If you’ve spent much time in the entertainment districts of larger cities or college towns, you’ve probably seen a pedicab in action. Known by a variety of other names, including “bike taxis” and “cycle rickshaws,” pedicabs are generally three-wheeled vehicles with a forward-positioned driver’s seat and seating space farther back for two to four people.
Configurations vary widely, but many pedicabs have semi-weatherproof covers that keep passengers reasonably dry in inclement weather. Some of them sport logos or rudimentary ads for local businesses, an important source of revenue for certain operators.
Pedicabs are heavy. The typical vehicle weighs about 300 pounds when empty, and can carry more than 300 pounds of passenger weight, according to The Toledo Blade. To make it easier to start from a dead stop, pedicabs generally have 21 gears or more. Some have electric or gas motors to assist drivers with fully loaded vehicles, though many U.S. jurisdictions ban pedicabs with motors of any kind. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as pedicabs classified as non-motorized vehicles can go many places where cars and motorized scooters can’t, such as park paths and pedestrian malls.
However, what about pedicabbers – the people who actually drive these vehicles? What’s it like, and can you make an honest living as a part- or full-time pedicabber – or at least earn enough to make the experience worth your time?
How Pedicabbing Works
In some countries (particularly in the developing world), pedicabs are an important part of the transportation mix, and serve as a viable alternative to public transportation, taxis, and personal vehicles. In North America and Europe, they definitely occupy a smaller niche, catering mostly to tourists and revelers around conventions, concerts, sporting events, and nightlife. However, within this niche, pedicab drivers certainly compete with taxi and ride share operators for a share of the transportation market.
With new pedicabs ranging between $3,000 and $4,000, and used vehicles available for less than $2,000, the cost of obtaining one isn’t prohibitive. Some pedicabbers are sole proprietors who own a single pedicab, store it in their home garage, and use it to earn extra cash in their spare time.
However, larger outfits- some with dozens of pedicabs in the stable – also exist. But unlike big taxi companies that serve entire regions, or global ride share apps such as Uber and Lyft, pedicab providers tend to stick to a relatively small geographical area – perhaps a few square miles in the center of a city.
Like motorized taxis, pedicabs can either be flagged down on the street or reserved ahead of time, usually by phone and less frequently online. Some operators prefer, or stick entirely to, one method over the other.
Also like taxis, pedicab operators generally charge fares based on a ride’s total length, duration, or both. In cities with regular street grids, per-block charges are common – ranging from less than $1 to $4 or $5, depending on the location. In parks or irregularly laid-out areas, per-minute charges tend to be standard – $2 to more than $5, again depending on location. Some operators also charge by the hour or half-hour – usually $20 to $40 per half-hour, possibly with discounts for longer rides. In all cases, tipping is expected: 15% to 20% of the fare is customary.
Types of Pedicab Providers
Pedicab companies are frequently referred to as “shops,” which is also a convenient term for their headquarters – typically garages or small warehouses. Virtually every U.S. city that allows pedicabs requires shops to carry a business license and commercial liability insurance. Insurance coverage amounts vary, but $1,000,000 per pedicab is a typical figure.
Individual pedicab drivers need to be licensed as well. Requirements vary by jurisdiction, but typically include a minimum age threshold (16 or 18), valid driver’s license, relatively clean driving record (no DUIs or major accidents within the statute of limitations), and a clean physical bill of health, possibly supported by a doctor’s exam. There’s often a nominal fee to obtain a pedicab license – $5 to $15 is typical.
Pedicab shops come in two major flavors, depending on their business model and clientele:
- For-Hire Transportation Providers. This type of provider resembles a traditional taxi company or ride share, providing transportation from point A to point B for a diverse clientele, from tourists and conventioneers to out-on-the-town college students and young professionals. Drivers can be social in the mold of motor cabbies, but aren’t expected to intensively narrate the route – though many do in the hopes of earning a better tip. This type of pedicab operator is more likely to charge by distance, not duration, and to be available for hailing.
