Rickshaw renaissance

Minneapolis has a new pedicab industry and a new set of rules to go with it

You’ve seen them around. Most are yellow with black padded seats, buzzing like bumble bees around Target Field during game days. Some are decked out in a familiar corporate logo, splattered with red bull’s-eyes. One of them is plain black, piloted by a 20-something driver in an old-fashioned costume and a handlebar moustache.

Pedicabs, those three-wheeled pedal taxis that combine the mechanics of a tricycle with the luxury of a chariot, are everywhere this spring. And while they aren’t necessarily new to Minneapolis, the last few months have seen the number of giant trikes mushroom, lured Downtown by the flood of pedestrians surrounding Target Field. It’s a sign that the Twin Cities have finally jumped on board with a green industry that has been growing exponentially — and often problematically — in cities large and small around the country.

But while we may be a little late to the pedicab game — pedicabs have operated in New York City since 1995, and in Portland, our rival in all matters cycling-related, they’ve been part of the urban landscape since 2002 — we seem to be ahead of the curve in policing it.

‘A mobile art project’

Not that policing is of any concern to Shotties.

The oldest of the current crop of pedicab companies is also the biggest serving the Uptown area. It’s also one of the few that operates under the city’s radar without a license — or it did, until a few citations shut the company down on May 14.

Launched in February 2009 by a young man named Stormy, Shotties is less a taxi service as it is a roving band of merrymakers, its drivers somewhere in between street buskers and civic heroes.

“We’re more like Good Samaritans,” says Stormy. He claims that his drivers have stopped crimes, that their offer of free rides have gotten people out of jams. “And it’s as much about our drivers’ fun as it is entertaining our clients.” On his company’s blog, he writes, “We are a mobile art project seeking to enhance peoples’ awesomeness.”

Stormy builds his own pedicabs out of recycled materials. The company’s name, he explains, is a play on the word “shoddy,” a descriptor for the junked bikes that he turns into cabs. It’s also a reference to the seating arrangement. Shotties passengers ride shot gun — that is, in the front of the vehicle instead of behind. The company is currently up to four pedicabs, with a team of eight to nine drivers.

Rides are free. Tips are welcome but not expected. And advertising is reviled.

But Shotties is illegal. On May 14, two days before the Lyn Lake Street Festival, Stormy and three other pilots received citations for operating with no license or insurance. According to Stormy, insuring his pedicabs is financially out of the question. Since he builds all the cabs himself, he has no manufacturer’s insurance, which means that he can’t get liability coverage. Even when he finds an insurer willing to cover his homemade vehicles, he says it costs more to insure a pedicab for the six-month season than to insure a car for an entire year.

And no liability insurance means no city license. Stormy’s rigs are now confined to the garage until he can work out a way to buy coverage. A benefit concert may be in the works.

“Because I can’t operate, I don’t have the money to pay for it. And if we could operate, we’d probably be able to make enough. It’s an unfortunate paradox,” he said.

Regulations from the get-go

Minneapolis has had rules governing pedicabs in the books since 1984. But the original restrictions were so sweeping that they were lethal to business. Three-wheelers were banned from city streets after 10 p.m. They were banned from pedestrian heavy corridors like Nicollet Mall. Worse, they weren’t even allowed to stop at curbs, which made it impossible to pick up passengers. Most other cities had a complete lack of regulation when their pedicab industries developed. We had too much.

“It was a classic example of so much government regulation it was impossible to run a business,” said City Council Member Gary Schiff (9th Ward). “There were people who had licenses over time, but they all went out of business. By 2008 nobody was operating a pedicab in Minneapolis.”

Schiff spearheaded a 2008 push to ease restrictions after one of his constituents, man named Koa Rosa, complained. Rosa sought to launch a pedicab company here after having worked lucratively as a driver in San Diego, where over 500 trikes are licensed. Schiff and Rosa began working together to rewrite city ordinances.

Since then, the legal barriers to a pedicab business have been reduced. An operator needs only a valid driver’s license, to prove he knows the rules of the road, and proof of liability insurance for each cab. Each cab must have headlights, break lights and turn signals, and fares must be clearly posted on the vehicle.

