Human-powered taxis offer a different look at Downtown

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September 3, 2002 // UPDATED 1:30 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Tim Neuenschwander
Tim Neuenschwander

When tourists travel to Key West, Fla., they typically bring back t-shirts, snapshots and suntans. But when Mark Chaffin and Betsy Buss returned from their exotic excursion, they brought a business plan back to Minneapolis.

Based on a tropical bicycle experience, the husband-and-wife pair founded a peddling taxi company that patrols Downtown on weekend nights.

Once a task undertaken solely by its owners, the two-year-old Minneapolis Pedicab Co. now employs four cabs in its third season. While weekend nights are their specialty, the company also operates during other notable happenings, such as sporting events and block parties. The standard shift starts at 6 p.m. and runs until the Downtown bar crowd has dispersed around 2 a.m..

With most business coming from Downtown diners and bar-hoppers, Chaffin said that the nightlife has been a boon to their business; Pedicabs' peak demand is between 11 p.m. and bar

closing.

The ride costs $25 per half hour or $60 for 60 minutes, though fares start at $3 per person. "People want to quickly move from place to place and they'd rather not walk or take a regular taxi," Chaffin said. "They don't need a traditional taxi because they're not going that far, and most taxis would get miffed when you hop in the cab and say 'take me two blocks.'"

Because of the Minneapolis climate, Chaffin said that their season starts sometime after the spring thaw in May and runs into the early stretches of fall.

Funny looks

Not to be confused with other rickshaw renegades operating Downtown, the Minneapolis Pedicab vehicles are licensed through the city for $77 a cab. Buss said that even though there is some competition on the streets, any means of making citizens familiar with bicycle cabs may help spur demand.

"We get some funny looks sometimes, even after three years of being on the roads," she said. "People that are from out of town are very comfortable in flagging us down, but the local residents are a little more suspicious of us."

Biking at least 15 miles on the average night, the cabbies get their share of exercise as they pedal within their boundaries, which run from the Target Center, 600 1st Ave. N., to the Metrodome, 900 S. 5th St. and across the Hennepin Ave. Bridge to Riverplace, 20 NE 2nd St.

Chaffin said that the Pedicabs also act as a fun alternative for those visiting Minneapolis for the first time. In some instances, drivers even play chaperone to the city, often asked for their advice on the dining and entertainment features offered Downtown.

"We're like tour guides for the city," Buss said. "For people that want to go across the Stone Arch Bridge, we can take them across there. We can take them over to St. Anthony Main and show them where Minneapolis started. If they just want to ride along the river, we can do that. We'll take them anywhere they want to go Downtown and to any sight they want to see."

Off to the races

Dealing with the after-hours crowd can make for a few funny stories on the job. "There was a group of guys who wanted to go from Boom [a near-Northeast bar] to Downtown, and they paid us to ride as they raced each other down the bike lane on Hennepin," Buss said. "Mark and I were a little nervous back there."

The famous -- or at least near famous -- have also hopped aboard. During the Gay Pride Festival in Loring Park, the owners were looking to pick up customers, but noted drag queen Ms. Richfield was looking to do some picking up of her own. "She got in the back of Mark's cab and was kind of flirting and hitting on him," Buss said. "It was really funny."

A biker's advantage

According to Chaffin, one advantage the Pedicabs have Downtown is the intricate system of bike lanes on the streets. With space clearly marked for cyclists on main thoroughfares such as Hennepin Ave. and 4th Street, Chaffin said that the city has made transit less taxing for bikes than cars.

"The bike lane on 4th Street to the Metrodome is a great path," Chaffin said. "City planners have made Downtown bike-friendly. They're building the streets with bikes in mind."

There are still perilous scenes on some streets, such as First Avenue -- where no bike lanes can be an ominous omission around bar time. However, both owners said they feel relatively safe when they ride in the city.

For one customer though, the constant presence of cars can be unsettling, especially later at night when Downtown traffic picks up around the bars.

"My only concern about riding in one of the bike cabs is the vulnerability of drunk drivers who could potentially swerve at and swipe the cab," said John, who refused to give his last name. "The margin of error is smaller in a bike cab than a full-size car. If someone swerves at you, you're a goner."

Hailing a cab for a ride to his apartment in the Marquette Avenue area, John said that there are subtle perks with unconventional modes of transportation that cannot be realized in the traditional cab or by foot.

"One of the nice things is that you get the flavor of the city - the sights, the sounds, the smells - that you don't get in a normal cab," he said. "You see more than you would riding in a cab or walking on the street because someone else is doing the work for you. It lets you sit back and take in the city."

Other patrons of the Pedicabs, though, have more practical motivations for catching a ride. Such is the case with Sharon Nelson and Brian Dalton, who dine Downtown and enjoy people-watching at the sidewalk cafes. They said that using the Pedicabs is a convenient way to avoid the hassles of traffic.

"It's a great idea because the city has too much traffic already," Nelson said. "This way you're able to get around quickly, conveniently and in a cost-effective way. And it's fun."