009 article in the San Diego Reader quotes a pedicabber as saying, in regards to a foreign student who'd just snagged a fare, “You want to see me get upset? Now I'm going to get upset! I hate those little bastards, I hate 'em, hate 'em, hate 'em! God DAMN, those little fuckers are getting us! One of these times, I'm going to fuck them up real! God damn it, what has happened to this business?… I'm just going to start smashing them. No questions, no rules anymore, just smash them in the face.”
And this is why, especially in the face of regulations and ordinances being passed in those cities, pedicabbers are relocating here. Their reason being, basically, it's not as bad here, yet.
Okay, in an ideal world—in pedicab heaven—for one, there'd be designated pedicab routes and staging areas, and all the pedicabs would be aware of them and try to abide by them. No more rooting around, tucking ourselves into odd corners. There'd be fewer conflicts with traffic, with cops and TMAs (traffic management aides) and, if lines are formed, less conflicts with each other.
For another, a fair rate would be agreed upon. In Kansas City, where pedicabbing is regulated, the fare is two bucks per block, no matter how many people are on the cab. In New Orleans, where it's just now been legalized after legislation, the rate is four a block. Any tips, any extra earned, would depend entirely on the service.
The cabs would all have to be licensed, insured, and have a standard design, including disc and hydraulic brakes and a requisite twenty-one speeds, and they'd be regularly inspected and maintained.
However, I talk about this “pedicab heaven,” knowing it's out of my ass. It's not likely to happen anytime real soon. Fleet owners and independent owner operators have been meeting with city hall, trying to hash out and craft something everyone can work with, but it always ends up in a stalemate. The fleet owners and independent operators all have their own agendas that have nothing to do with the good of the trade as a whole. So meetings end in arguments, legislation is blocked, and the consumer affairs office becomes more reluctant to work with the trade.
There's one big, unsaid issue involved, however. If we fully codify and regulate pedicabbing, would it lose its soul a little bit? Truth be told, the anarchic nature and questionable legality of doing it factors a lot into its appeal, for both operators and passengers. Designated routes mean no fun weaving through the gridlock. In fact, the result, at least during peak periods, could be pedicab gridlock. It might end up that way anyway.
They're still butting heads over pedicab ordinances in war zones such as San Diego and Austin, and, in New York, ordinances have supposedly passed that are never enforced. What could—and possibly should—happen is that pedicabbing gets banned outright. By banned, I mean bikes being impounded as opposed to riders just getting ticketed. Then, maybe, after regulations get passed—if regulations get passed—a limited number are allowed to operate. That, however, is another possibility that hovers over our heads. Who'll get cut, who'll survive, will the city enforce it, when and how?
The city's potential decision, and the back and forth between the riders, fleet owners and aldermen, all add to the trade's dissonant tangle. Currently, the civic voice is manifested in the whims of beat cops, some of whom openly dislike us, bellow threats of impoundment, and are itching to ticket. Every pedicabber currently floats in the meantime, where citations are written (usually for a hondo or two, usually for operating without business licenses, for being on park property without park decals, or generally for being someplace cops don't like us being), palms are greased, ordinance proposals are passed back and forth regarding bike routes and limited street access, visible fare cards, standard, uniform bike designs, workman's comp and advertising. Rides are still given, taken, snagged and stolen. There's not much else we can do.
Most of the pedicabbers who'd started before or around the same time I did either have additional jobs or they've quit doing it altogether.
Thing is, once you've been your own boss for so long, it's hard to even look for another job, let alone find one. There's a type that becomes a pedicabber, and there's the type that remains one because they can't do shit else.
At one point, back when I'd started, pedicabbing was freedom disguised as menial slave labor. It was the best job disguised as the worst. It's still not the worst, but it isn't the best anymore. It's become the type of job we try to avoid, because it's become a job.
By now, we all know Benjamin Franklin's oft paraphrased, “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” When I started pedicabbing, it felt like I was literally living in that phrase. It took living in it to realize that both freedom and security are illusions, whether you're getting paid by the hour or by the fare. Because everybody that survives like that lives in chaos, and freedom and security are constructs we pull out of it. Because everybody lives hand to mouth and day to day, dollar to dollar, meal to meal and drink to drink. Because everybody rides the high of being sore and punch drunk with a few hundred bucks in their pocket, and skids the low of being sore and punch drunk without a cent to show for it. Everybody has been told they're a carnie, a rock star, a saint, a panhandler and a petty criminal. Sometimes in the course of the same ride, by the same drunk passenger. Everybody is secure in their freedom, including their freedom to fail.
Because everybody lives in a toy life, their own personalized miniature version of their parents' version of the American dream. And every pedicabber knows that better than most people.
All rights reserved.
This is an essay I wrote for a very cool little magazine called The Handshake.