Wheels of Fortune
The sales pitches are assorted and relentless, shouted to an endless flood of pedestrians bedecked in Colorado Rockies attire streaming down the 16th Street Mall.
"How about a ride to the game, folks?"
"Lighten your load a little bit!"
"Give your kids a thrill!"
One man in a Red Sox shirt is warned point-blank: "You need a ride out of here. You're gonna be mobbed."
They come from drivers manning a line of pedicabs parked at 16th and Blake streets. Today is the Rockies' home opener, and there are dozens of the vehicles out and about, shuttling fans to Coors Field and pedaling empty cabs back to lineups at key pickup spots around downtown. The three-wheeled contraptions consist of a bike hitched to a cart with comfy seats in back; some have canopies, some don't. They're mostly spotted at night around the 16th Street Mall, but they also turn out in force for every Rockies home game, Denver Broncos game, New Year's Eve, Saint Patrick's Day, and any other event or celebration when the sheer amount of people, inclement weather and considerable quantities of alcohol create a perfect market.
"How much for a ride?" asks a man in shades. "I'm just looking for a tip," says Ed Martin, the driver at the front of the line who's wearing a pink cowboy hat. The standard rate, established by Mile High Pedicabs, the company from whom Martin leases his vehicle, is $2 a block, but most drivers ride for tips, which can earn them more. Once folks see how hard the drivers work for their money, most are quick to pay up.
Some drivers, like Martin, have been doing this for years; for others, this will be their first summer on the streets. Many are hard-core bike enthusiasts, thrilled by the chance to earn money doing what they love; others simply like the exercise. Experienced drivers willing to hustle can take home several hundred dollars for a long night of work. While most have day jobs, a few regulars drive pedicabs full-time, and they make so much cash they don't like to state their income, fearing the IRS may call.
For the man in the shades, the price is right. "I'm meeting a client for the game, and I need to get my ass over there as fast as possible," he says, climbing into Martin's cab. "Do what you gotta do." They're off, Martin's legs pumping hard against his pedals as he leans forward over the handlebars. He zips the wrong way up Blake and slides past cars with inches to spare. They're going maybe six, seven miles an hour, but compared to the thickening mass of fans surging toward Coors Field, they're flying.
"Dude, you're bad-ass, man!" exclaims the rider when Martin hits the brakes in front of the ballpark. He has just learned a piece of three-wheeled gospel: Pedicabs may look strange, and you may be embarrassed to ride in one, but at the right time and in the right place, there's no faster way to move. For that lesson, he hands over a sizable tip.
Inventor-entrepreneur Steve Meyer hopes to spread that gospel far and wide. The majority of the pedicabs in Denver were made by his company, Main Street Pedicabs in Broomfield, the largest pedicab manufacturer in North America, having supplied about 1,500 vehicles to cities around the world over the past fourteen years.
In Denver, most of the drivers lease their vehicles from Mile High Pedicabs, another Meyer-founded enterprise that serves as a model for similar outfits nationwide.
Meyer is "kind of the Godfather," says longtime Denver pedicab driver Bobby Lentell. "He can decide if he wants to sell to you just by whether he thinks you will be good for the pedicab industry."
In fact, thanks to Meyer, Denver has become an epicenter of sorts for the small but growing pedicab movement. Meyer estimates that there are 3,000 pedicabs in 100 or more locations around the United States, three times what there were a decade ago.
"Steve is the pedicab industry," says Dan Smith, who's owned pedicab companies in several cities and recently sold his pedicab business in San Diego. "He really is the father of the industry."
Now Meyer aims to prove his apparatuses are more than a novelty, more than a tourist gimmick. He believes they could help restructure the design and socioeconomic fabric of urban environments themselves. "This is the beginning stage of a new industry," he says. "And I can see it in a few years employing thousands of people."
But the rolling revolution has experienced a few bumps along the way. Many cities have resisted the vehicles, citing safety concerns and traffic issues, while the pedicab industry itself has struggled with casting off its fly-by-night reputation.
