Pedicab Driving – How It Works, Earnings Potential, Pros & Cons

Pedicab Driving – How It Works, Earnings Potential, Pros & Cons

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?

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.

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:

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.

new york times square pedicab, photo by Joe Ravi

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:

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.

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:

austin texas pedicab at sxsw, photo by Alfie Photography

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

chinese pedicab, photo by Nataliya Hora

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:

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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:

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.

pedicab in san diego, california

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?

Categories: Careers, Cars & Transportation, Extra Income, Lifestyle

Brian Martucci writes about frugal living, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas. When he’s not interviewing small business owners or investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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