Pedicab Confidential

Pedicab in New Orleans. Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee.

Pedicab on Canal Street. Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee.

After a few weeks of operating a pedicab in the French Quarter, you develop a sixth sense for likely customers. Families with hungry, antsy children are usually inclined to hop aboard, while all-male groups—particularly if they’re on the younger side—are typically not. The last thing a guy wants to do in front of his drinking buddies is flag down an oversized tricycle.

But the staple of the pedicabber’s diet is the couple. If a pedicabber is a lion, prowling the French Quarter savannah, then the couple out on a date is a gazelle. An apparently lost couple, consulting a map, is a sick, wounded gazelle. If they’re well- dressed, that’s another good sign. They probably already have fancy dinner plans, and I am their lifeline.

My strategy involves being judiciously coy with information. If they have reservations at Stella! but don’t know how to get there, I don’t simply volunteer its location along with step-by-step directions. I say, “I can have you there in five minutes.” They can hardly refuse the ride without seeming just a tad ungrateful. And what’s one little cab fare to the salvation of their carefully planned evening?

Prospective pedicabbers in New Orleans are shunted through the taxicab bureau at City Hall. The license process includes a drug test, fingerprinting and background check, and a defensive driving course that clearly has not been adapted for this purpose. It teaches such tidbits as how to position your rearview mirrors, how often to change your wiper fluid, and what to do when a deer steps into the road—none of which is terribly useful when riding a bicycle in the French Quarter.

That’s not to say that the Quarter doesn’t have its own unique environmental hazards. If I were to design a preparatory course for pedicab drivers, I might include some ready-made comebacks for the most common jokes tossed out by passersby. “Hey man, how much to Mandeville (or some other suitable distant locale)?” is a frequent one. “A lot,” is usually the best I can come up with on the spot, accompanied by a forced smile. Variants of this line are the constant bane of the pedicabber, not because of the inconvenience or wasted time—a driver who got upset over every French Quarter drunk slurring unintelligibly in his direction would scarcely find time for work—but because of the way they toy with your expectations. After an hour (or two, or three) with scarcely a nibble, to have the prospect of a fare dangled in front of you and then snatched away is too much to bear. Hauling that guy 25 miles across the Causeway almost starts to sound good.

Cabbing around downtown New Orleans gives one a unique window into the conferences, conventions and reunions that descend on the city during its busy months. One recent weekend, New Orleans saw simultaneous influxes of cheerleaders and wounded veterans, presumably for different events.

Something about the backseat of a pedicab seems to stimulate certain people into a barrage of self-deprecating comments about their weight. “I bet I’m the biggest lardass you’ve had on here today,” is a typical conversation starter. If I can offer a pat reassurance (“Nah, you should have seen the last guys I picked up!”) and pedal them to their destination cheerfully, there’s often a nice tip waiting. With a wide load, though, it can take a good while to reach cruising speed from a full stop. During those first few agonizingly slow pedals, I have to wonder if my customers are reconsidering their choice of conveyance.

To a pedicabber, hauling 450 pounds of Alabama tourist, momentum is a precious resource. Every bit of speed has to be painstakingly generated one arduous pedal at a time; if a pedestrian passes in front of me while I’m carrying a particularly heavy load, I have to seriously weigh the relative merits of sacrificing my hard-earned momentum and crushing them beneath my wheels. You’ve all been warned.

Some days the winds whipping up and down Canal Street can turn it into a giant pedicab conveyor belt, whisking you along with ease. That is, unless it’s blowing the wrong way, in which case it takes some effort just to stand still, especially with folks in back. Adding to it all is the fact that in the French Quarter, what looks like a two-block trip has a way of becoming a 20- block one once you’ve factored in the limitations of one-way streets, randomly placed police barricades, and the necessity of avoiding the impassable river of drunken pedestrians that is Bourbon Street.

Of course, speed is not the reason to take a pedicab in the first place. If you’re looking for scintillating conversation and an enjoyable, open-air ride through downtown, try flagging one of us down. Just don’t ask for a ride to Mandeville.