Clan of the Bike Men

As downtown pedicabbers battle for turf and tips, major operators say city regs would end the mayhem.

It's a potentially lucrative business for a successful operator of a pedal-cab firm, which explains why the number of pedicabs has tripled in the past four years. Lieutenant Jeff Halstead, who heads the Phoenix Police Department's downtown operations unit, says they're at times so thick on the streets that they can barely circulate freely.

This saturation of the market has also driven earnings down. Too many pedicabs, coupled with a drop-off in attendance at major sporting events -- the pedicabbers' bread and butter -- means no one is making money like they used to. As a result, tensions are high.

Considering that those who maneuver pedicabs around downtown are by nature aggressive, physically fit street hustlers, it's surprising that drivers haven't come to blows. Disputes over turf are common, however, as are verbal confrontations between rival teams.

Gary Geske in his top-secret PedalTek headquarters.
Jackie Mercandetti
Gary Geske in his top-secret PedalTek headquarters.
Billy Oxford is the godfather of pedicabbing in Phoenix.
Jackie Mercandetti
Billy Oxford is the godfather of pedicabbing in Phoenix.

Yet it's the independents that cause most of the problems. Many indie drivers are industry veterans and respect the unwritten code of conduct that pedicabbers have used to govern themselves for a decade. But "outlaw" independents have also moved in. Company operators say that the rogue drivers often operate unsafe homemade cabs, ignore traffic regulations and aggressively solicit rides, which alienates the public (a bad thing for everybody).

Enough passengers have been hurt over the past few years to raise concerns among law enforcement and prompt the first steps toward intervention by the City of Phoenix. Halstead confirms that accidents have been "numerous" over the past two years, citing a trio of injuries off the top of his head. "We've had someone get their leg cut. Last year we had a head injury and then there was a broken arm on a mom."

All four Phoenix fleets have insurance policies that cover them for at least a million dollars in liability. But it's a different story with independents. "When you're living a hand-to-mouth existence, any extra expense will sink you," said one independent driver who refused to give his name.

So what's a city to do? Downtown Phoenix is hardly Jakarta, but it's jammed with people once in a while, and the potential for major problems exists. Despite the recent proposed city council ordinance that would ban pedicabs from sidewalks within Copper Square and limit their width to that of city bike lanes, there's much more to be done.

"Keeping us off the sidewalks in Copper Square . . . that's just putting a Band-Aid on it," says Gary Geske, owner of PedalTek.

How the city approaches regulations is something that has everyone concerned. One of the most heated debates among Phoenix pedicabbers lies in the merits of trikes versus trailers (platforms with benches that are trailer-hitched to mountain bikes). Oxford says pedicabbing in Phoenix would be much safer without the trailers -- which, of course, are what his competition employs.

He contends they are unsafe by design because they rely solely on the brakes of the bicycle pulling them. Mountain bikes were never designed to stop 600 or more pounds of weight, and a sudden stop by the driver can cause the trailer to jackknife, he says.

His opinion is supported by a study the City of San Diego commissioned from a risk-management company in 2001. Collision and Injury Dynamics Inc. determined in trials that jackknifing does occur with such rigs. The driver is often knocked to the ground, leaving the trailer to slide forward unattended. The study recommended that San Diego ban such rigs from the city's port area.

Oxford recommends that Phoenix do the same.

Geske says Oxford is badmouthing trailer rigs because he feels threatened by how cheaply they can be made and maintained. Oxford has a much bigger investment, Geske maintains, in pieces of equipment that essentially generate the same revenue.

"There are safety issues, like bikes are pulling on regular brakes," Geske concedes. But he insists that he is careful to train his riders so that their skill overcomes the trailer-rig's inherent flaw. "Nobody has had to go to the hospital," he says pointedly. "I've never been sued. Jackknifing doesn't happen."

The issue has set up a battle line between the two men, although there's more that separates them than which pedicab model they favor: One calls pedicabbing a lifestyle, the other looks on it as strictly a business.

Oxford is an aging, hygienically challenged hippie who subsists on cigarettes and Slimfast and professes that he is doing his part to change the world through pedicabbing. Geske, whom Oxford dismisses as a "GQ pretty boy with money," is young and slick, with flashing eyes and earrings.

Geske goes on and on about what he believes is Oxford's philosophical bullshit. "There's nothing Zen about [pedicabbing]," he scoffs. Geske's in the game to make money and doesn't care if his success means Oxford's demise.

The tenacious Oxford has spent a decade operating pedal cabs in Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale. He's built up a fleet of 23 three-wheeled pedicabs, which he's purchased at more than $3,000 apiece and then spent hours customizing and maintaining. Among other safety features, the big tricycles have hydraulic brakes, and a higher driver's seat for a clearer view of traffic.

Oxford leases his trikes to a stable of drivers, and works hard, from 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily. He laments that he hasn't had 24 hours off in more than two years. "It's a garden that always has weeds," he says, glancing at his cluttered warehouse.

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