Balmy autumn air and the sleepy emergence of Salt Lake City's weekend crowd make a recent Friday afternoon as fitting as any to take an open-air ride through picturesque downtown. Setting sun smears the brick and glass on the taller high-rises in amber light, and pedicabs—carriages for hire, pulled by sizable tricycles—are on the prowl.
Business has been slow, however, so Crystal Price stops in a pizza joint and orders a slice with pepperoni. She had been cruising around the city on her dappled pink pedicab for about an hour and a half, but earned little money. Not to worry; the night is early yet. When Price finishes at the pizzeria—a place she patronizes because the staff allows drivers to use the restroom—she taps a Camel out of a near-full pack as another bike pulls up alongside her before the cigarette is lit. The two friends chew the fat for a bit. Price isn't worried about snagging a customer at the moment.
"It always picks up for bar scene," she says, beginning around 10 p.m. "We're usually out till about 2 or 3 in the morning."
Before long, a third pedicab rolls to a stop behind the first pair. A man with dreads hops off the passenger seat. His lift was free.
The scene is familiar. Pedicabs, common in major U.S. cities, have become a staple here. Recent regulations passed by the City Council could make room for more. Louis Gasper, one in a consortium of owners with Salt City Cycle Cab, says the new rules erase a carriage cap on the company, which prior to the ordinance's adoption was at 20.
"For them to regulate me down to 20 [pedicabs], it's like putting a tiger in a cage," he says.
But drivers, as opposed to owners, are of a different, unfettered breed.
On a Saturday mid-morning a few blocks south of Rice-Eccles Stadium, two cab drivers, Scott Seibert and Wyoming Dave, lounge in wait for the tailgate fanbase hours before a University of Utah game kicks off. The men look relaxed. In a 20-minute window, a fourth and fifth pedicab bus customers in red Utes garb toward the party lot. Where there are crowds—large conventions, ballgames—sure enough there are transporters offering rides. The pregame fare is light. Money will be made after the contest's final whistle.
"Right before the game ends," Dave says, "there will be a bunch of us lined up."
Many of the pedicab drivers had heard in the periphery the hammering out of new rules, but most weren't versed on the specifics. And why should they be? These drivers don't expect much to change on the streets, and as long as they can pedal around town, give lifts to tourists and take home a little cash, they aren't bothered much by the pedicab decisions being made in City Hall.
Prodded by an uptick in pedicab businesses, the city began to draft a document that would delineate regulations and free it from entering and renewing contracts with individuals.
But the road to an agreeable ordinance has been bumpy and protracted, like the potholed blacktop on a city thoroughfare during construction season. The first iterations were objectionable, according to Gasper, and could have doomed his business.
The pedicab ordinance serves as an example of the cumbersome, but oftentimes necessary regulatory process new businesses are required to navigate. In a city that's both obligated and politically motivated to address pressing, high-impact issues, such as homelessness, it's easy for those grappling with the smaller stuff to feel overlooked. Gasper certainly did at times.
"This thing has been in process for years. They've been slower than molasses trying to come out with this," he says. "It's because, frankly, the City Council doesn't give a fuck. They don't care because they've got bigger fish to fry."
Although relatively few people have paid any attention to the new ordinance, those who have did so with a vehement eye because they saw their livelihoods at stake. They wanted the city to get it right.
For its part, the city wanted to get it right, too. Three pedicab companies were invited to the table, according to a city spokesperson. Drafts of the ordinance were reviewed by the City Attorney's Office, the business-licensing office, as well as the Transportation Advisory Board and the Bicycle Advisory Committee.
The long road
Pedicabbers talk about the Salt Lake powers that be while Rocky Anderson occupied the mayor's office in words usually reserved for totalitarian regimes, and a few assert that the city's rules were deliberate tactics to stomp out business.
Anderson says while some City Council members at the time were hostile toward pedicabs, he's long supported and enjoyed the support of owners and drivers.
"I don't know what they're talking about. I love pedicabs!" he wrote in an email.
This fondness, however, wasn't enough to keep Anderson's name from being listed as a defendant in a civil suit filed by Wasatch Pedicab Co., an industry grandfather in Salt Lake that first put bikes on the street in 2005. Barely afloat in a sea of regulations, Wasatch alleged city officials aimed to sink it.
Initially, Wasatch was told it would have to be insured to the tune of $1 million in aggregate personal injury and $500,000 to cover property damage, according to legal documents. But before the contract was inked, the city upped the aggregate personal-injury coverage requirement to $2 million. The pedicab company claims city officials, including the mayor, promised that the steep insurance requirement would be reduced. Instead, Wasatch alleges, it was hit with the news its insurance requirement was going up to $3 million. In addition, the city threatened to put drivers through a slew of background checks: fingerprinting, five-year employment history reports and photographs taken at the police station, among them.
Facing what it considered exorbitant insurance premiums and onerous background checks, Wasatch Pedicab Co. went belly-up in early 2007. It unsuccessfully sued the city, arguing a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Wasatch lost a subsequent appeal, and a ruling handed down by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals also sided with the defendants. Just like that, the nascent pedicab business vanished from Salt Lake's downtown grid.