The financial barriers, however, are still high. It costs about $6,000 to put a rig on the street. The cabs themselves — most of which come from a Colorado manufacturer called Main Street Pedicabs — run about $4,000 a piece. An operating license costs $95 per vehicle per year, plus a one-time $122 new business surcharge charged by the city. And, as Stormy has learned, insuring each cab can get pricey. A twelve-month plan can cost upwards of $1,000 for each vehicle.

But start-ups costs haven’t stopped entrepreneurs from making a go at it.

“Basically, what happened is exactly what we hoped would happen,” said Schiff. “We started with zero cabs in 2008. Now we’re up to 19. And I hope the trend continues to grow. It’s green. It’s a great alternative way to experience the city, and not just for tourists.”

But proliferation can pose problems. In New York City, where the number of licensed pedicabs has ballooned to 943, animosity between trikes and taxis has grown violent. A cap on the number of cabs is now being considered. In Portland, pedicabs now face harsher regulations following a flood of complaints over reckless drivers.

In Denver, two major sports venues have had to enforce designated passenger pick-up areas, a response to mounting complaints about rogue drivers flying through parking lots, cutting across grass and getting too aggressive in soliciting customers.

Kevin Smith, spokesman for the Twins, said that Target Field has not had any issues yet, aside from having to ask one cab to stop driving up the walkway connecting First Avenue to Target Plaza.

But city license inspector Richard Tuffs recalls a rocky debut for the trikes.

“The first weekend they hit the streets, I had lots of complaints,” he said. “Wrong way down a one-way, guys racing, driving on the sidewalks. I called in one company and said, ‘Look, I’m not going to tolerate this stuff. You need to get your drivers squared away.”

Since the Twins’ home opener, Tuffs said the complaints have died down. But he added, “I haven’t been out lately to observe them in operation.”

Young drivers, young entrepreneurs

According to Deputy Director of Licenses Ricardo Cervantes, Minneapolis’ 19 licensed pedicabs are spread over four companies. Only two are Minneapolis-based. And only one is headquartered Downtown. All are less than one year old.

Four of the 19 cabs — the ones covered in bull’s-eyes — are publicity vehicles for Target, registered to a Bloomington-based marketing outfit called Becore Promotions, Inc. Drivers offer free rides during Twins games to anyone going to or from Target Field.

The oldest licensed pedicab company, launched in May of 2009, actually had nothing to do with Target Field. Nolan Peterson, a 25-year-old former bike messenger with a degree in history, just wanted to combine his two biggest interests: cycling and nostalgia. He’s the guy in the old-fashioned garb and the handlebar moustache.

“My ideal thing is to do historical tours of the city,” said Peterson, who’s one-car operation, Peterson’s Pedicabs, also serves Uptown block parties and Northeast’s Art-A-Whirl. “I think it puts a smile on peoples’ faces to have a slower pace. Everything these days is instant, and sometimes it’s relaxing to just slow down for a second.”

But by far, the kingpin of the pedicab scene — the guy behind the ubiquitous yellow-and-black cabs — is 18-year-old Colin McCarty. A senior at Mendota Height’s St. Thomas Academy high school, McCarty owns 13 of the area’s 19 pedicabs.

Inspired by the prevalence of pedicabs in other cities — and unable to ignore the potential profits of the new Twins stadium — McCarty, with the help of his dad Steve, launched Twin Town Pedicabs just this past March.

McCarty rents cabs to independent contractors for a flat daily fee, from $30 for a weekday without a baseball game to $60 for the night of a weekend home game. Each driver takes their cab out and is free to roll anywhere Downtown — and to charge any rate they want.

According to Steve McCarty, who serves as Twin Town’s fleet manager, most drivers let the passenger determine how much each trip is worth. “People are a lot more generous when you leave it up to them.” Colin says that “it’s very common for people to make $200 or $300” per night.

“The money has been good,” said Andrew, a new Twin Town driver. There’s just one problem: the mammoth exercise.

“The other day, though, when I got off my bike, I couldn’t walk,” he marveled. “I worked seven hours, which doesn’t sound too crazy. But I got off the bike, and I was trying to go into my girlfriend’s house, and I walked into a wall. It was pretty funny.”