Peddling A New Business Cycle

April 20, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — A new mode of downtown transportation will make its debut in a matter of weeks, and it will be as environmentally friendly and energy-efficient as any transit system can be.

Barton Chatman and Shannon Sawyer plan to unveil their new enterprise, Grand Rapids Pedicab, on the streets of the Central Business District in mid-May. 

Grand Rapids Pedicab, as its name implies, is a taxi service, but one without exhaust emissions. Rather than using a fleet of autos powered by internal-combustion engines to transport passengers, the new company will use about a dozen rickshaws powered by cyclists who are insured, licensed and in really good physical condition. The cyclists will lease the cabs from Chatman and Sawyer.

“We’re planning to have 10 to 15 rickshaws; that is our goal,” said Sawyer.

“We’re going to have from two to three drivers per cab, so we’ll probably have from 20 to 30. Most of our drivers are bike riders and they come from many backgrounds. So it’s something that they are used to and are able to do.”

Sawyer said a pedicab, short for pedal cab, costs about $4,600 and each one can carry three passengers. All of downtown is included on the route, but the route isn’t restricted to downtown or downtowners. Sawyer said he and Chatman have talked with the Convention and Visitors Bureau about transporting conference delegates and tourists to the John Ball Zoo and other nearby destinations of interest.

“They liked the idea of pedicabs, or rickshaws, being (downtown) because these can be a selling point to get conventions to come here for tours and things of that nature,” he said of the response he received from the bureau.

Sawyer also said his service will be able to take passengers to the “Medical Mile” located high atop the Michigan Street hill. The pedicab drivers, through, won’t try to climb “Mount” Michigan Street. Instead, Sawyer said, he and Chatman are setting up a more level and scenic route that will probably involve taking Fulton Street east to Lafayette Avenue, or another street that runs north and south, to get to Michigan Street.

And unlike other taxis, this service won’t have a meter running up a charge every 10th of a mile, as Grand Rapids Pedicab drivers will rely on the candor and generosity of their passengers for their fee.

“It’s a tip service. There is no charge to get on. You just tip the driver whatever you think the ride was worth. People will be more apt to get on if it’s not a flat fee,” said Sawyer.

The pedicabs will operate from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m. Those hours may vary, depending on which events are going on downtown on particular days. But Sawyer felt the rickshaws would be busy every weekday during the lunch hour taking passengers from their worksites to restaurants and back. He also said pedicabs are likely to be in demand when the nightspots close. He felt having that option for bar patrons will provide them with a sense of security late at night by giving them a safe way to get back to their cars.

“That is one of our selling points,” said Sawyer.

Sawyer said the idea behind Grand Rapids Pedicab came to him and Chatman after they spent an evening downtown and wondered out loud what was missing in the district. Sawyer then remembered a visit to Chicago with his wife and kids. After a day’s worth of taking in the sights in downtown Chicago, they were too tired to walk back to their car and decided to try a pedicab for the first time.

“So we hopped on a rickshaw that took us to where we parked. I saw all these people walking back and forth through the downtown area in numbers, and I was looking at the streets and thought, ‘Wow, the rickshaw service is great here because it is a fun ride,’” he said.

Sawyer said he and Chatman saw some similarities between Grand Rapids and downtown Chicago and those comparisons gave them an impression that the cabs would do well here.

“People do like to get from Point A to Point B kind of fast at times. Finding parking downtown is not like a real easy thing; you have to park a few blocks away from where you’re going. That is where it originated from — from just being downtown and wondering why it wouldn’t work down here,” he said.

“From there, we talked with area businessmen, and they liked the idea of pedicabs because during lunch time they like people not to just stay in the area where they work. They’d like to see them branch out to other areas of downtown. They can hop on a pedicab and get to the restaurants in a faster fashion and get back to work.”

Sawyer said he and Chatman have been friends for at least the past 15 years. Sawyer is a barber by trade and they first met when he cut Chatman’s hair. They always seemed to talk about business at every appointment, and it didn’t take very long for them to realize that their thoughts ran along the same lines. Sawyer still cuts hair at the Turning Heads Salon at 1221 Madison Ave. SE. Chatman sells cars for Toyota of Grand Rapids at 2555 28th St. SW.

Once Chatman and Sawyer get the rickshaws rolling, their plan is to keep their drivers peddling for as long as they can until the weather forces them to stop.

“It’s going to be all-year-round, depending on how the snow runs. Usually the cabs run nine to 10 months out of the year,” said Sawyer. “In Denver, they run all-year round, depending on how deep the snow gets. But usually the snow downtown is pretty good with the way the streets are cleared.”

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