But the industry could get a lift this summer when the Democratic National Convention comes to town. Meyer and others hope pedicabs will be seen as the perfect "green" mode of transportation for an event that bills itself as the "most environmentally sustainable Democratic Convention in history" — not to mention a key solution to possible citywide congestion that could make the Rockies' opener look easy.
The Wright brothers had their bicycle shop. Steve Jobs had his parents' garage. Steve Meyer has a warehouse in Broomfield.
The main factory room rings with the percussion of pedicab assembly: the thump of a mallet striking a Plexiglas shell, the crackle of welding equipment licking the joints of a metal frame. In the basement, variations on the basic form are lined up against the walls: electric-assist cabs with battery-powered motors built into the front wheels, "pedal pickup" utility vehicles with diminutive truck beds in back, oversized "limo cabs" with double-length carts capable of transporting four to six passengers. In one corner, there's a shrine of sorts to these vehicles' ancestors: a rickshaw from Bangladesh with a body so tattooed with vivid seascapes and flying horses it resembles a pinball machine on wheels, and another specimen from Taiwan featuring ornate carved-wood details and a somber cloth canopy. On one wall, above it all, a street sign mockingly declares: "No bicycles."
Meyer, 54, watches the production, his graying hair and metal-rimmed glasses belied by the healthy physique of a bike rider. Like other entrepreneurs, he speaks in a series of anecdotes and offers grand pronouncements about how the world needs exactly what he's offering. A "product of the suburbs," he went to high school in Boulder and earned degrees in environmental biology and resource economics from the University of Colorado. After that, he worked in the real estate development industry and began to question the way suburbs are designed. City codes that required shopping centers to build so many parking spaces that they would only fill up on the busiest days of the year frustrated him, and he hated how the fronts of new suburban homes were dominated by giant three-car garages. He bristled at municipal funding for downtown parking lots. "I don't think the government should build daycare centers for cars," he explains.
Instead, he believes cities should be more like those in England, where people walk to their neighborhood pub, or New York City, where most people would consider the idea of driving to the supermarket downright insane. And he mentions his first, fleeting introduction to the device that would become his life's passion: a jaunt on a rickshaw while he was in India in the 1980s, a ride that was cut short by a blown tire.
For Meyer, the Indian rickshaw was nothing more than a tourist attraction; the technology behind that rickety, hand-pulled cart hadn't changed much since the vehicles were first introduced in Japan in the late nineteenth century. While variations troll numerous Asian cities in huge quantities, it was hard for him to see a role for them in a modern Western streetscape.
That changed in 1990, when, while consulting for housing developers, Meyer heard about a couple of old pedicabs that had been tooling around Aspen. "It's an appropriate technology for these kinds of environments," he says. "It's pedestrian-friendly, so you can have it in pedestrian areas, yet it helps people adapt to environments designed for cars." Since Meyer was helping to organize a pedestrian conference in Boulder with other like-minded planning professionals — the seeds of new urbanism — he borrowed the pedicabs, hired a few drivers and started a temporary operation in Boulder for the duration of the conference to see if the pedestrian-friendly system would work. It did. The vehicles turned heads on the Pearl Street Mall, so the drivers brought them to Denver, where they made so much money that they wanted to keep doing it. Meyer realized he'd hit on something.
He purchased four cabs, leased them to drivers and started Main Street Pedicabs in Denver, where he thought the alternative transportation would fit in well: "Denver was already in redevelopment mode. They'd already completed the 16th Street Mall, so it had concentrated people in a certain area. But it was hard to get from point A to point B on the mall, and it was hard to get to things off the mall," he says.
