Bicycle Rickshaws: registration, insurance… let’s do this properly

Stalking pedicab scum in Amsterdam last November

Stalking pedicab scum in Amsterdam last November

Stalking pedicab scum in Amsterdam last November

Have you ever wondered why bike rickshaw riders look like krokodil addicts? You would think such a job would attract athletes, for the reasons the job has attracted me in the past. Given most road racing enthusiasts are already spending thousands per year on equipment and are sacrificing a few hours a day on their training, you would think a lot of us would like to buy our own rickshaws, quality ones, and ride purely for fitness and tips. That would be great. Every city in the world would be filled with athletes on a Saturday evening, running people between bars for relatively low fares—or sometimes just their phone numbers. We would tame the traffic, put eyes on the street and help our cities’ nocturnal economies.

But athletes are not the ones riding. You see guys in their late teens, backpackers, desperadoes, addicts, dealers, and even worse scumbags like the London pedicab pilot who was filmed last year trying to charge tourists two hundred British pounds for a five minute trip:

Hardly the guy London wants greeting its tourists!

I’ve ridden rickshaws on and off since 2011, for fitness and fun. I love it. I would be doing it now were it not for the lack of a proper legislative framework. The matter is left in the hands of local governments who can’t decide if they want to be hands-off (leaving any fallout to police, courts and insurers) or hands-on (issuing permits to every rider, the way they do to buskers in key public places). So they fall somewhere in between, issuing concessions to a limited number of operators, typically one. Limiting their points of contact may seem like an efficient way of maintaining control. In practice it’s more like giving a licence to Fagin.

oliver with fagin, dodger and charlie

Someone who owns a fleet of rickshaws and hires them to riders, might as well be hiring rooms with red lights by the hour. Their enterprise will eventually taint city nightlife with the mercenary tactics they need to use, to survive.

If your city has a pedicab service, then most likely the bikes have changed hands many times. I would go as far as to say that wherever anyone has made a sustainable business out of hiring rickshaws to riders it will be because they have hoodwinked the local government into giving them exclusive rights for next to no charge. The only way they could do that would be by lying and saying all of their riders are fully insured and are complying with dozens of rules that frankly, a backpacker would take about as seriously as their last screw. It just doesn’t stack up as a business.

In my city, the maximum amount paid for rickshaws each week, by drinkers and tourists, would average out to be less than three grand. That would be great if one person could do all the riding. After expenses they could earn a nice wage. But one person can’t. The lion’s share of the gross take is made between 11pm and 1.30am closeout on a Saturday night. It’s done by 5 or 6 riders all going flat-strap. In cities without that strict curfew the window of opportunity is not that much wider.

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In every city I know something about, in Europe, America and here in Australia, city officials are giving exclusive, or limited numbers of concessions, to people whose business is renting bikes to whoever will pay the most money. Sometimes riders can cover the cost of the bike hire. Sometimes they can’t. Almost always they quit within a few months. Rained out nights, poor sleep patterns, and their vulnerability, all take their toll.

Because their time in the job is so short, no rider carries insurance. Does that mean you can sue whoever owns all the bikes if, as a passenger, you are taken through a red light and ran over, or down a gutter so hard that a wheel falls apart and you are strewn on the road? I’ve got twenty bucks here that I will mail to any broker who can demonstrate to me that they have sold that kind of insurance to a pedicab business.

And if you have, you’re insane.

A bike shop owner in Amsterdam has told me he refuses to serve guys riding rickshaws who come in needing repairs. They won’t pay for repairs! All they want is the damage covered up, so they don’t lose their bonds when returning their bikes.

If an operator is billing riders for damage, they are more inclined to buy bikes from China than well made bikes from their own countries. Knock-off versions of British made pedicabs are one fifth the price on Alibaba, with $5 V-brakes, yippee.

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I’ve been thinking about ways to clean up this business. While a completely laissez-faire (hands-off) approach would be better than sanctioning cartels through concessions, we would probably get mafioso cartels and still be left with the problem of non-insurance.

The best solution, to my mind, would be a state government operated vehicle registration scheme for pedicabs. 3rd party injury insurance would be part of the registration. To prevent pedicabs being ridden by fly-by-night cowboys, beholden to nothing but their own greed, no person should be allowed to own more than one pedicab. They could hire it to another. They just couldn’t make hiring their business.

Putting the right policies in place around pedicabs is important to the future of cities. Just because we are in the process of reducing private car use in cities, doesn’t mean we are reducing the number of cars. Try cycling near Grand Central Station in New York, where almost every car is a taxi, and tell me if restrictions on private car use would improve things for walking and cycling. Our efforts to limit the presence of cars in the city has to extend to motorised taxis, and that means a properly insured fleet of rickshaws, registered to the same number of riders, each an enthusiast for this paying hobby.

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