Clan of the Bike Men
It's a strange sort of subculture, this communion of men working the streets for money in an athletic endeavor they say is both exhausting and exhilarating. The money can be good, especially as it's all tips, untouched by and invisible to government tax collectors, but it's not all that brings them to the streets.
On breaks, pedicabbers will congregate at cafes where they smoke cigarettes and talk long and hard about such things as the potency of a certain strain of coffee bean. They'll employ the same terms often used for a premium bag of weed. "Once that shit hits your bloodstream . . . aww, dude."
Veteran cabbies counsel the new initiates, recommending dietary supplements and particular brands of power bars that help replenish the energy they burn -- which can be nearly 4,000 calories a shift.
Sometimes they'll tell stories about how in the early '90s, a particular owner used a pair of burly cowboy enforcers to stomp the shit out of independents who dared run the streets without his permission. Whether it's true or not is hard to tell; these kinds of tales are repeated so often on the streets that they've become the stuff of legends.
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Other times they'll brag about how much they earned in the past -- more tallish tales about "back in the day" when taking home $400 a night was more the rule than the exception.
On a bad night lately, a pedicabber is just as likely to get slammed into, underbid, cut in front of or cursed at by fellow pedicabbers. Someone might even threaten to take you into a back alley and kick your ass.
"It's like the Wild West all over again," says Billy Oxford, owner of a fleet of pedicabs for more than a decade.
With too many cabs on the street and nothing more than bicycle statutes and stop signs to govern pedicabbers nowadays, Oxford and other owners say it's time the City of Phoenix stepped in. Most hope regulations can ease some of the tensions. Anarchy on the streets was one of the reasons that pedicabbing was so appealing to many of the drivers, but lately the chaos has gotten out of hand.
If there's one thing pedicabbers share, it's a love of what they do. Although shuttling people to and from parking garages and sporting venues doesn't sound like a particularly pleasant way to make a living -- especially in summer months -- for some it's a dream come true.
Aaron Fishler, a slight, soft-spoken 23-year-old aviation student, moved to Phoenix from Florida four years ago and began driving a cab at night as a way to help pay for school.
Right away, "I fell in love with it," says Fishler as he queues up next to the Arizona Center waiting for rides on a recent weeknight.
It's the interaction with people that Fishler says he values, and the chance to step outside of himself. "It's putting on an act and playing somebody that I'm not that makes it fun."
The rides are entertaining for passengers, as well. Many drivers are personable, fit young men. This means that getting flashed, kissed, or having their butts grabbed by alcohol-infused women is common. Even when riders show their appreciation in a tamer fashion, there's fun to be had as a participant in someone else's party.
Some pedicabbers aren't the kind of people who get invited much to actual parties. They aren't like Fishler, and that's another element of the business he appreciates. Pedicabbers are a "myriad of different people," he says, "from professional businessmen to some of the most inspirational people, who have been able to lift themselves up from the gutter [through pedicabbing]."
They can be rebellious individuals with an aversion to corporate structure, unwilling to spend nine to five imprisoned in a cubicle. Some have backgrounds that prevent them from other more conventional forms of employment. They may have gaping holes in their résumés caused by mental illness, homelessness or felony convictions. Some prefer not to bathe. Others work conventional day jobs and choose to moonlight as pedicabbers to supplement their income.
As much as they battle each other on the streets for fares, they share a kinship missing in other areas of their life. It's a way an unconventional group of people who never quite fit in can come together and find common ground.
Some are independents and run their own equipment. Most lease a rig from one of four main operators in downtown Phoenix; Fat Tire runs 10 cabs, PedalTek has 18, Big Papa has 16 and Arizona Pedal Cab runs 23.
In all, Phoenix has between 70 and 100 pedicabs, although all of them aren't usually out on the streets at one time. Large events such as a World Series, Fiesta Bowl or Super Bowl will draw every driver, even attracting pedicab crews from San Diego who truck in for the day.
On a mediocre night, an adept pedicabber can make between $60 and $100, and on an excellent night they can pull in $500-plus.
Oxford of Arizona Pedal Cab says he grossed about $100,000 last year. It was money he earned collecting 30 percent of his drivers' earnings. Although exact numbers are impossible to pinpoint, it's likely that the pedicab industry in Phoenix pulls in tips exceeding a million dollars a year.
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.
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.
Oxford grew up in Alaska, became a jet-engine mechanic in the Marines, and later studied to be an auto mechanic and computer programmer without much success. He hung aluminum siding and planted trees in the parking lots of shopping malls for a while, crashing on friends' couches or sleeping in cars for years. There were addictions and mental turmoil to deal with, he says, which made any semblance of a conventional lifestyle unattainable.