While they wait for customers to take to the Rockies' home opener, the pedicab drivers in LoDo talk shop. They discuss handlebar configurations — "I like mine at roughly 45 degrees," offers one. They compare the caches of energy drinks they have stowed in compartments under the passenger seats and trade stories. There was one about a $100 tipper and another about a group of bar-hoppers who battled each other, Ben-Hur style, across multiple pedicabs racing up the mall. "You see some incredible stuff," says driver Luis Cuza. "Some stuff you want to see, some stuff you don't."
While they're talking, they constantly scan for clients. The target customer is someone who is "mobility-impaired," a term Meyer uses to describe anyone who's having trouble getting to where they need to go on foot, from people with physical disabilities to those with one too many shopping bags. Pedestrians who are late for meetings and women suffering from uncomfortable shoes also count — as do drunks.
As game time approaches, business picks up. To get the stragglers and the bar crowd to the ballpark in time, drivers slalom through oncoming traffic and thread their way down sidewalks — neither of which they're technically allowed to do. According to city ordinance, pedicabs, like bicycles, have to abide by essentially the same traffic laws as cars, like staying on the road at all times. In the chaos of Opening Day, though, the cops have more pressing matters to attend to than a scofflaw pedicab or two.
Word is there are about forty pedicabs plying downtown right now, double the usual amount on a warm weekend night and quadruple the cadre who stick it out through the winter months. According to the city's Department of Excise and Licenses, approximately 100 people hold current pedicab driver's licenses, but many drivers who do get a license use it only occasionally, Meyer points out.
That could soon change, however. Greg Duran, the former manager of Mile High Pedicabs, recently split to start his own business, Colorado Rickshaw, with his wife, Teri Robnett. "It's going to be small, it's going to be elite, and it's going to provide optimum customer service," says Duran, who also runs a pedicab consulting company. The operation, which will include city tours and other novel pedicab uses, will be based at what will be called "City Cycle Lodging" — a bike-related garage and office on Arapahoe Street, a few blocks off the 16th Street Mall.
By the time the game starts, the drivers are flush with cash and eager for a break before the long afternoon ahead. Some plan to work the post-game crowd and continue on until after bar "let out" at 2 a.m. "It definitely is a lot of work," says Martin.
Thankfully, the average ride is a scant few blocks. Pedicabs focus on an area bounded by Broadway, 23rd Street, Platte Street, Colfax Avenue and Seventh Street on the Auraria campus. They also cruise the Pepsi Center, Elitch Gardens and Invesco Field (some rides are longer; there's a rumor that a driver once took a customer all the way to Stapleton). And while the pedicabs weigh between 150 and 200 pounds without a driver or passengers, they're deceptively easy to pedal, says Martin. "I'm a slight 160 pounds," he says. "As far as difficulty goes, it's fairly easy to do."
That wasn't always the case.
Meyer's first fleet of vehicles didn't work very well. Their braking systems were meager, at best, they had only five speeds, and it was nearly impossible to find replacement parts. So in 1993, Meyer decided to make his own pedicabs, cribbing design elements from mountain bikes and enlisting the expertise of a CU engineering class. Soon he had a rugged, attractive vehicle with 21 speeds, top-of-the-line brakes and fully interchangeable parts.
With help from his wife, Ruth Vander-kooi, business boomed. Main Street began manufacturing vehicles — now sold at $3,000 to $5,000 apiece — for buyers in Portland, Washington, D.C., London and Sydney, cities where popular destinations are too far apart for easy walking but too close to necessitate a taxi or bus ride. In 1994, Meyer quit his planning work to focus on his new obsession full-time.
"I am not against cars," he says, admitting that he and Ruth drive their thirteen- and eleven-year-old children around in a minivan. But "I have a realization of what a perfect city would be." It's one where pedicabs and small electric cars ply the streets, people and bicyclists flow from one destination to the next, and typical automobiles are largely a thing of the past.
In 2001, he spun off Mile High Pedicabs into a separate company, which he expanded to ten vehicles. Co-owned by pedicab driver Ed Oliver, Mile High now sports twenty cabs, which it leases to drivers for a daily rate of $25 to $75, depending on the day, or $340 to $415 a month, depending on the length of the lease.
