Upstart Peddles Pedicabs in D.C.

Tony Smith, left, takes Brandon Winn, 30 and Brenna Wiebe, 22, of Sterling, Kan., to the Natural History Museum.
Tony Smith, left, takes Brandon Winn, 30 and Brenna Wiebe, 22, of Sterling, Kan., to the Natural History Museum. (Photos By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

A trend that seems more Third World than 13th and Constitution is winding its way through the streets of Washington -- bicycle rickshaws.

A new company called D.C. Pedicabs offers the service, advertising it as a relaxing and environmentally friendly alternative to driving or walking, whether to take in the sights downtown or throw back a few cocktails in Adams Morgan.

Pedicabs have become popular among tourists, bar hoppers and commuters in Manhattan, Houston, Denver and other cities across the country and in Europe. An estimated 300 pedicabs roam New York, whooshing through stifling rush-hour traffic.

So why not the nation's capital, a place with enough partygoers and tourists -- and traffic -- to keep a pedicab driver busy day and night, said John W. Zielke, who founded the company in March with two college buddies from Indiana University.

"I've always been an avid fan of cycling, and I also love the downtown D.C. scene," said Zielke, 31, of Alexandria, who postponed his honeymoon to Barcelona to launch the company two weeks ago. "I've always looked for something to do work-wise that would also match with my hobby."

Like the bicycle taxis popular in Bangladesh and China, D.C. pedicabs are drawn by cyclists who take a cut of every fare and pass on a percentage to the owner. Zielke and his business partners take 25 percent of what the drivers charge, which is usually $4.50 a person per 10 minutes on the road, though drivers are offering discounts until the company becomes more established.

But unlike pedalers you might find in Dhaka, Bangladesh, or Kolkata, India, those who responded to co-founder Ryan C. Guthrie's want-ad are Capitol Hill staffers, bike shop workers and young college students hoping to score a few extra bucks in their free time.

By day, Victor Miranda, 23, a Rockville resident, processes loans for a mortgage company. On weekends and at night, he takes shifts at the pedicab company, indulging his love for biking while making extra cash.

On Saturday afternoon, Miranda waited for customers outside the Archives-Navy Memorial Metro station on his black-and-yellow pedicab. He intermittently rang his bell and gestured to the plush seats mounted on the back, asking passersby, "Need a ride?"

D.C. pedicabs are sturdy, with 45-inch-wide seats and a steel carriage that hovers above hydraulic brakes. Each of the company's six pedicabs costs about $3,800, the owners said.

The walkie-talkie at Miranda's side crackled. A family of three needed a ride to their hotel. Miranda and his roommate, Samuel Gibson, 25, also a part-time pedicab driver, raced to 15th Street and Constitution Avenue NW to pick up what promised to be a lucrative run to the Westin Grand Hotel at 24th and M streets NW.

"We've been walking all day, and it seemed so relaxing -- not for them, but for me," said Randy Siegel, 47, of New Jersey, whose wife had beckoned Miranda and Gibson by calling the number she spotted on the back of another pedicab.

As Gibson worked up a sweat, Siegel lounged in the back, legs crossed lazily, admiring the architecture of the Treasury Building through his dark glasses. "It's a beautiful city," Siegel said.

In the end, it was a gratifying excursion for Gibson and Miranda, too -- the men collected $75 for the nearly two-mile ride.

Although the owners have been pleased with their budding company's success since its launch, it wasn't without snags. The bikes had some mechanical troubles at first, and rain washed out several of their opening nights. Also, taxicab drivers objected to a sign on the back of the pedicabs advertising "taxi rides." So the owners struck out "taxi" and replaced it with "bike!"

"We probably had some unrealistic expectations," said Guthrie, 31, of Rosslyn. "We thought the money would just come pouring in."

The owners do have high hopes. Guthrie said D.C. Pedicabs plans to expand its six-pedicab fleet to 30.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company