Pedicab Drivers Pedal The Lawless Downtown Frontier
Space City Bike Cabs has the largest fleet of pedicabs in the Houston area.
Photos by Brittanie Shey
Pedicab driving is a job for shisters. That much became clear to Rocks Off after just a 10-minute conversation with a driver. And during our two-hour ride along with Houston bike cabs working the Taylor Swift concert and downtown's hotspots, a certain phrase kept playing in our head: Rick Ross' "Every Day I'm Hustlin'". The story idea came to us last week at the Jimmy Buffett concert when we ran into two separate pedicab companies taking drunken Parrotheads back to their cars after the show. One driver, David, told us he often works the Gay Pride Parade in the Montrose. Another driver, David, said he rents his cab for $90 and can take home all the tips he makes. He expected to make about $250 on the night of the Buffett show. We thought it might be fun to look at a night in the life of a pedicab driver in such a pedestrian-averse, bike-unfriendly, car-loving city like the Petro Metro. Little did we know what we were getting into. David, the driver at the Buffett show, made such a good impression on us with his politeness that we decided to call the company he works for, Space City Bike Cab. Within moments of explaining to company owner Travis Stowers our idea for the story, we were assailed with complaints about the bike-cab business in Houston. "I own 44 pedicabs," he said. "We invented pedicabs in Houston." Indeed, Space City Bike Cab's Web site says they own the largest fleet of state-of-the-art 21-speed bike cabs in Houston. But Stowers didn't want to talk for long. Instead, he directed me to Nate Lubke, his business partner, who continued the complaints about other bike cab businesses operating downtown. Among Lubke's chief complaints: Drivers who operate unsafe vehicles, drivers who are thugs, those who take advantage of intoxicated passengers to increase their nightly wages, and unsafe drivers, including one dropped and dragged a lady by her face and still had the nerve to charge her fare. Lubke's complaints are scary, but they aren't as bad as other pedicab horror stories from across the country. Last summer in Brooklyn, four people were hurt in a bike cab crash, and in Seattle in 2008 a 60-year-old pedicab passenger died when the bike collided with a van. In 2007, a pedicab driver in California was charged with felony drunken driving after an accident that injured another pedicab driver and four passengers. Nothing that dramatic has happened in Houston. Not yet, Lubke says, but it will. SEXUAL GODS ON WHEELS Rocks Off was to meet with Lubke and some other drivers outside House of Blues Tuesday night at 6 p.m. When we arrived, we flagged down a driver on a bike cab with House of Blues ads on the back -- Space City Bike Cab has an exclusive advertising contract with the restaurant and music venue. We asked for Nate, and the driver, who had a tattoo sleeve down his right arm, offered to give Rocks Off a ride to find him. Only after we were in the cab did we realize the cyclist was an amputee. His left leg, working as deftly on the pedals as the right, was a steel prosthesis, the top half of which was covered in designs not unlike his arm tattoos. As we rounded the corner we met up with Lubke, and Rocks Off switched cabs. Lubke is 40 years old and cocky, with buzzed, greying hair, a football player's build and a mouth that never stops. He offered to give us a sunset tour of downtown while explaining the history of pedicabs in Houston. "We started the business here in Houston, my roommate and I," he said. Lubke moved to Texas in 2003 from San Diego, where he had worked as a bike cab driver for six years. "I was a waiter," he said, "and I took a pedicab, and the driver had a flip-flop tan. I said 'You must be doing pretty good if you've got a flip-flop tan.'" The driver told Lubke he made more than enough money in tips to live on, and after that Lubke was sold. "In San Diego, we were like gods. You had all these mid- to late-20s guys running around town on bikes, picking up chicks from bars. My first night, I took home two chicks." His boss in California landed an advertisement deal with Bud Light for the 2004 Super Bowl, and sent a delegation of pedicab drivers to Houston to serve Reliant Stadium. But the glory of the job didn't carry over into Texas. "We called it Survivor Houston. We had nine guys that came here from San Diego. Every week one guy would say 'Fuck this, I'm going home.' It was just a whole different animal."