And for the most part, downtown enthusiasts have embraced pedicabs. "It enhances the ambience downtown, and it enhances the experience downtown," says Aylene Quale, transportation manager for the Downtown Denver Partnership, which presented the company with an award in 1995 for its positive contributions.
"When you have a downtown that is welcoming to pedicabs, you are also saying our downtown is good for bicycles, it is good for pedestrians," she adds.
Meyer credits that award for his company's success. "I don't think I'd be around today" without it, he says, explaining that he has sent copies of an award-related video made by the Partnership to cities around the world to show them that if Denver officials and business owners have embraced pedicabs, they should, too. He's also lobbied architecture firms to place images of pedicabs in their concept drawings; sent clips of his pedicabs' appearance on The Apprentice to Asian officials who are considering banning rickshaws because they believe they carry a Third World stigma; and courted advertisers, who pitch products on the sides of his cabs.
Meyer is up against decades of urban-planning assumptions, says Dan Burden, senior planner for Florida-based engineering firm Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin and founder of the non-profit pedestrian advocacy group Walkable Communities.
"It's been the pattern ever since the 1950s," Burden says. "There was a serious attempt to rid downtowns of people, to only allow the returning GIs homes in the 'burbs. And streets were built with various incentives, allowing us to build these massive arterials and giving people a huge amount of money to build in a suburban style." The impact has been tremendous: "Forty years of planning has been focused on taking funding away from bicycling and walking and giving roadways entirely to the automobile," he says.
But now, says Burden, communities are starting to rethink their automobile addictions. European and U.S. cities have set low speed limits in downtowns to make them more amenable to pedestrians. Planners are embracing the notion of "complete streets," where, thanks to features like wide shoulders, special lanes and traffic-calming measures, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders all get equal priority. And in their own small way, pedicabs are playing a role in the transformation.
"I think since we first saw them largely in resort locations, they were assumed to be for resort or tourist uses. But I think that's broadening," he says. "I am convinced that as we get back to cities being very holistic, lively places to be, pedicabs are an indicator species that we are willing to make new, healthier choices on how to get around."
"Licensed to Kill," read the advertisement, spread over two pages in London's Evening Standard. It featured a pedicab filled with nervous children and emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. London taxi drivers commissioned the ad last November, making their stance clear as city officials struggled with how to regulate the 300 or so pedicabs in the city — an official conundrum that continues.
"The taxi organizations have spent a small fortune in trying to remove pedicabs," says Chris Smallwood, chairman of the London Pedicab Operators Association and founder of Bugbugs Ltd., a local pedicab company, via e-mail. "Authorities tend to shy away from unknowns and, as such, the pedicab issue goes into the 'too difficult' pile."
There's been similar upheaval in New York City, where pedicab drivers are duking it out with hansom cab drivers over rides around Central Park. The city tourist office has said the pedicabs make the Big Apple look like old-time Hong Kong. And in what the Village Voice dubbed "The Great Pedicab War," the city council voted to prohibit electric-assist pedicabs; to ban all pedicabs from bike lanes, bridges and, if they choose, the entirety of Midtown during high-traffic periods; and to restrict the total number of vehicles to 325 because they believed there were too many pedicabs in too many locations around the city. That decision threatened the jobs of at least 175 drivers and launched pedi-protests through the streets last September; a lawsuit by pedicab companies has so far kept the new rules from going into effect.
But in other cities, pedicab drivers have complained that officials aren't cracking down hard enough. The freewheeling aura of the pedicabs, which appeals to many of its drivers and makes the rides so colorful, can also lead to chaos in cities where rules aren't regularly enforced.