In 1993, he began driving pedicabs for an owner in downtown Tempe. Oxford calls pedicabbing a physical and spiritual experience that has transformed, and ultimately defined, his life.
"This was the first opportunity I had that engaged all of me," Oxford says. "There are infinite opportunities for innovation, and the smarter I got, the more money I made."
By January 1994, Oxford had saved enough money to buy the three-rig Arizona Pedal Cab company, whose operations he eventually moved to downtown Phoenix.
Oxford has big dreams for what pedicabbing could become. What he wants to do conforms with what's going on in a few cities around the world. One of Oxford's main aims is to reduce the number of cars in downtown Phoenix with his emission-free vehicles.
In London, the express mail firm DHL has used four-wheeled work bikes to move from 150 to 200 packages a day around the city. Several cities in the Gelderland province of the Netherlands have experimented with substituting work bikes for vans that would normally serve bakers, printers and supermarkets, reducing motorized deliveries by 2,893 miles annually. In Antwerp, Belgium, work bikes take shoppers between the heavily congested central city and park-and-ride areas at the edge of town.
In Phoenix, Oxford says he'd like to see pedicabs operate during the day as messenger bikes downtown and on the capital mall. Now, pedicabbing is primarily a nighttime endeavor.
He's hoping that light-rail will provide even more of a market for pedicabbers, who could transport workers from train stops to office buildings. With a location near Park Central, pedicabbers could offer similar service to central corridor workers.
"Our dependence on non-renewable natural resources is a choice, not a necessity, and [the pedal-cab industry in Phoenix] proves that every day," Oxford preaches. "We move hundreds of tons of people hundreds of miles each day and we don't kill the planet doing it."
Oxford's dreaming now, but he says he would like to buy an old hotel somewhere along Van Buren, park his bikes in the ballroom and fill the guest rooms with drivers. It would be a kind of cabbies' collective, his own bike cab clan.
His more reasonable goals would be much easier to accomplish if the city viewed trailers the same way Oxford does. He says the companies operating the trailer rigs -- all three of his competitors -- are putting profits over safety. He hopes bad karma will do them in sooner or later.
All Oxford has to do, he wrote on an Internet pedicab message board last August, "is outlive and do damage control on . . . those who are not about living this as a lifestyle." Not that business is his primary concern, but he added that lax safety could destroy the pedicab industry. He says the likes of Geske are sacrificing "tomorrow's money" and "tomorrow's opportunities."
PedalTek world headquarters is located in a warehouse off Buchanan Street just south of Bank One Ballpark. It's where Geske constructs the trailers that are the bane of Oxford's existence. Making one takes him about a day.
Testament to his prowess are the trailer frames set on end lining the walls of his tidy work space.
On a recent day, Geske sits in the center of the floor contemplating the design of a new three-wheeled trike, part of a confidential project he and a pedicabber friend in San Diego are developing. It's an endeavor he won't say much more about. "The need for secrecy is high," says Geske. Normally he doesn't let people past his front gate without signing a nondisclosure agreement, but he says he has decided to give New Times a break.
Geske's a-little-too-serious-for-a-guy-who-rides-bikes side may stem from his background as a child prodigy and mathematician. He was Arizona math champion for three years straight beginning in fourth grade, he says proudly. It was his love of numbers that attracted him to pedicabbing. Measuring axles and counting his money, not the so-called lifestyle, are what keeps him going strong.
About Oxford, he says, "We don't see things the same way. He thinks [pedicabbing's] groovy. There's nothing metaphysical or spiritual about this. This is a business."
Geske says he's pissed that Oxford told New Times that his trailers are unsafe. Of course, he worries that such claims will hurt business.
Geske's critics say he's a bit of an elitist, and that comes across in interviews. According to him, his trailers are the best, his business sense is the best, and he boasts that in the three years he's been involved in this business he's "accomplished more than anybody ever."
Which could be why the other two major operators have about as much use for him as Oxford does. They say his drivers cut lines and illegally quote flat rates, and that Geske encourages them.
Geske says his drivers are the best, too. While others will let just about anyone drive, Geske says he is more particular about who pulls a PedalTek trailer. "My [drivers] are clean, they take showers every day," he says, "which is not something everyone -- including some of the owners -- can say."