- Route-Based Providers. Other pedicab providers bear more resemblance to tour operators. More so than the first type of provider, this group caters explicitly to tourists and those seeking a special experience. As such, they typically cluster in touristy areas, such as New York’s Central Park and Boston‘s historic district, and follow preplanned routes designed to hit as many sights as possible. Knowledgeable drivers often highlight historical points of interest and oddities along the way. These folks are more likely to charge by the minute or hour, and to require reservations.
The line between these two types can blur. For instance, many pedicabbers at taxi-style shops are highly knowledgeable about the areas they work in and thus serve as de facto tour guides for their passengers, particularly those from out of town.
Earning Potential and Expenses
Like any workers who don’t earn a set salary or flat fee for services rendered, pedicabbers’ earnings vary considerably. Your earning potential is largely a function of your shop’s fare schedule, fee arrangement, and situational factors particular to your shift.
Unlike using your personal vehicle to drive for a ride sharing app, pedicabbing doesn’t have steep overhead or maintenance costs, such as auto insurance, gas, and mechanical repairs. However, unless you own your own pedicab, you do face a substantial expense – the fee or cut your shop’s owner takes.
These arrangements vary, but commonly include the following:
- Rental Fees. Some shops rent out pedicabs to licensed drivers, charging a flat fee for the day or a set shift (say, six to eight hours). Under this arrangement, you take home everything you earn after accounting for the fee. For example, if your rental fee is $50 and you take in $200 per shift, you go home with $150. To keep their drivers happy and fed, shops sometimes reduce rental fees on slow nights.
- Fare Cut. Some shops take a cut of a driver’s entire fare haul, excluding tips. This cut varies by shop and location, but can range from 20% to 50%. This arrangement is favorable for slow shifts, when your shop’s cut is relatively small, but can seriously cut into your earnings on busier shifts.
- Wages and Tips. Some pedicab shops, mostly tour-focused shops whose vehicles are available for hire or stick to preplanned routes, pay their drivers a set hourly wage and allow them to keep any tips received at the end of the ride. Under this arrangement, drivers receive a paycheck at regular intervals and pass the entirety of any fares they collect, less tip, to the shop. Wages are set at prevailing local rates, but drivers can expect to earn at least $10 per hour before tips. This arrangement is somewhat less common than rental fees or fare cuts.
- Sponsorship. This is an interesting but relatively uncommon arrangement used primarily by operators in jurisdictions with ambiguous pedicab regulations. Operators using the sponsorship model, such as Austin’s Capital Pedicab, completely eschew fares. Instead, they outfit their pedicabs as moving billboards and charge advertisers – their sponsors – based on the size and number of displays purchased. Drivers work entirely for tips, with riders encouraged to pay what they think is fair. The upshot is that there are no rental fees or fare cuts. The downside is little control over earnings and the very real risk of getting stiffed on any given ride.
As a pedicabber, various situational factors influence your earnings on any given shift, including weather, event schedules, location, day of the week, and competition from other pedicab operators. A chilly, rainy Sunday evening when the home team is out of town and no major concerts are scheduled is virtually assured to be less lucrative than a balmy Friday night that features a concert, a home game, and a Star Trek convention within pedaling distance of one another.
All told, the wide variety of fare structures, fee arrangements, and situational factors make it difficult to generalize about how much you can expect to earn as a pedicab driver. On a slow night, you could earn $70 or $80 in six or eight hours, barely enough to make it worth your time after accounting for your shop’s cut. On a gangbusters night, you could earn $300 or more over the course of six or eight hours, far more than a typical server or taxi driver takes home in a comparable shift.
Hours and Shift Schedules
Many pedicab shops – particularly those following the for-hire model – eschew scheduled, set-length shifts in favor of driver-controlled schedules that follow the laws of supply and demand, at least in theory. During busy periods, such as weekends, evenings, and major events, drivers can count on higher earnings and thus have a greater incentive to work. When demand is lower, drivers show up in lower numbers.
