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.
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