Pedal Pushers: The pedicab industry eyes Capitol Hill

Ryan Guthrie proposes an unlikely comparison: Starting a bicycle-taxi business is a lot like running a congressional reelection campaign.

“It’s very similar, actually,” says Guthrie, a former chief of staff and campaign financial director for Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.). He now co-owns the D.C. Pedicab company with two friends. “The first four or five months I would compare to the last four or five months before an election … [It’s] just pretty intense, and [you’re] constantly working on it.”

Judging by the dozens of pedicabs cruising around Capitol Hill and the National Mall this summer, Guthrie’s work seems to have paid off. While the rest of the country endures the rollercoaster of financial hardship, Guthrie’s company and the pedicab industry have found themselves steadily expanding.

“The pedicab business is booming,” the 34-year-old says. “We’ve grown every year; this year will be our best year by far. At first glance, you would say with competition, things are going to die down, but actually, it’s had the opposite effect. The business on a whole is bigger and growing, and therefore all companies are rising with it.”

Four years ago, there were few pedicabs on the streets of Washington, but now three companies, with a total of approximately 30 bicycles, offer rides in their three-wheel chariots to tourists, members of Congress and late-night bar-hopping staffers alike.

Pedicab company owners attribute this boom in part to a growing desire to refrain from adding to the city’s pollution. Pedicabs are controlled solely by the driver’s exertion, eliminating any carbon footprint that travelers would make with motorized modes of transportation.

But at least one Washington cohort has been slow to catch on to pedicabs: members of Congress.

Steven Balinsky, the 23-year old founder of Capitol Pedicab, says he has reached out to lawmakers to offer them his transportation service.

The way Balinsky envisions it, members of Congress could have two on-call pedicabs on Capitol Hill at all times to whisk lawmakers away at a moment’s notice.

“I know [that] tons of the Congress members — they have their own livery cars and town cars, and there’s no reason why you couldn’t use pedicabs to move around in D.C.,” he says. “Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten much of a response from Capitol Hill.”

Several staffers contacted for this article said they wouldn’t be opposed to hopping in a pedicab to go from one side of Capitol Hill to the other, but they were worried about how fast it would get them there. One Democratic aide says “it might just be faster to walk.”

Balinsky disagrees, acknowledging that the pedicab’s lack of speed is a myth he needs to dispel.

“That’s something we definitely have to get past,” he says, “especially for members of Congress who are trying to get places pretty quickly.

“Generally it’s faster than driving, depending on the time of day and the amount of traffic,” he noted. “We follow the same rules of the road as cars do, but we can generally get around bad spots better than cars do and squeeze where they can’t usually go.

Guthrie wasn’t completely versed in the pedicab trend until he and his friends launched the company in 2005.

“There were so many balls in the air,” he recalled about opening the business. “There were so many things that we didn’t know, so we had to learn by experience.”

He says that, while lawmakers and their aides may not have caught on to the growing pedicab trend quite yet, he’s still holding out hope.

“I think members and staff will take more pedicabs as time goes on, but it’s always the early adapters who are the hardest,” he says. “It’s so new that people look at it a little skeptically. But once they see it more and more, and it becomes more ingrained — like it is within the D.C. culture already — yeah, eventually I think that’s something that a lot of people would be interested in doing.”

As for who does the carting around, there is no such thing as a typical pedicab driver. They run the gamut from working college types to firemen and congressional interns. There are pedicab drivers who are also part-time professional wrestlers, working musicians and local television producers.

“I have a lot of friends on the Hill still who work in the offices and they say, ‘Hey, I have an intern who wants to ride to make a little extra cash this summer.’ So I’ll always try and work them into the rotation,” Guthrie says.

And while a driver’s physical stamina is important, it’s not as vital as his or her personality, according to Ben Morris, the president of National Pedicab.

“Charisma — that’s what it’s all about,” Morris says. His pedicaps operate in Boston, Newport, R.I., and Washington.

“Every pedicab ride ultimately creates an experience for passengers, and that experience revolves around your pedicab driver,” he explains. “Then the passengers go and tell their colleagues, their friends, their family about this particular experience.

“A lot of people think that it’s about their physical attributes,” Morris says. “That’s probably the least important part.”

The costs of trips vary, but Washington’s best pedicab drivers earn more than $20 per hour, according to the owners of the three pedicab companies.

As the city and the industry are moving to instate regulations on the bicycle taxis, pedicabs are not as much of a staple on Capitol Hill as the industry owners would like. But they haven’t given up hope.

“I hope we’re able to get up to Capitol Hill more and people will use it even just going from the House to the Senate side,” Guthrie says.