Once, not so long ago, Geske says it was Oxford who "had the cream of the crop as far as drivers go." And, in fact, most pedal-cab drivers on the street seem to have ridden for Oxford and subsequently quit riding for Oxford.
"It's the way he treated and treats [drivers]," contends Geske. "He's stern, aggressive and mean."
About his drivers, Geske says, "I feel I'm lucky to have them. I treat them decent."
Geske seems intent upon changing the pedicab scene to adapt to his way of doing business. He doesn't want to go with the flow established long ago by Oxford.
Part of that flow is the pedicab lines set up outside events. According to custom, drivers line up as taxicab drivers do at airports, and patrons must go to the driver at the head of the line.
Geske's refusal to have his drivers abide by this rule has caused much dissension on the street.
"The lineup has happened for a long time," Geske says. "It's something Billy O. started. [It's] like a system so he wouldn't have to deal with conflicts mainly from his own [drivers]."
The system that Geske employs is, "If you're in line and somebody asks you for a ride, you take [them]. If they walk up to you, there's a reason."
When money's at stake, Geske doesn't believe in taking turns. He says adhering to the first-in-line custom would be "simply giving your money away to someone else."
While Oxford says he is too busy with maintenance to track down sponsors, Geske is aggressively marketing his business. When he's not in the shop repairing and constructing bikes, he's out on the streets or on the computer recruiting advertisers and trying to obtain exclusivity rights. He pays to be the only pedicab service on the patio at the Arizona Center outside Hooters. His rigs are only a few feet from the other cabs lined up on the sidewalk, but he says any edge can make a difference.
Geske says he is positioning himself to enter into contract with the Phoenix Coyotes in Glendale to provide shuttle service in the parking lot of the new arena. The deal has not yet been inked, but if it goes through, it would drastically change his business. Instead of hiring drivers as independent contractors, he would make them salaried employees with benefits.
Operators clamor for the right to exclusively service events; it's the key to making consistent money. Big events like the Phoenix Open golf tournament and the recent NASCAR event at Phoenix International Raceway are especially coveted.
Oxford's company won the right to service the raceway event this year, but Geske is confident he will soon take the gig away from his nemesis.
"Oxford won't have PIR for long," Geske says confidently. "I wouldn't want a guy selling hot dogs who stinks and smells and is selling bad food." It's noted that Oxford isn't selling food, but Geske thinks his point is well taken.
Later, in a more conciliatory mood, Geske says he doesn't wish Oxford harm, although he does wish he'd disappear. "[Oxford's] just another guy out there trying to hang on to what he has. He has his priorities. I have mine."
While police Lieutenant Halstead wants to get more pedicab regulations in place before baseball season begins next March, banning trailers isn't even on Halstead's radar screen.
Despite the occasional accident or traffic violation, Halstead says pedicabs perform an important service. He is quick to praise their presence downtown, calling them "underrated."
"I'm out here for every major event from Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street and Fillmore to almost Lincoln," he says wearily. "There are people with health issues and large groups that have to park several blocks away. Without pedicabs, not only would [patrons] be late, but in certain weather conditions [authorities would] have a lot more medical calls."
He continues, "Say you come here from Chicago in July . . . you're going to be real happy someone's there to give you a ride for six blocks."
Despite their professed animosity toward each other, Halstead reports that both Geske and Oxford have been "very, very willing -- on a daily basis -- to talk about issues."
Halstead would like to start putting numbers on drivers so they can be more easily identified should passengers have a complaint. He would also like to have the words "tips only" printed on the sides of cabs to prevent drivers from quoting fares.
Currently, pedal cabs are considered a form of entertainment. Quoting fares is against the law because it would subject drivers to taxi regulations. For instance, the fare privilege would force them to install meters in their rigs.
Owners say what's really needed is licensing, safety inspections and mandatory insurance to protect the public.
Geske is pessimistic about prospects for any kind of meaningful regulations anytime soon.
"Phoenix is a hard government to work with," he says. "They don't want to look at anything or talk to anyone until someone dies. In another city you couldn't just show up and ride, but Phoenix turns a blind eye to it."
Oxford predicts that "once they start, regulations will steamroll," and he may be right.
In some places, such as Santa Barbara, California, city councils have regulated the pedicab industry to the hilt. These municipalities require insurance, a driver's license, a business license and even a criminal-background check. Implementing such a program here would get rid of most independents, and thus most of the accidents, but at what cost?
Would regulations mean business triumphs over lifestyle? It's a fine line for pedicabbers who may have to relinquish some of their freedom in order to survive.
E-mail email@example.com, or call 602-229-8440.
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