The big advantage of this laid-back approach to scheduling is that pedicabbers can achieve an excellent work-life balance that allows them to choose how many hours they work in a given week and pursue other interests or goals. For example, I have two good friends who work as pedicabbers in the Bay Area. One is a graduate student who basically works full-time during school breaks and dials back to 10 or 20 hours per week during the semester. The other is an avid outdoorsman who’s known to string together five or six work nights in a row, then take off for the mountains for a few days.
Though many pedicabbers have tremendous freedom to make their own schedules, it’s important to remember that traditional employment arrangements are rare in the industry, mostly confined to shops that basically function as tour operators. Like ride share apps, many pedicab shops treat their “employees” as independent contractors. As a contractor, you’re responsible for keeping track of your own tax liabilities and paying self-employment tax. If you prefer the certainty and simplicity of traditional employment, know that any shop that treats drivers as employees is also likely to schedule them for set shifts.
Virtually every city that permits pedicabs – and many do – has a detailed pedicab ordinance, just as all cities have rules governing taxis. Though rules vary widely from place to place, you can expect your city to impose the following regulations:
- Restrictions on Movement. Though pedicabs are usually allowed to share motor vehicle lanes, cities often restrict or forbid movement on major thoroughfares or at busy times. For instance, Savannah, Georgia, prohibits pedicabs from using major streets from 9am to 5pm on weekdays. Savannah also prohibits pedicabs from leaving the city’s central business and tourist district or congregating in groups of four or more.
- Fare Caps or Regulations. Like any industry, the pedicab business has a few bad apples who give their honest colleagues a bad name. In 2012, Fox News reported on a New York pedicabber who charged four unsuspecting tourists more than $440 for a 14-block ride through Manhattan. Though the driver only charged a few bucks per block, the cab’s rate card spelled out a huge caveat in tiny print: a $100-per-passenger fee on top of the per-block fee. The tourists complained to the city, which quickly stepped in to regulate pedicabs’ fare structures. Most cities now either explicitly regulate pedicab fares – by capping per-block or hourly fees – or require rates to be clearly and prominently spelled out in a visible location within the cab. For instance, New Orleans caps rates at $5 for the first six blocks and $1 per block, per person thereafter, while New York simply requires fares to be clearly displayed in 28-point font or larger. If your jurisdiction has strict caps on fares, your take-home earning potential (both as an individual pedicabber or shop owner) could suffer.
- Anti-Solicitation Rules. Depending on how they’re worded and enforced, anti-solicitation rules can be a major wild card for pedicab operators. For instance, Savannah’s pedicab ordinance states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to solicit passengers verbally or by gesture, directly or indirectly, upon the streets or other areas of the city.” When read literally, that suggests that pedicabbers can’t so much as initiate eye contact with prospective fares – they either have to wait for passengers to come to them or do business entirely by dispatch (via called-in, prearranged rides). By contrast, I have ample anecdotal evidence that Boston’s pedicabbers operate without fear of an anti-solicitation crackdown. The last time my wife and I were in town, we gamely endured persistent but polite entreaties – some quite enticing – from enterprising pedicabbers hanging out near Faneuil Hall.
- Numerical Restrictions. Many cities cap the number of available pedicab licenses. This is definitely a double-edged sword for pedicabbers. On the one hand, numerical restrictions limit competition, theoretically boosting pedicabbers’ earnings. On the other, they make it harder for new entrants to break into the business. For entrepreneurial pedicabbers who own – or dream of owning – their own shop, it can also limit growth opportunities.
Advantages of Being a Pedicab Driver
1. On-the-Job Exercise
According to an anecdotal analysis by the Daily Nebraskan, a pedicabber can burn 8,500 calories on a full shift. Contrast that figure with the 1,500 to 2,500 calories burned in an entire day by typical humans with more sedentary lifestyles.
