First, a disclaimer: I am not a career pedicab driver. I pedicabbed weekend rush hours for a couple months in fall 2009 and repeated the process, a bit more rigorously, this past fall. (You can read a chronicle of my more recent exploits here.) I wouldn’t say I subdued the beast, but I did grapple with it, and in so doing got an idea of what its whims are. Also, I happen to be engaged to passionate pedi-vangelist Gregg Zukowski, who’s made his living riding since 2003 and helped others do the same since founding Revolution Rickshaws in 2005. I’ve heard plenty of stories – and gleaned many an insight – from him, as well as from the dozens of other riders who’ve passed through RR in the two years I’ve been working here. What follows is my best guess, based on observation and (limited) experience. I’d love to hear the thoughts of other riders, whether novices, veterans, or would-be riders who fled screaming from Midtown after a couple turns around Times Square.
So. What does it take to succeed as a pedicab driver on the sometimes mean, sometimes magical, streets of New York?
A thick skin and a sense of humor. It can be hard to hear “No,” “It’s too cold,” “It’s too far,” “It’s too much” – or, better yet, “I want a real cab” – over and over again. Meanwhile, your gas-guzzling brethren are being hailed as saviors, and boarded without question, at every intersection. If you’re able to disarm taxi-seekers with a joke, or persist despite initial resistance, or accept refusal without rancor and ride on to the next potential passenger – then you have a chance of maintaining a positive attitude long enough to find your next fare.
Knowledge of New York. Some people hail taxis because they know where they’re going and it’s farther than they want to walk. Others hail taxis because they have only the barest idea of where they’re going, and they need someone to say, “Yes, I know exactly where that is, get in and I’ll take you there.” Sometimes, if you can say that, you’ve got yourself a fare. (Yes, you can Google map pretty much any hotel, store, restaurant, museum, or Broadway show on your iPhone – but that presupposes that your prospect is already committed to going with you, hence is willing to wait a moment while you look it up.) Also, of course, you need to know which streets go which way, which crosstown channels are least likely to clog during rush hour, which routes are hilly and which are flat, and so on.
Street smarts. Drunk party-goers can make great passengers, but how drunk is too drunk? When do you need to include a tip in your price, to compensate for a passenger’s cultural prejudice against tipping? When is the line minder at Penn Station or Grand Central just blowing smoke, and when is he about to call a cop over to give you a ticket? To paraphrase Kenny Rogers, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to ride away and when to run….”
Sociable creativity. Let’s face it: It can get boring to make the same circuit of Midtown every evening, face the same crew of taxi hailers wanting a “real” cab, night after night. It helps if you can make the experience new, whether by coming up with a fresh comeback for the usual dismissals, trying out a new shtick on the Penn Station line (Calling all stand-up comedians! Play to a captive crowd of non-comics!), dressing up in a costume or a funny hat (one that’s well-anchored to your head, preferably, and doesn’t act like a sail). Yes! You are an improvisational performer on a mobile stage, reaching new audiences every night!
A healthy respect for the service you’re providing. You have to be willing to charge enough for rides that you continue to be happy to provide them. And (it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway) you need to believe in the value – the fun, the efficiency, the ecological benefit – of what you’re offering, if you expect to be able to sell it.
Strong legs. Yes, you absolutely do need to be physically fit to ride a pedicab – so why is this requirement at the bottom of the list? Because it’s the one thing you can be pretty certain you’ll develop over time, just by continuing to ride. Many passengers have said to me, “You must need really strong legs to do this!” And that’s true. But strong legs won’t get you far in this field without a strong will and a strong mind.