Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.
It helps to be a free-wheeling maverick.
Name: Donald Clark
Occupation: Pedicab driver with DC Pedicab cooperative
City: Washington, D.C.
Donald Clark spends his days teaching high-school U.S. history, and moonlights giving tours of D.C.'s iconic monuments to visitors packed into his $5,000 neon yellow pedicab. “I needed a part time job during the recession,” he says. “I'd just broken up with my girlfriend and lost most of my furniture in the process.” To score the gig, he had to have a driver's license and pass a basic road test at the pedicab company. This is still Clark's side hustle, but he's not about to give it up. “I ride so I can have a retirement,” he says.
Clark took the gig for the money, but his pedagogical background helps. Most of the time, he's cruising around the National Mall, and he conjures rich historical narratives from the sites he pedals past, like the house on Lafayette Square where the widowed Dolley Madison reentered Washington high society as her son squandered the family's finances.
He usually provides about a dozen rides per day, but those narrative tours are longer and pricier. “I had one four-hour tour with three ladies from California, and we booked it at the high narrative rate,” he says. “It paid so well that I just did one ride all day.”
Around the world, rickshaws ferry millions of people as a basic form of transportation, but in American cities, human-powered transit is mostly limited to bike commuters and messengers. In recent years, though, pedicabs have gained traction as a novelty taxi service and a method of traversing tourist sites. Some drivers have been accused of gouging customers, such as a New York City driver who charged tourists more than $400 for a ten-minute ride, the New York Post reported.
Clark tries to drive fair. (Sightseeing rates at the DC Pedicab cooperative start at $24/person, but vary depending on demand and the season.) He shared some of his stories with CityLab during a lull in the afternoon rush.
What's a typical workday like?
Most guys and gals start in the late morning because the tourists have to get a little bit tired before the first ride. Usually most drivers work until dinnertime when people are done with the museums, done with the monuments, and want to go back to the hotel or a restaurant. There's also a cadre who come in and work afternoon up through midnight. There's some that work the bar scene until four in the morning.
Is this job as physically demanding as it looks?
It's very tough, very demanding, physically and mentally. We deal with up to 100 degrees. We pedal in this stuff. Rain, we have to be prepared for all that. You have to stay in shape, you have to eat right, you have to bring a lot of liquids, a lot of electrolytes, a lot of fruit, a lot of slow-release carbs and quick-release carbs.
Does it keep you in good shape?
It does. I was able to give up my gym membership. I'm hoping it's going to keep me young and I'm hoping to beat out this guy named Dennis. I wanted to have the distinction of being the oldest pedicabber ever in D.C., but I found out there's a guy down here named Dennis who's been doing it to support his two ex-wives. He's 77 years old. So I'm bummed. I have to work 23 years more just to tie Dennis. But he's unusual. Most of the guys and women are in their 20s and 30s.
Who are your typical passengers?
They're people visiting our nation's capital. We occasionally give locals a ride to restaurants or something just when it suits them or they want a romantic ride, but the vast majority of rides are out-of-town people. I must have had probably close to 100 countries I could count.
What do you think drives people to seek this line of work?
It's people who like riding bikes, people who like the flexibility, people who are mavericks. Sometimes I think it's like the closest thing to modern-day pirates, although we're much more ethical than pirates. But that maverick sense. A lot of free spirits. A lot of musicians, bartenders, bike messengers.
Is it usually a second job?
No, for a lot of people it’s their primary job. They might have a different job in the winter, or some of them go to different parts of the country where it's warm. They put their bike in a truck and go down to Arizona or Florida. A lot of them do professional football games. It’s very lucrative down in Pittsburgh. That's too much work for me. I thought about why I do it and I think it's probably 50 percent monetary, 35 percent aesthetic, and maybe 15 percent staying in shape.
What do you mean by the aesthetic motivation?
Riding a bike out in the open air, being independent, collecting my own thoughts, chatting with interesting people. The part that we hate is when we're just sitting there not earning any money, hawking rides, waiting for a ride. But as soon as you get a ride, a pedicabber's spirit lifts right up. None of us like to just sit around, except for a handful of guys who like to hang out at [The National Museum of] Natural History, seemingly.
What was the craziest experience you've had giving pedicab rides?
Eighty percent of our rides are with nondescript families with small kids. But occasionally we run into an interesting ride. I had these guys from Colombia that were in this long stretch limo, a very garish white Humvee limo. They had their girlfriends in my cab and they just gave me really nasty frowns when I asked them anything about Colombia, so I stopped asking. They followed me in their car and at each monument one of them with a big smile on his face would give me an orange. I don't know what the significance was. He gave like five oranges. Knowing I hadn't eaten any of them, he kept giving me more. I don't know what was in those oranges or what was going on.
Do passengers ever do things that really annoy you?
Yes, when we slightly under-price a ride to get it, thinking we'll pick it up on the tip, and then the guy doesn't even tip, often as he goes back to his $500/night hotel room. A bad pedicab experience is very rare—except in New York, where those guys try to rip you off. But we have different norms down here in D.C.
Have you had any close calls with cars?
Surprisingly, no. We're lit up like a Christmas tree with all of our lights and reflective tape and it's quite visible. It's a very safe industry. I'd put it up there with and above many of the others: Segway, buses, taxis, driving your car, heck, even walking as a pedestrian in this town. But it's a 35 miles-per-hour speed limit on Independence [Ave.] and some of these guys are going 60 and over on it. Some of these car drivers treat it like it's the Indy 500.