No bones about it, pedicabbing is great exercise. This is awesome for one obvious reason: Overwhelming medical evidence suggests that regular exercise, healthy weight, and cardiovascular fitness all boost mood and reduce risk factors for potentially serious conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. When doing your job is enough to get you in shape, it’s hard not to be healthy.
Having an active, healthy occupation is great for a less obvious reason, though: It’s convenient. The exercise you get from three or four pedicabbing shifts per week eliminates the need to exercise when you’re not at work. Cutting out four 30-minute workouts from your weekly routine saves you two hours every seven days – time you can spend attending to other needs or that you can devote to your friends and family.
2. Outdoor Work
If you like the sun on your face and the breeze in your hair, pedicabbing could be the job for you. Most pedicabs lack weatherproof compartments for drivers (as opposed to passengers), so you’re likely to be outside for the duration of your shift.
There’s something to be said for getting paid to breathe fresh air and bask in the sunshine. Though I’ve never worked as a pedicabber, the outdoor jobs I’ve held have left me more satisfied and happy than I tend to be at the end of a long day in front of my computer.
3. Make Your Own Schedule
For many drivers, pedicabbing is a highly flexible gig. Shops generally eschew scheduled, fixed-hour shifts, permitting employees to make their own schedules around other obligations and counting on the allure of higher earnings to ensure adequate coverage during high-demand periods.
As a pedicabber, you’re not likely to be at a supervisor’s beck and call, nor do you have to structure your life around long-term shift obligations. The result is a favorable work-life balance that allows you to feel like more than the sum of your hours worked.
4. Flexible, Often Attractive Earning Potential
Pedicabbers, even those who earn a set wage plus tips, enjoy flexible earning potential that can often reach impressive heights. During peak periods, it’s common to see passengers queue faster than nearby pedicabbers can pick them up, ensuring a steady stream of fares for those on duty. Though demand factors aren’t entirely within pedicabbers’ control, they can also boost their earnings further by chatting up their fares and serving as local ambassadors or tour guides, drawing juicier tips in the process.
5. Pedicabbing Is Eco-Friendly
Pedicabbing is much better for the environment than driving a taxi or ride share vehicle. According to the New York Taxi & Limousine Commission’s 2014 Taxicab Fact Book, New York City’s taxi vehicles get an average of 29 miles to the gallon. By contrast, pedicabs plying the streets of Manhattan or Brooklyn – or anywhere else, for that matter – get infinite miles to the gallon, unless you count the carbon dioxide their drivers exhale.
If you care about your impact on the environment, the eco-friendliness of pedicabs allows you to make money in the transportation business without worrying about your carbon footprint. Likewise, the fact that your pedicab doesn’t belch carbon into the air likely appeals to sustainability-minded passengers, who tend to select pedal power over gas power, even if the latter gets them to where they’re going a bit quicker. And that’s not just good for the environment – it’s good for your bottom line too.
6. Great Way to Learn a City’s Geography and History
Even if you’ve lived there for years, a pedicabbing gig can be an opportunity to learn more about your city. After all, many pedicab shops function as tour operators, and pedicabbers themselves as tour guides. Even if your shop doesn’t do tours or make education a cornerstone of its business model, you have an economic incentive to learn as much as possible about the areas you work in: Passengers tend to tip better after they’ve received a slew of interesting information from a friendly pedicabber about the route they just traversed.
The same principle applies to geographical knowledge. Pedicabbing is a great way to learn the shortest distance between point A and point B, including shortcuts that are off-limits to motorized vehicles. This is true even if you use a GPS device to stay on track. And, if you can remember or record your riders’ destinations, pedicabbing is also a great way to discover exciting new businesses or points of interest in your own backyard.
7. Great Way to Meet New People
Driving a pedicab is a highly social experience – an easy, natural way to meet people. Of course, you’re unlikely to re-encounter most of the folks you meet while pedicabbing, especially out-of-town visitors. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have meaningful, if fleeting, interactions.
