It is late enough for the streets to be empty. Wedged between two brick buildings near Market Street, a party is in full swing. Beneath the glow of light bulbs on a string, people are drinking and the volume of their chatter swells with laughter. We are outside on the curb and Dick Oyler turns to me and says, “I can make anywhere from zero to $500, on a good night.”
Let me back up.
Oyler works for Pedicab, one of the three pedal-powered taxi services in Charleston. With intrinsic motivation and calves of steel, Oyler and his coworkers transport up to three passengers at a time to almost any location on the peninsula. You can see them gathered on Market, or meandering down King in search of customers. The bike taxis are an integral part of Charleston’s landscape, both for tourists and residents. They play a key role in defining the street culture in an already small and congested downtown. Besides, they are just plain fun.
The three companies in Charleston are Bike Taxi, Rickshaw and Pedicab. Bike Taxi runs their vehicles at a rate of $5.00 per person per 10 minutes. They are in service seven days a week, with a shift that runs until 2:30 a.m. on the weekends. They also sell advertising space and offer wedding services. Pedicab and Rickshaw are two separate companies with the same owner. We reached out to their management for comment, but received no response.
We spoke with Bike Taxi’s owner, Nick Herron, although he would not label himself as such. “I’m basically just a rental company,” he explained. “Each rider is an independent contractor, so everybody has to have their own business license.”
Outside, the afternoon sun is baking the asphalt, but within Herron’s small office the cool smell of concrete prevails. Charleston’s sidewalks swarm with elderly couples and elementary school groups in color-coordinated shirts. The Bike Taxi workshop is equally colorful, with graffiti and murals on the walls. Old tires are piled up beneath a workbench. Inside Herron’s office, all available space is jammed with bits and bobs. The walls are covered with the posters of local business partners, and a wedding canopy bedecked with fake white flowers sits atop another precarious set of shelves.
Although each rider is independent, Herron is accountable for the operation as a whole. “We did win Best Green Company for Best in Charleston…a couple years in a row,” he said with pride. Bike Taxi split from Rickshaw and Pedicab years ago, and has since made a name for itself as alternative, ecofriendly transportation. “Any time you can get a car off the road is good,” Herron said. Besides being greener, bike taxis are also convenient for residents of the peninsula. “We have a lot of people that live south of Broad that have used us for years,” Herron said. “There’s no point if you live on Tradd Street, and you want to wear heels to an event, for you to move your car. Because it’ll take you longer to park your car than it would to take a bike taxi and just get dropped off.”
What does Herron look for in a rider? “You have to be self-motivated. Because, you know, to make money, it’s an eight hour shift, and it is very easy to say ‘I’m tired, I’ve made $250 and I’m going to quit.’ But that doesn’t mean that the hotels are going to stop calling.” He also emphasized the core value of honesty. Without honesty and consistency among the riders, Bike Taxi’s reputation would wither. “People who tend to take our bikes, stick with our bikes because they like the rider. The rider is the relationship,” Herron elaborated. So who is Bike Taxi’s typical customer? “People who tend to like environmentally friendly, active things, come to us. They just flock to us.” Some peak times of year include the Festival of Houses and Gardens, the Cooper River Bridge Run, the Spoleto Festival and Christmas shopping season.
Bike Taxi’s mission is admirable, but running the business is not without challenges. When asked if there was any red tape, Herron leaned back in his chair and chuckled, “Oh yes. This is Charleston.” Five years ago, the city held a lottery and Bike Taxi bid for ten tags. That means the company is only allowed to have seven bikes out, with an additional three after 6:00 p.m. In total, Herron employs about 50 riders. He also has a full-time mechanic to deal with the copious maintenance issues. “These bikes get a lot of hours on them.”
Logistical challenges aside, Bike Taxi is more than a company to Nick Herron. As we were leaving the workshop, he showed us a large mural that adorned the back wall. It depicted a globe with multicolored riders crisscrossing the canvas on bikes. “One of my riders made this, Bike Taxi World, and those are all our riders,” Herron pointed out with the pride of a parent looking at the artwork on the refrigerator. “It’s a community.”