"It's a clusterfuck right now," says Dan Smith, who sold his sixty-pedicab business in San Diego last summer after 400 or so pedicabs — many of them unlicensed, he says — flooded popular urban destinations like the waterfront, the Gaslamp Quarter and around the ballpark. The city, he says, has done little to stop them. "There was no stopping the number of pedicabs coming in, and there was no way to compete with those who were not legally within the country and did not have insurance," says Smith, who's also run operations in San Francisco and Houston. Earlier this month, city regulators in San Diego promised to address the problem, restricting the number of pedicabs in certain parts of the city, but Smith says the measures are too little, too late.
Pedicab News, an industry blog and news aggregator, carries more dispatches — with datelines like Salt Lake City, Santa Barbara, Banff, Canada, and Dhaka, India — from the pedal-powered war zone: "New rules may bring pedicabbies to heel"; "Pedicabs nipping at heels of city horse carriages"; "Glendale's rules confuse operators of bicycle taxis"; "Man suing city over pedal-powered cab business"; "Free transportation service shut down by government"; "Last days of the rickshaw."
Meyer is frustrated by this resistance, and not just because he supplies vehicles to many of the besieged operations and owns a stake in some of them. In his mind, automobile-oriented societies simply don't know how to deal with something different.
"It's the junior high school dance. Nobody wants to be the first one on the dance floor." He scoffs at attempts to prove that pedicabs are dangerous, like the video London taxi drivers made showing a car running into a pedicab and exploding. There's never been a major accident involving Meyer's cabs in Denver, he points out, and serious incidents in other cities are few and far between. "Cars are the killers," he says. "I could run over someone on a pedicab back and forth for ten minutes and hardly break a bone."
And concerns about pedicabs slowing traffic downtown? Well, that's sort of his point, he says.
Denver hasn't had as many skirmishes, but that doesn't mean that everyone around here appreciates pedicabs. "They are not monitored, they are not regulated, they are not controlled," says Marie Ray, owner of Denver horse-drawn-carriage operation Irish Rose Carriages. "They use the 16th Street Mall as a slalom course, weaving in and out of trees, giving customers a thrill. We've seen them tip over."
Last year, the city adopted new testing rules for horse carriages in response to safety concerns. "They have stopped worrying about carriages," says Ray, "but they have never even worried about pedicabs, which are more dangerous."
Denver passed a "pedal cab" ordinance in 1981, requiring all pedicab drivers to have a driver's license and complete a license application, including a criminal background check, a process that costs $56.85. Drivers also have to show proof that they're working for a pedicab company licensed through the city, one that carries insurance for each pedicab. The vehicles are allowed everywhere downtown except for the pedestrian mall between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. or on arterial streets during rush hour.
"I don't hear of any complaints about them, and I've been here since last July," says Awilda R. Marquez, director of excise and licenses for the city. She admits, though, that her department has a very small inspector team to monitor whether or not pedicabs are licensed, and up until recently had little recourse if they found a driver who wasn't. That changed in early February, thanks to a new ordinance giving all city agencies the authority to issue citations and fines for municipal-code violations. "We are looking into developing rules on that," says Marquez. "When someone is not even licensed, there is nothing to take away. That's why there's a need for fines."
In the absence of thorough monitoring, some pedicab drivers have started policing the streets themselves. Casey Bobay, the new manager of Mile High Pedicabs and owner of Rocket Bike Cabs, a smaller Denver company with ten vehicles purchased from Main Street, has taken it upon himself and his drivers to check for licenses at Pepsi Center events, and there's talk of instituting similar enforcement elsewhere. If they find someone patrolling the arena parking lot without a license, says Bobay, the drivers ask them to leave. He isn't sure what they would do if an unlicensed driver refused, since it hasn't happened — yet. "I imagine it would be pretty easy to get a security guard or police officer over there to take care of it," he says.
Some independent drivers see this self-policing as an effort by Mile High Pedicab to squeeze out smaller players. "The guys who wanted to drive out the other companies made sure we had a license and made sure we had insurance," says Jeremy Bernier, who co-owns his pedicab and is licensed through the city. "I like the idea of insurance, but at the same time, it seemed like it was about sweeping people out."