Pedicabbing also offers an opportunity to form deeper, longer-lasting relationships. This is particularly true for drivers who form long-term associations with specific shops, or who strike out and start their own. For instance, my Bay Area friends don’t simply go to the shop to pick up and drop off their pedicabs. They routinely linger there before and after shifts, shooting the breeze with their compatriots or catching up on schoolwork. They also freely associate with their fellow drivers outside the shop, which isn’t always a given among colleagues.
8. No Costs for Operating or Maintaining a Motor Vehicle
Unlike ride share operators and taxi drivers, pedicabbers don’t have to worry about the costs associated with gas-powered vehicles, such as insurance, maintenance, repairs, parking costs, and fuel. Of course, pedicab drivers who own a personal motor vehicle must deal with some or all of these expenses. However, they’re not required to do so as a condition of their pedicabbing work.
Disadvantages of Being a Pedicab Driver
1. Potential for Chronic or Serious Injury
Due to the strenuous nature of the work, pedicabbers are at higher risk of injury than those with more sedentary jobs, including taxi and ride share drivers:
- Overuse Injuries. Whenever you use a particular muscle group on a regular basis, particularly if the work is strenuous, you’re at risk for overuse injuries. Pedicabbers contend with the same sorts of injuries as cyclists, mainly ankle, knee, thigh, and groin issues. In extreme cases, these injuries – particularly knee problems – may require surgery to fix properly. More commonly, they simply require temporary reductions in physical activity – though being laid up for days or weeks can present serious financial challenges for those who rely on pedicabbing as a primary source of income.
- Accident-Related Injuries. Pedal-powered transportation is dangerous, especially on shared roads. Pedicabbing and cycling aren’t directly analogous, due mainly to the fact that pedicabbers are more visible and tend to stick to areas with slower traffic than lone cyclists. However, pedicabbers definitely face a real risk from wayward motor vehicles. And, since pedicabs are slow, these accidents are often hit-and-run affairs. According to Fox 7 News, an Austin-area news channel, hit-and-run pedicab accidents are increasingly common in that city’s entertainment district.
It’s worth noting that some pedicabbers install low-power electric motors to boost the efficiency of their vehicles and help stave off overuse injuries. However, this is often illegal, due to the fact that many jurisdictions classify internally powered vehicles (anything with a motor, electric or otherwise) differently from pedal-powered vehicles.
In addition, it can be dangerous: In May 2015, the New York Post reported on a three-alarm fire caused by a pedicab illegally outfitted with a faulty electric motor. Before modifying your pedicab with the aim of making your job easier and safer, check with the local authorities to make sure it’s permitted.
2. Prime Shifts Are Often Evenings or Weekends
In the United States, pedicabs are particularly prevalent in entertainment and sporting districts. These areas tend to be busier in the evenings and on weekends, when most people aren’t at work. Unfortunately, this means that evenings and weekends are the best times for pedicabbers to work, at least in terms of earning potential. Though the fact that you can schedule your own pedicabbing hours is a major argument in favor of the occupation, it’s partially offset by the fact that the most lucrative shifts occur outside the typical 9-to-5 workday.
3. Most Pedicabbers Work as Independent Contractors
Since most pedicab drivers work as independent contractors, they don’t enjoy the protections and perks that come with traditional employment arrangements, such as the potential for employer-sponsored insurance and the promise of overtime wages. Pedicabbers who work as independent contractors are also responsible for self-employment tax, which includes a portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes (collectively known as FICA) normally covered by employers on behalf of their employees. Self-employment tax represents an additional employment cost not borne by traditional employees.
4. Highly Volatile Earnings
Another major downside is that there’s no promise of a steady income. Though pedicabbers who work in lively big-city entertainment districts can count on picking up at least a few customers on any given night, there are simply too many demand-related factors in play for even the most experienced pedicabbers to arrive at more than a rough ballpark earnings estimate in advance of a shift:
- Weather. No one wants to ride in a pedicab in a cold downpour or snowstorm, even when they’re properly attired or the vehicle is covered. An unexpected weather event can ruin a seemingly promising shift, sending prospective customers running for the comfort of a motor taxi or ride share.
