"I'm the John Henry of transportation."
It was an unseasonably warm November Saturday night in Chapel Hill, and this was one of the motivating phrases knocking around my head as I tooled up and down Franklin Street driving a pedicab. Never mind that the only legitimate claimant to this non-existent title would be a horse. For the pedal-pushing taxi-for-hire, engaged in a quixotic battle of man vs. machine (won by the machine long ago), the steel-driving man of legend is an apt comparison.
For three years, I drove a pedicab in New York City. The job's appeal was equal parts sustenance (for me) and sustainability (for the rest of the planet). I was showing New Yorkers and tourists alike the tremendous untapped potential of human power to navigate Metropolis—and making a good living, to boot.
This summer, I moved to the Triangle, and much to my surprise, so did pedicabs. Greenway Pedicabs started up in Chapel Hill and Carrboro in August. I've long since retired from pedicabbing, but I remain a passionate supporter and close observer of the industry. I asked the guys at Greenway if I could borrow a bike for a night and check out the local scene.
Within minutes, the difference between Chapel Hill and New York City became clear: Here, we have an acute shortage of pedestrians. Of the few people on the street, most were ambulating a short distance to or from their parked cars. Earnings aside, pedicabbing is no fun if you don't have passengers. So, not wanting to spend the evening chasing after a tiny pool of potential customers camouflaged among a larger population not in need of my services, I decided to turn off the meter: Free rides! One night only!
My strategy worked, and I gave 14 rides that night, about the same as an average work day in New York. My passengers were a cross-section of the early-evening Franklin Street crowd. Mixed in among the partying college students, high schoolers and barhoppers were some middle-aged passersby and families with small children (and a surprisingly high number of people on crutches, my favorite target market that night).
As I'd expected, the people of North Carolina were much friendlier than their New York City counterparts. Their pockets weren't as deep—despite my price drop to $0, I knew I'd get some tips—but then, I certainly wasn't expecting the Manhattan money trough I'd left behind. It's the thought that counts, and in that regard, my passengers were generous, especially the three members of the UNC women's lacrosse team who showered me with Gatorade and Halloween candy after I dropped them at their dorm.
The coming months will determine whether there's a niche market for pedicabs in the Triangle. In the longer run, as the price of oil inevitably climbs and the health of our planet correspondingly declines, human-powered transport will become increasingly attractive. Years from now, today's pedicabbers might be remembered less as John Henrys than as pioneers.