Downtown pedicab business benefits from Columbia's nightlife

Friday, August 15, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:01 p.m. CDT, Friday, August 15, 2014
Columbia pedicab business Zou Cab takes residents throughout the downtown area. Michael Weinstein, Zou Cab's owner, bikes from bar to bar to pick up customers on most Saturday nights.

COLUMBIA — It’s Saturday night in downtown Columbia. The revelers are rousing in anticipation of the nearing fall term. Bass beats thump and buzz from the bars lining Broadway.

And then, softly, the ding-ding of a bicycle bell.

Sweat beads roll down Michael Weinstein’s temples as he pedals a bicycle taxi with two customers up the hills of downtown. The ride is smooth, but for Weinstein, it's hard labor. Each time he pushes down on a pedal, he puts his whole body into it, one mighty jerk after another. 

Passengers don’t complain if he’s pedaling too slowly.

"People are pretty nice," he said. "They understand I’m pulling them with my legs."

Weinstein founded ZOU Cabs in mid-June. Before he started the bicycle taxi business, Weinstein, a senior finance student at MU, hadn’t ever pedaled a pedicab.

He said he can’t remember that first night out in June.

Weinstein does recall, however, that there weren’t many takers that first evening. The ZOU Cabs crew started out giving free rides to get experience and asked passengers for tips as payment.

"More people were curious about how it got started," he said.

Calling all night-riders

When it came time to hire a team, Weinstein turned to Craigslist, and his friends. Passers-by also expressed interest. Weinstein said he received enough applications to be selective.

"Biking experience was important," he said. "Mostly I wanted a group of diverse, cool people."

Alex Miller, a ZOU Cabs driver, was riding his bike downtown when he stumbled upon ZOU Cabs. "I pulled up next to them and said, 'Hey, do you guys need more drivers?'"

Pedaling isn’t foreign to Miller, a member of the Mizzou Cycling team. He averages 5,000 miles a year on his daily bike commutes from home to school and work and back, so a long night of pedaling isn’t new.

"I’ve done 100-mile bike rides and really long races before," Miller said. "It’s basically the same."

He makes sure to have a water bottle filled with Gatorade or another electrolyte-rich drink on hand. He frequents the No Gas convenience store to grab a stash of Snickers bars to keep his energy up all night.

A usual evening

The typical night begins about 9:30 p.m. and ends as early as 1:15 a.m. or as late as 2:40 a.m. Miller said he stays out as long as he’s getting business. "If I’m feeling good, I’ll roll up and ask if they need a ride," he said. The answer is often "yes."

A lot of business stumbles out of bars and into pedicabs, Weinstein said. He said the cabs usually position themselves outside The FieldHouse on Wednesdays and near Penguin Piano Bar and Roxys on Thursdays.

Miller said he usually hangs around Hitt Street, pedaling west to Seventh Street by way of other streets and as far south as Bengal's Bar & Grill at Sixth and Elm streets, patrolling where the bars are.

"People will holler and wave at me and ask for a ride," Miller said. "I take people where they need to go and repeat."

Some nights, customers are hard to come by. Weinstein parked his sparkly gold pedicab at the base of The Broadway on Saturday night. He waited. "Wake Me Up" by Avicii pumped from The Roof bar above. Weinstein offered rides to the crowds trickling through the hotel's sliding doors. Many declined.

"It’s just a fun way of getting around and people want a Snapchatable moment," Weinstein said, referring to the social media app Snapchat.

Miller said he encourages passengers to Snapchat their journey. "I tell them the pedicab selfie is the new thing."

After a particularly long ride, the cabbies, like the students they are, chill on the back of the cabs, checking Facebook and texting friends.

Miller said the best part of being a pedicab driver is chatting with everyone.

"You pick people up and, kind of like being in a normal cab, you just basically make small talk with them while you’re taking them where they’re going," he said.

Miller said the small talk is only second to being paid to get a killer workout.

An uphill challenge

Despite all his experience, Miller said towing people uphill is still the hardest part of his job. He recalled the time he pulled a cart with three men — an estimated total of 900 pounds, including himself and the bike — up a hill.

A lot of people ride from downtown to East Campus. Weinstein said the farthest ride he’s done was from The FieldHouse to West Campus or from Roxys to the Hampton Inn near Stadium.

The boundaries for pedicab rides are Providence Road to the west, South William Street (on East Campus) to the east, Worley Street to the north and Stadium Boulevard to the south. Rides around downtown are $3 per person. Prices for longer rides are up for negotiation, Weinstein said. A typical night averages between eight and 10 rides, ranging from one to three people per ride.

When it comes to the cash, Miller said the cabbies keep all the money they bring in. "The fare is a tip already," he said. "I usually say significantly more than half my money is in tips."

For example, Miller said a ride with two people officially costs $6, but he usually receives $10. The most he has received, he said, was $30 for a ride from Tropical Liqueurs to a house near Boone Hospital Center.

Sometimes customers try to get two pedicabs to race, Weinstein said. The stakes are high: winner takes tips.

"I joke with passengers that even if I’m only making $10-$20 an hour, I’m not in the bars spending $10-$20 an hour," Miller said. "So, the net impact on the bank account is substantial. In essence, beyond getting paid to bike, it’s a good hobby to keep you out of the bars and out of trouble."

Nationwide popularity

Weinstein has roots in Austin. The Warehouse District and West Sixth Street areas in the Texas capital are known for their pedicabs.

Pedicabs got their start in Seattle during the 1962 World's Fair, according to a 2013 report by the Business Enterprise Law Clinic at the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago. Today, pedicabs are common in cities on the East and West coasts.

In 1994, pedicabs got their start in New York, a locale that heavily regulates its pedaling population. New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco and Honolulu are other metropolises with regulations in place.

Many of these regulations hinge on chauffeur licenses for pedicab drivers. Columbia does not have such a requirement.

In New Orleans, city rules and regulations arose from a battle with local taxis. Cabbies feared they would lose business as pedicabs grew in popularity. After a drawn-out battle with the city council, three pedicab companies remained, capping the maximum number of bicycle taxi drivers at 45.

Weinstein saw potential for a similar three-wheeled takeover in Columbia.

"I thought they were a fun and cool way to get around downtown," Weinstein said. "I thought it would work in CoMo with the bar scene and lots of people out and about."

Weinstein did his research and saw that Shakespeare’s Pizza employed a similar service. In 2006, Shakespeare’s invested in a pedicab of its own to deliver pizza. The service morphed into a downtown transportation option, but it no longer operates.

To rent his cabs, Weinstein turned to a Columbia-area man who bought two pedicabs for football game days.

Then Weinstein had to get a business license.

And, though he doesn't need a special license to be on the road, he must follow its rules. The bicycle taxis act as cars. Each bike is equipped with brake lights and turn signals. Weinstein often pulls over to allow cars to pass him on the roadway.

Coasting through fall

Weinstein said running ZOU Cabs during the school year will be about the same as it is now. The cabbie staff has six drivers, including Weinstein, and each will ride a few nights a week.

"It’s going to be a lot better in the fall with football games, tailgates and people from out of town," he said. "I’m pretty excited for the fall."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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