- Performance Schedules. Live music venues draw pedicabbers like moths to flames. Many markets have off periods though. This creates a feast-or-famine scenario: You might clean up the night U2 comes to town, then suffer for a week as the local music scene goes into hibernation.
- Conventions. Big conventions attract thousands of attendees looking for a good time – and primed to spend on luxuries like pedicab rides. However, even the most popular convention destinations have down periods. This is particularly notable in seasonal destinations. In my hometown of Minneapolis, the convention center is a virtual ghost town in winter. Come summer, I imagine Phoenix’s convention center is pretty dead too.
- Sporting Events. On game nights, pedicabbers clean up. However, when the home team is out of town, stadium districts empty out. My Bay Area pedicabbing buddies religiously follow the San Francisco Giants’ schedule, working home games whenever possible and taking more time off when the team takes road trips.
If you don’t own your own pedicab, it’s also important to consider your arrangement with your shop. On slow shifts, a flat rental rate can dramatically cut your take-home earnings. A split-fare arrangement is more attractive on slow shifts – but since you’re always required to forward the same percentage to your shop, it can really eat into your earnings on busy shifts.
5. Potential for Physical Discomfort
Pedicabbing is definitely an aerobic workout in sometimes inclement conditions. If you’re looking to get in shape, that’s a good thing, but be aware of the physical costs:
- Effort and Exertion. Bulging thighs, toned calves, and Olympian levels of stamina don’t come free – especially when you’re pulling a 150-pound rickshaw, plus the weight of your passengers. When they’re not waiting around for the next fare, pedicabbers are routinely out of breath. On-the-job cramps are common, and it can take a day or more to nurse the aching leg muscles that inevitably result from a long shift. After particularly brutal days, one of my Bay Area buddies likes to post Facebook pictures of his “recovery routine,” which typically involves lots of sitting, ice packs, and food.
- Exposure to the Elements. Like those who commute by bike, pedicabbers are routinely exposed to the elements. When it’s pleasant outside, this can be a great benefit of the job. When it’s not, it can be the scourge of a pedicabber’s existence. One of my Bay Area friends used to work in Boston, where pedicab-riding locals had a far higher tolerance for rain, wind, and cold than his current Californian clientele. Though business definitely dropped off in inclement weather, he’d still occasionally work in conditions that any normal person would consider unpleasant.
6. Unpleasant Encounters With Customers and Passers-By
As service employees, pedicabbers have to deal with the usual unpleasant customer archetypes. If you’ve worked in a restaurant or any other service-based profession, you’ve met these people too. To make your way in any such job, you need thick skin and a willingness to turn the other cheek.
However, pedicabbers must countenance a whole other level of abuse. Unlike restaurant servers, pedicabbers are literally on public display as they wait around for customers, then move them from point A to point B. And, since pedicabbing is a relatively novel, slow-moving form of transportation that attracts second glances from even the most polite bystanders, there’s plenty of opportunity for less well-intentioned bystanders and customers to heckle and abuse them. Add alcohol to the mix – all too common around concerts, sporting events, and other pedicab-friendly events – and it’s a wonder any pedicabbers are willing to do their jobs at all.
No one seriously argues that taking a pedicab is the most efficient or cost-effective way to get around, at least in the United States. People ride in pedicabs because they’re novel, eco-friendly, more pleasant than taxis, and afford exposure to a city’s sights and sounds. For these reasons, pedicab riders are willing to pay a premium for the experience.
However, it’s important for pedicab drivers to remember that, for these same reasons, they’re not exactly on par with traditional taxi drivers and ride share operators. In addition, they’re also local ambassadors and tour guides who create lasting memories for many of their riders, even when “tour guide” isn’t in the official job description.
If the idea of being the face of your city appeals to you, pedicabbing could be a great side gig or primary job. If you prefer a less social line of work, look elsewhere.
Do you know anyone who drives a pedicab?