Space City's Nate Lubke thinks trailer-style cabs like this one raise serious safety concerns.
I FOUGHT THE LAW"I'm just real soured right now," Lubke told Rocks Off. "I've been fighting with the fucking city because it was the city who invited us out for the Super Bowl." The majority of Lubke's criticisms have to do with his competition and the fact that the pedicab industry, if one can call it that, is completely unregulated by the City of Houston. Pedicabs skirt the city's taxi ordinance because the drivers don't charge a fare and they bikes don't have motors. "The city won't regulate anything because they don't want to be liable." Owner Travis Stowers echoes that sentiment. "Most companies don't even have insurance," Stowers said. "I keep a $20,000 insurance policy." Lubke said some of the other companies' practices make all bike cabbers look bad. Stowers said that if the city doesn't make gains to officiate the business, he'll likely be leaving Houston for a city that does. Space City Bike Cab has a sister operation in Arlington called Lone Star Bike Cab. After the new Cowboys Stadium was opened about a year ago, bike cabs descended on the arena to help stadium-goers avoid the outrageous parking fees, some as high as $75. Within a few months, the city had moved to create regulations for the pedicabs. Those regulations require all pedicabs to have lights, proof of insurance, helmets and seat belts, inspection certifications and slow moving vehicle signs on the back of the bench. They also regulate the types of pedicabs allowed. Trailers that attached to regular bikes are prohibited. Space City Bike Cab and Lone Star Bike Cab's bikes are all one extended frame, sort of like an Xtracycle. Arlington also put a limit on how many bike cabs can service the stadium. They made available 40 total permits to operate bike cabs. Lone Star has 10 of them. EVERY DAY I'M HUSTLIN' On the phone, Rocks Off asked Lubke how an average passenger could tell that his company was more legit than any other group riding bike cabs in Houston. In person, the answer seems clear. All of Space City's bike cabs look the same -- blue with a blue House of Blues ad on the back. The drivers all wear the same navy T-shirt with Lone Star's logo on the back. The cabs also all have the same sign explaining that fares are free -- the driver work for tips and tips only, an important detail. "If you look nicer you'll make more money," Lubke says. Then he points to a cyclist for another company. "These guys in the yellow bikes and yellow shirts, they're trying to look more cohesive." Those identical bike cabs and matching t-shirts had to be funded somehow, and one thing Rocks Off notices as we pass other bike cabbers is that almost no one but Lubke's people have advertisements on their bikes. The House of Blues deal is sweet, but not the sweetest one they've ever scored. When the Super Bowl came to San Diego in 2003, Coca-Cola paid the pedicab company Lubke worked for $40,000 to put ads on four bikes, he said. The Bud Light deal that helped bring the company to Houston was pretty good too. And Lubke likes to talk about all the famous people who've ridden in his cabs: Doug Flutie and Snoop Dogg, who Lubke says didn't tip at all. "I drove Brett Favre's parents around during the Super Bowl," he said. Suddenly Lubke interrupts himself to point to a pedicab in front of us carrying some young girls to the Toyota Center, where Taylor Swift is about to perform. The bike is pulling a trailer-style cab with a bench made out of exposed plywood. There are no reflectors, no lights, no horn -- no safety features at all. "Look at this -- you think you can see that trailer at night? If your daughter falls out of that trailer and gets hit by a car, you think that guy's gonna stick around while you call the cops?" Many drivers build trailer-style cabs in their garages, using who knows what kind of safety standards. Lubke said the less ethical owners don't even keep the bikes maintained, and require the drivers to bring their own lights and other equipment. He poses the question -- if you're renting a pedicab to drive, what is the rent going towards? Pedicab rental works on a confusing scale. At Space City, Lubke charges his drivers a percentage based on the average tips collected that night. This method requires his drivers to report their tips to him, which means, of course, they're going to lowball the number to keep the rent low and the take-home higher. If a nightly average is $200 in tips, then Lubke would charge $60 for the rental, giving the driver $140 in his pocket. Several times throughout the night, employees of Lubke would pull up to him to complain about how slow it had been. Outside the House of Blues, two drivers -- one who was working his very first shift -- were talking about the lack of tips. Within a few minutes, they both got riders. "What are the odds of that," he asks sarcastically. It seems to be a hobby of Lubke's to bitch about his employees. He alternates between calling them thugs and slackers.