In one corner of Meyer's factory, there's a special pedicab, slightly different than the others. Painted "the greenest green we could find," Meyer says it will be used during the Democratic National Convention — a not-so-veiled appeal to the catch the attention of event organizers, who have repeatedly stressed their intentions to make this the greenest convention ever.
"It's a huge opportunity for us," Meyer says. "I think we will really be able to showcase what we are all about to decision-makers all over the country."
It wouldn't be the first time the vehicles made a splash at a political convention: The 2004 DNC in Boston launched the pedicab industry there, and it's still going strong today. "It was truly the Democratic National Convention that got the business up and running," says Jennelle Moore, who purchased two Main Street pedicabs and started Beanie Cabs Inc. that year. "The DNC was a huge hit for the pedicabs. Now there are about 25 pedicabs in Boston. The city has learned to embrace them."
If Meyer had his way, pedicabs could shuttle people inside the security perimeter around the Pepsi Center, especially if traffic turns out to be a nightmare because of street closures and convention-related events. In the interest of security, he'd even build the vehicles in front of Secret Service agents and then lock them up until the event.
"I will do anything to be a part of it," he says.
So far, the official response has been less than enthusiastic. "Pedicabs will not be allowed within the perimeter," says agent Ron Perea, head of the Denver Secret Service office and of the Pepsi Center's security border, which has yet to be determined.
Nor will they be used by the Democratic National Convention Committee to transport delegates, media or VIPs to and fro, says DNCC press secretary Natalie Wyeth. Instead, the organization will rely primarily on shuttle buses and a motor pool.
The pedicabs' most willing champion may be the Denver 2008 Convention Host Committee, the local agency charged with preparing the city for the event. Meyer has promised the organization he will provide ten pedicabs with handrails and steps for people who are mobility-impaired, as well as two "pedal pickups" for free. Afterward, the pedicabs may be used in the Denver fleet or sold to companies in other cities.
"They are gonna be huge," says David Kennedy, the committee's disability-rights coordinator. "I think it's absolutely amazing the way Steve has stepped up."
But nothing is set in stone, cautions Parry Burnap, the committee's "director of greening," considering that the security parameters around the Pepsi Center are still undetermined, and insurance issues involving the pedicabs and the committee's other pedal-powered transportation system, its bike program (see story, page 22), have proved tricky. "At one end, we have to deal with security, and at the other, we have to deal with liability," says Burnap. "That's just the nature of change in America."
Meyer understands reluctance to change better than anybody. If nothing else, he says, his vehicles will be plying the streets during the convention, just as they always do. "In a sense, it will be a more outstanding opportunity if the DNC doesn't do anything special for us and we still prove ourselves," he says.
And if his pedicabs don't get big billing at the DNC, there's always the FIFA World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and the London Olympics in 2012. Lately, Meyer has turned his attention to non-American cities, many of which are less dependent on cars: "I think the prospects for survival are greater outside the U.S.," he explains.
Once production outgrows his Broomfield digs, he may even consider moving much of the manufacturing overseas to places like China, introducing the next generation of three-wheeled transportation to one of the rickshaw's native lands.
There's also a new market popping up: Ten percent of the pedicabs Main Street sold this year were for personal use (see story, page 18). "It's really snowballing," Meyer says of this trend — one more victory in his battle against the internal combustion engine.
"If I'm successful at the end of the day, it will be judged by how many parking spaces and how much automobile infrastructure they didn't build because of me."
Who knows? One day he may even get rid of his minivan.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Big Pot Grow in Routt National Forest an Environmental Hazard, Feds Say
Fri., Sep. 4, 7:00pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:00am
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:30pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 7:30pm
- Reader: Denver Is Safe Because Cops Will Crack Your F*cking Skull
- Saying Goodbye to 8 Denver-Area Restaurants, Hello to 21 New Ones