- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

In a city where millions of dollars are spent every year on the nation’s most modern subway system, three airports and an eight-lane Beltway, pedal-powered rickshaws might seem a bit out of place.

Not so, say three friends fresh out of college whose new company, Capitol Pedicabs, offers a way for residents and visitors to Washington to enjoy a fun and “green” way to get around in the city.

“It’s kind of relaxing,” Margaret Perschy, a Baltimore resident visiting Washington, commented on her first pedicab experience, which she said was fun compared to her usual banal drive.

The men behind the business, Martin Rahmani, Alex Lanigan and Steven Balinsky, grew up as high school classmates in New York City who never expected to be co-partners.

Today, their company uses three-wheeled rickshaws or pedicabs to transport fares around Washington, and their unique rides are attracting attention on city streets.

Barely a month in existence, Capitol Pedicabs recently launched an online presence and plans to promote advertising opportunities as well as pedicab rentals for private events.

Mr. Balinsky once drove a pedicab in New York and brought the idea to the attention of his friends who realized the benefits of such a job.

“The three of us had a strong desire to start a company because it’s such a service to the city,” Mr. Rahmani said. Mr. Balinsky said that New York’s market was already too saturated to begin a fourth rickshaw company.

Mr. Lanigan, who keeps the books and coordinates with advertisers for the company, said he enjoyed promoting the pedicab business.

“It’s a great source of transportation to eliminate congestion and go green,” he said.

After graduating from different colleges the three reunited and set up shop in Washington where Mr. Rahmani said he recognized a good business opportunity.

“Of course you don’t need a college degree to run a pedicab company,” he said. “What it comes down to is that this is a fun and exciting opportunity for us.”

Mr. Balinsky said one thing that drew him to the job was how environmentally friendly pedicabs were.

The company now owns six pedicabs with hopes to grow to 15 by the end of the year and has hired three full-time drivers, Mr. Rahmani said. He said a pool of 10 or 12 pedicab drivers, just for their current fleet, would be ideal.

“There are a lot of benefits,” Mr. Balinsy said. “You get to interact with people all day and you set your own hours. The harder you work, the more money you make. You can easily make a couple hundred dollars a day and a couple thousand dollars a week.”

Mr. Rahmani said that many of the drivers they hire are avid cyclists.

“Cycling is already their lives,” he said. “And they’re very much members of the community in D.C.”

There’s an emotional appeal to cycling, Mr. Rahmani said, noting that children love pedicabs and people like to see them on the streets. He said that during the Cherry Blossom Festival many people would strike up conversation with drivers.

“You’re kind of a celebrity because there aren’t that many [pedicabs] on the streets,” he said.

Capitol Pedicabs is in fact the second rickshaw company in the District (the other is DC Pedicab), but Mr. Rahmani doesn’t seem to mind the competition.

“The market base in D.C. is so big that we’re not trying to be the David slaying the Goliath,” he said.

Mr. Rahmani said that each company operates pedicabs produced by different manufacturers and practiced contrasting business models. He said that the growing industry was good for the city.

The new company has not been on the streets long enough (it opened March 22) to gather regular customers, Mr. Balinsky said, although collecting regulars was a goal.

“We’ve had a very solid balance of people from out of town as well as residents of D.C.,” he said.

The company’s drivers, who usually work only on tips and donations, often pre-negotiate fares for tours and more extensive rides, Mr. Rahmani said.

Mr. Rahmani often trains new hires by having them wheel him around the city so he knows what it’s like to ride in his own service.

“It’s a very comfortable big carriage,” he said. “It’s a nice view of the city, unlike a taxi cab. When you’re in a car, it’s hot, it’s smelly, it’s closed in and restrictive, [pedicabs are] a unique experience.”

Nadia Mercer, a District resident, said she began driving for Capitol Pedicabs at the beginning of the month.

“It’s great exercise and you get very positive responses,” she said.

Ms. Mercer enjoys her job so much she recommended it to Sean Madden, a friend and fellow D.C. resident, who said his home is a short walk from the company’s headquarters.

“It’s better than any desk job and a whole lot better than waiting tables,” he said.

Mr. Madden said that convincing potential customers is a simple part of the job compared to finding the right spots to pick up riders. He said Metro stations and monuments usually yielded the best results.

Perhaps even more difficult is expending the energy to take customers uphill, he said. Unlike the relatively flat streets of Manhattan island, the District has more than a few hills.

“Driving uphill is difficult,” Mr. Madden said, noting that his customers are usually impressed by the hard work. “It’s over in a minute.”

“It’s tough [enough] going up a hill by yourself,” Mr. Rahmani said. “After a few weeks you really don’t feel it anymore.”

Both said they enjoyed the exercise they got from the challenge.

“Last night at 1 a.m. I carried two guys weighing 200 pounds each uphill,” Mr. Madden said. From the bottom to the top both of the customers were talking about how much they weigh, he said.

“When I was just about to get stuck on the hill they just started singing oldies,” he said. “So I got a second wind and just kept biking.”

Mr. Rahmani said he once transported a woman from Florida who was hesitant of riding just a few blocks in a pedicab. Sixty minutes and $80 later, the once-skeptical woman had taken a journey around the Mall and picked up three of her friends on the way, he said.

Kate Baylor, a resident of the District, said she too enjoyed riding in rickshaws.

“It can be a different way to get yourself home,” she said. “It’s a bit more fun than the average cab ride, though it takes a little longer.”

In the end, the pedicab drivers have enthusiasm on their side.

“I just love this job; it’s so much fun,” Mr. Madden said. “I’d almost say I’d do it just for biking people around but that’s kind of ridiculous. You’ve got to get paid somehow.”

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