A couple years later, though, two pedicabs resurfaced, one propelled by Jeff Bierce, co-founder of SLC Bike Taxi.
Pedicabbers who describe past officials as unfriendly or iron-fisted, portray former Mayor Ralph Becker's Salt Lake as laissez-faire. Under Becker's watch, pedicabs roamed the streets uninhibited, Gasper says. The freedom allowed business to flourish but placed owners in a precarious position. In the course of three years, only one Salt City Cycle Cab rider had been cited by the cops, a near-immaculate track record that left Gasper incredulous.
"They didn't enforce a single damn rule for any of the contracts," he says. "Pretty much, I was the only one policing my guys, which is not my job. My job is to be in the shop fixing shit."
Gasper started slapping his drivers with a $5 fine each time they were caught on the sidewalks, disciplinary action that cost him good riders and better friends. One day, fearful that negligent drivers would jeopardize his contract, Gasper made his way into an evening briefing at the police station before the night beat hit the streets. At that meeting, he says, he urged officers to bust cabs for traffic violations to force their hands into following the rules.
"I couldn't believe I was coming to them as a business owner asking them to ticket my riders. It was the wildest thing that I ever thought I'd be doing," he says.
Cody Loungy, Police Department public information officer, says emergency calls throughout the city are a priority.
"Since there is a perpetual backlog of 911 calls," he writes in an email, "our officers rarely do proactive enforcement."
The bike patrol has since begun ordinance education efforts.
Licensing officials noted city contracts didn't address specific law-enforcement regulations, another reason why creating an ordinance was prudent. A sample contract shared with City Weekly required pedicabs to follow state laws and city ordinances.
Bierce prefers growth at a gentle gradient; what he saw was an explosion. But for Gasper, he welcomed the pedicab boom and anticipated an ordinance that would lift Salt City Cycle Cab's pedicab restriction.
The pedicab people, laying eyes on a draft last year, found rules hemming their range to a limited space in downtown.
"They were going to take away streets," Gasper says. "Whole streets they were going to bar from our use, which is a step backwards as far as trying to make the city more bike-friendly and cleaner. They wanted to take away 400, 500, 600 South, 300 West, 700 East, North Temple for no reason at all. They wanted to take away streets from us that had bike lanes."
The group protested, and the ordinance was passed up the chain without road restrictions. Satisfied with the language of the law, Gasper and others waited for city officials to adopt the new ordinance. At a meeting this summer, City Council was ready to approve the document and up to four amendments, the most concerning of which would require drivers to strap on a helmet.
In a state that doesn't care whether motorcyclists careening down I-15 wear helmets, much less bicyclists in the city, Bierce found it ridiculous that they would be burdened with this protective measure. The argument against helmet use, as Gasper put it, is one of optics. The perception it sends to customers is that these things aren't safe, he says.
Price of business
The pedicab ordinance mandates drivers settle on costs before a trip begins. Rates are not fixed but dictated by economists' time-honored supply-and-demand theory. Prices spike when crowds are vying for rides and fall again when things are slow, though a general guideline of $3 per block is understood in the community.
Negotiating the price upfront is a practice SLC Bike Taxi has encouraged riders to do all along. Bierce heard rumor of drivers claiming to offer free rides. Once the carriage arrived at the destination, these drivers demanded $20 by arguing it was a standard tip amount. It's the type of experience that leads to crippling online reviews and can poison the well for the entire industry.
Gasper, who began as a pedaler, has witnessed public opinion toward pedicabs improve. He used to endure jeers of "Why don't you get a real job?" Bierce heard slurs hurled his way as well. Now each is a company owner that hands out dozens of contracts to hopeful drivers.
Aside from offering rides and tours, Gasper says a city concerned with air quality should be thankful that each pedal stroke reduces the valley's carbon footprint. The pedicab industry offers jobs to people who sometimes find other work hard to come by, he adds.
The city says the new rules went into effect soon after the vote was cast. Neither Bierce nor Gasper, owners of the two most prominent pedicab businesses in the city, know that to be the case. Both have lingering concerns, though Gasper is much warmer to the ratified version than prior drafts. Bierce, whose company has eight cabs, says small electric motors to support pedal power—and which he blames for a hike in pedicab accidents—weren't addressed.
Drivers don't have to be in possession of a Utah license, a deviation from the former rules, which Gasper worries could open the floodgates to out-of-state drivers. Bierce is already bothered by the pedicab swell.
"I like how Salt Lake City was kind of growing slowly," he says. "And then we were all of a sudden getting overrun by too many."
No system can satisfy every participant, though. Seibert, for example, calculates a net negative from the strip club ad plastered to the back of his pedicab, despite the $5 kickback drivers get for every customer brought to the establishment. But on the whole, business is good.
"If anything, we make more money than we did a year ago," he says.
Seibert isn't concerned about a possible increase in pedicabbers. There are times when the market demands more, he says. If the number were to double, however, without expansion into other parts of the city—Sugar House, most likely—it would be oversaturated.
Each driver is an independent contractor, and in a sense, they are each other's competitors as much as each other's colleague. But instead of bickering or attempting to steal riders, the drivers collaborate.
"We do compete in a way, that's business," Wyoming Dave says. "Also we network together. We're comrades. We're family."