Drivers for two rival pedicab companies await fares outside the Taylor Swift concert.
"Don't tell me it's slow out here," he tells us. "You're in a fuckin' rickshaw. You know what little girls like more than anything? Getting pedaled to a concert. Maybe the only thing they like more is getting their nails done." He doesn't like for his drivers to smoke while their on the bikes, and he wants them to look clean-cut, approachable. He tries to make sure they follow all the traffic rules too, though some guys will shortcut by riding on the sidewalk or going half a block the wrong way down a one-way street. "I give a lot of people chances," he said. During the summer, a lot of foreign students staying in Houston come to work for him. And he hears, through his employees, about the exploits of other drivers. One, he tells me, is a registered sex offender. Another packs heat while he's working. "You're pedaling a rickshaw in an entertainment district. Why do you need a gun?" Lubke thinks he has an answer. He tells me about an employee he fired because the man kept showing up without his uniform. "They say 'fuck you, I don't wanna work for you anymore.' So he goes and buys a trailer for $200 bucks and now he has no rules." We pull into a pay parking lot where a quartet of bike cabs are waiting to offer rides to the Toyota Center. Sure enough, Lubke is right about the drivers' looks. We watch as five girls all cram themselves into a Space City cab that normally seats three, instead of splitting up and riding in one of the rickety-looking trailer-cabs. Lubke believes that a low overhead leads other drivers to resort to shady business deals in order to supplement their tips. If a driver looks like a thug and their bike looks unsafe, they're obviously not going to get very many passengers. Lubke says some drivers threaten passengers for higher tips, take advantage of drunk passengers by charging a fare in addition to a tip, and sell drugs on the side. One business manager for another company tries to sabotage every ad deal Space City gets by sending anonymous letters to the advertisers. One of Lubke's drivers used to work for a rival company. Last week, he was riding his own bike home to the Third Ward, and he was attacked by a man carrying a cane, who broke his jaw. The driver told Rocks Off the attacker was another pedicab company's driver. Lubke rattles off a list of names of drivers who've been arrested for various offenses, some of them happened while the guys were on the job. Lubke says he's friends with the cops and that is how he knows. ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL? Lubke and Stowers are worried about The Woodlands. The Jimmy Buffett concert was their third event there, and the competition has gotten wind of it. The Woodlands Board asked Space City Bike Cabs to work events in the Town Center so people wouldn't park at the mall. And Space City has other service deals that are exclusive - the Nutcracker Market, Texans games and a few he asked us not to mention in print. "We make so much money that during the week we give the bikes out for free so the guys can supplement their income." The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is a different story. "One-third of all of Houston goes to the Rodeo," Lubke said, "So I figured if people have a good experience with us there, they'll ride with us again. Losing the Rodeo, for my company, is huge." A few years after Space City started working the Rodeo, their competitors started moving in on the event too. When the shifty characters and derelict bikes appeared, the Rodeo lumped the whole flock, including Space City, together. "The Rodeo wanted no bikes. They said, "Fuck it." I can't afford for people not to have a positive experience, or the business will fail." Lubke says the NFL doesn't even want pedicabs at the Super Bowl anymore. Which is why he's gone to the Houston City Council to try to get some regulations, like those in Arlington, in place to protect what he sees as legitimate pedicab businesses. His two main requests are that the City put an insurance policy in place and put a vehicle type in place, effectively banning those home-built trailers. And Lubke is also trying to appeal to the other bike cab companies. He says it's the only way pedicabs will survive in the town that loves to drive. It's worked in other cities. Austin, for example, has a pedicab alliance, and like Arlington, there is a city code regulating their practices. "If these guys just cleaned up their image and we all worked as a group, this thing would all work out," he said.
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