“I’ll be wearing orange pants.” This is what Dick Oyler told me to look out for. I have never met him before. I have never talked to any of the Pedicabbers before. But sure enough, I spotted him striding down Calhoun with a friend, pants and unstoppably buoyant hair aglow. Oyler and his friend Keaton “Crouton” Foster gave me a sense of the business from their perspective as Pedicab riders.
Landing a job with Pedicab is competitive. Most new hires know a guy who knows a guy, and outsiders are rarely recruited without some sort of connection to the company. “If we don’t want people to work for us we’ll say there’s a waiting list they can get on,” joked Oyler. Foster agreed that hiring is “mostly referral.” The work itself is physically exhausting. Oyler quoted a gallon as a comfortable amount of water to drink during a summer day shift. Working out at the gym is almost impossible due to fatigue. “My knees and ankles would be sore just from [Pedicab],” explained Foster. “All your energy’s gone.”
However, the job is not without perks. “I gave David Arquette a ride once,” laughed Foster. “I picked up him and his friend with two girls…they might have been escorts, but you don’t have to write that.” The actor solicited Foster for marijuana, paid him $40 for a five-minute ride and disappeared into the Charleston night. Oyler excitedly jumped in with another story, “Will Smith was in town once and he hijacked a bike,” Oyler exclaimed. “He saw it sitting outside I guess, someone went inside to use the bathroom, and Will Smith saw it and just hopped on.” Smith asked the stunned rider if he could ride, and of course the rider told him to hop in. But Smith insisted on pedaling himself. “Which is illegal. But he did it, because it’s Will Smith,” Foster said. Other riders told off-the-record stories of excessively drunk customers, raucous wedding groups and one particularly odd sexual liaison in the back of the bike. At the end of the day, each rider goes home with a new story to tell. Customers go home praying they cleaned the seats.
Partially due to the hiring practices and partially due to their personalities, the riders form a close-knit group. “They’re kind of rough at first just because you’re the new guy,” Foster explained. But a few weeks into the job, camaraderie kicks in. Nicknames are common: Crouton, Beav, Malibu, Queef, Crash and Pee Pad, to name a few. Oyler adopted a gravelly voice and said “ride or die,” laughing as he explained the ridiculous antics that help pass the hours on slow days. He described the worst possible customer as the “fake out,” the person who asks lots of questions and walks away without using the service. “The worst ride is the ride that doesn’t happen.”
Pedicab and Rickshaw combined employ about 40 people. Pedicab alone has about 13 males and seven females. When asked if the experience for females was different, Oyler and Foster immediately agreed. “They get treated differently,” Foster explained. “Girls often will make more money than most of the guys, they can squeeze tips out of guys pretty easily.” Male customers will sometimes ask to have a female rider, but those requests are ignored. The male riders are also occasionally subject to unwarranted attention. “You get butt touches,” Foster said. “Well,” mused Oyler, “your butt is right in their face…honk honk.”
From their mobile perches, Pedicabbers can sometimes see things about Charleston that people cannot—or will not. “I’m definitely more aware of how many people are just stuck on their phones constantly,” said Foster. “You learn a lot just watching people…You’re a hidden camera.” Oyler agreed that the average pedestrian is way too distracted. He added that “people always freak out when there’s a fight. But I swear every Friday or Saturday night on King Street, there are several altercations. We usually just park our bikes and watch.” As for their knowledge, Foster affirmed that “we definitely have an intimate relationship with the city. You do it for six months, you know every street and you know all the neighborhoods. It makes Charleston a lot smaller to you.”
Bike Taxi, Pedicab and Rickshaw all play an integral part in keeping downtown Charleston on the move. The companies keep more cars off the road, provide a unique experience for visitors and employ dozens of people. Being a rider is not easy, but well worth the effort. “You can make money, have fun and hang out with your friends,” summed up Foster. “It’s not a job.”
*This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of the Yard.