Charlotte pedicabs fight for Panther fans’ dollars

Beat Panthers traffic uptown with a pedicab

Panthers traffic on game day can be maddening: blocked-off streets, hard-to-find taxis, surging Uber fares. But all those annoyances provide a boon for one hard-to-miss industry: pedicabs.
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Panthers traffic on game day can be maddening: blocked-off streets, hard-to-find taxis, surging Uber fares. But all those annoyances provide a boon for one hard-to-miss industry: pedicabs.

Panthers traffic on game day can be maddening: blocked-off streets, hard-to-find taxis, surging Uber fares. But all those annoyances provide a boon for one hard-to-miss industry: pedicabs.

The rickshaw-looking vehicles carry passengers back to their cars in remote lots or back to their homes nearby. This year Charlotte pedicabs have ridden the coattails of the undefeated Panthers, who next face the Indianapolis Colts on “Monday Night Football.”

“It’s huge,” says Thomas Richards, owner and operator of R&R Pedicab Company. “We’re taking a lot more people to the game ... and we’re taking more people home.”

Richards’ company now deploys 10 pedicab bikes on game days, two more than last year. Normally his drivers start offering rides two to three hours before kickoff; on Monday he said they will start four hours early.

On big game days, R&R drivers can make upwards of $400 and travel 30 miles. It helps to be in good shape for all that pedaling: His drivers include athletic college students and triathletes.

When business is this good, though, everybody wants a piece of the pie – and that includes out-of-town operators who come from as far as Ohio and Florida, Richards and others say.

It’s easy for independent drivers to come in for big events because the pedicab industry in Charlotte is mostly unregulated. Businesses don’t normally clamor for more regulation, but R&R and another local company, Charlotte Pedicab, say regulation is smart from both a public safety and financial standpoint.

“We don’t want massive regulation because that will hamper our growth. But there’s a public safety issue and we work very diligently among ourselves to make sure we provide a safe and consistent ride, whether it’s how we price or the standard we hold drivers to,” says Charlotte Pedicab owner Max Nicholson.

Charlotte Pedicab runs between six and seven bikes on game day, and its drivers typically make around $300 for the night and drive around 30 miles, Nicholson says.

R&R and Charlotte Pedicab say they’ve started self-regulating and creating their own standards. Both, for example, charge a flat rate of $10 per rider on game days, carry insurance, purchase specially made pedicab bikes and perform background checks and training for their drivers.

It’s easy to tell them apart: R&R drivers typically wear a jersey of some sort and drive yellow cabs; Charlotte Pedicab drivers wear bright yellow shirts and operate blue cabs.

Charlotte defines a pedicab “a device with three or more wheels which is pedaled by one individual and is used for, or is capable of, transporting passengers.” They have to comply with traffic laws and they can’t operate on sidewalks. They are not required, however, to carry insurance, have their equipment checked or perform driver background checks.

There also are no rules in place about how much a pedicab cab charge a patron, which can be a “huge problem” because the out-of-town companies often engage in price gouging, says Raymond Dudine, who runs pedicab operations at Charlotte Pedicab.

“It also affects our business for the rest of the year because so many people hear about how expensive pedicabs are because their friends got ripped off by an out-of-towner during a football game,” Dudine says.

Dudine recalls an instance after the Panthers’ game against the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday night when a group of four friends asked for rides from Bank of America Stadium to EpiCentre – a distance of less than a mile. Dudine took the first two friends for $25, while an independent driver took the other two for $55, he says.

So riding a pedicab in Charlotte is a buyer-beware market. Operators advise asking a driver about prices up front before taking a ride.

The two local pedicab companies have brought the issue before City Council three times over the last three years asking for regulation. The council turned the ordinance down in 2013 because they said it would over-regulate the pedicab industry, benefiting the two larger pedicab companies while discouraging other smaller or newer ones from competing.

The council isn’t currently considering any kind of new regulatory measure for pedicabs, says Claire Fallon, chair of the Community Safety Committee.

“I don’t know if eventually it will be regulated, but I guess if it becomes a problem they would be,” Fallon says.

Linda Durrett, the Charlotte Department of Transportation spokeswoman, says the city doesn’t see any issues with the way pedicabs currently operate, but it would consider strengthening the current ordinance should the need present itself.

“CMPD believes for the most part, pedicab operators obey normal traffic laws and try to guard the safety of their riders,” Durrett says. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department declined an interview and did not have data available on pedicab accidents or injuries.

Tight pedicab standards are more common in cities with a heavier tourist presence, such as New York, which even has its own pedicab association.

Still, even the less tourist-heavy city of Columbia has a pedicab-specific section in its municipal code. Pedicabs in Columbia must pay a fee to the city, have a business license, buy liability insurance and have proof of ownership. R&R has a business license there and provides rides for University of South Carolina football games.

The Columbia code states that the “unregulated operation of pedicabs on the streets of the city would be detrimental to the safety of the public.”

In Charlotte, tailgaters will be arriving for Monday’s game just as the usual after-work traffic begins, and it will be dark and possibly cold when the game ends. All that should spur more demand for alternative transportation. And prices for Uber, the ride-sharing service, often surge during times of high demand.

R&R and Charlotte Pedicab owners each separately estimate that up to 30 independent, out-of-town pedicab contractors will travel to Charlotte Monday to cash in on the demand – and on the fact that the city’s pedicab operations are unregulated.

“The out-of-town folks have always kind of been a thorn in our side. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a playoff game or a regular game, those guys see the opportunity of 70- to 80,000 people being in a one-mile square area,” Nicholson says.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

Another way to get home

Uber and Miller Lite are pairing up to offer game-goers free rides home from Bank of America Stadium Monday night.

New and existing riders can use the promo code CLTKICKOFF15 in the promotions tab in the Uber app. The free ride (of a value up to $25) is only available Monday for a ride from the stadium for customers 21 and older.

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