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Pedicab Wars?
Competition is fierce for downtown bike taxi companies

Most evenings, Victoria Grey rides circles around the squares. The former carpenter’s apprentice has worked full–time as a Savannah Pedicab driver since August, picking up passengers and depositing them at the next bar or restaurant, or if it’s very late, their hotels.

Aside from the occasional obnoxious drunk, it’s a pretty cush gig.

“When I got laid off, I jumped on this because it was quick and easy and I love biking. But I have no plans to do anything else at the moment,” says Grey.” “The money is good depending on the shift, and it’s a great job for people watching.”

Working for tips, she might earn fifty bucks on a slow double shift or as much as $150 on a busy, boozy Saturday night. Some pedicabbers take home several hundred bucks on special events like the Savannah Film Festival, the Rock N’ Roll Marathon, and — that mother of days when folks need squiring — St. Patrick’s Day.

Wearing the baby blue T–shirts bearing the Savannah Pedicab logo, Grey and her pedaling colleagues convene at active pedestrian spots to wait for their next patrons. City Market, Ellis Square at Barnard and Congress (referred to “BarCon” in pedicab lingo) and the corner of Broughton and Bull are favored hubs. City ordinance prohibits congregating in clusters of more than three cabs, and the pedicabbies aren’t allowed to solicit passengers “verbally or by gesture, directly or indirectly.”

Unless they get a call from the dispatcher, catching a fare is about being in the right place at the right time.

“Half of this job is pure luck,” Grey shrugs.

But the odds of lucking out on the big tippers have gone down as of late: A new company has entered the Savannah pedicab market, and the yellow–clad drivers of Royal Bike Taxi now cruise the same turf as their blue–attired counterparts. Accusations of ride–snatching, monkeywrenching and other violations of pedicab etiquette abound. At prime spots like the Olde Pink House after the dinner hour, competition has gotten downright fierce.

“It’s changed business, for sure,” says two–year Savannah Pedicab veteran Jason Arons. “We didn’t have to work so hard to find rides. Now with another company on the street, I worry about oversaturation.”

The ubiquitous tricycles with the booth built for two have been a downtown transportation presence since 1994, when native son Russell “Rusty” Brown started Savannah Pedicab with a single trike he soldered himself. Tourists and locals alike found it an ingenious and charming way to trip around downtown in the fresh air — just flag down a pedicab, no waiting required.

In the last two decades, Brown has expanded to 30 cabs and 58 drivers. He’s also been fundamental in helping create the section of city code related to pedicabs.

“We laid a lot of groundwork to make this a great pedicab city,” says Brown, standing amongst his fleet in Savannah Pedicab’s airy garage headquarters on the easternmost end of Broughton Street, a few steps down from Cha Bella.

Though his loyal employees grumble that the new company is an interloper riding on the coattails of his hard work, Brown himself remains circumspect in the face of his first rival in almost 20 years.

“Change is never easy, but competition is good,” he sums up with a nod. Nearby, a poster advises everyone to “Keep Calm and Pedal On.”

That notion appears to be working. Savannah Pedicab co–managers Matt Hewitt and Tim Faught report that while the streets may have been tougher for the drivers, the amount of direct calls requesting pick–ups hasn’t changed.

“I feel like we’ve gotten a lot of support from the people who live downtown,” says Hewitt, a former cabbie who now shares in the dispatching and maintenance duties. “The B and B’s and other businesses have called to confirm that the relationship is still good.”

Nonetheless, there were plenty of “queasy stomachs and long faces” when this homegrown local business learned there was a new kid in town.

“As a brand, it used to be easy: If it was a tricycle, it was us,” says Faught, whose dog, Albert, is the garage’s official mascot. “Now we have to work harder to define ourselves.”

Not that there are any plans to dial back the company’s quirky hipster vibe.

“We’re all a little weird around here,” grins Faught. “Pedicabbers tend to have an independent spirit. It all comes down to getting people where they need to go and having fun doing it.”

That sentiment is echoed on the opposite end of town, where Royal Bike Taxi has set up shop just off MLK Blvd, a stone’s throw from Rancho Alegre.

Owned by New Orleans businessman P.J. Lynch, Royal opened in August with six bikes and has expanded to 15 operated by 32 drivers. As for coming into a market with an already established pedicab scene, manager Andrew Ward says no one wanted to roll over anyone’s toes.

“We expected some of their riders to be upset, but everyone tries to work together,” says Ward, who relocated from New Orleans to run the business.

“They’re pedicabbers, they’re happy people. They get to make money and have fun doing it.”

Royal Bike Taxi driver Tim Terrell says that while it’s inevitable that there’s confusion about which customer belongs to what company, the situation is ironing itself out.

“It happens. It’s not intentional,” Terrell vows.

New Orleans has three pedicab companies, including one owned by Lynch’s brother, Rob, who won one of the city’s vaunted slots by lottery in 2011. Wanting to expand, the brothers scouted the South in search of another location and found Savannah a viable market.

“It’s a beautiful city where you can operate year round — that’s a unique thing,” says Rob, who has opened his own second pedicab company in Baton Rouge.

He says he appreciates the foundation that Rusty Brown has built for pedicabs in Savannah.

“Everything that needed to be done was laid out, which was great,” Lynch says, though he and his brother were fairly taken aback by the city’s famously difficult permitting processes. “It all definitely had to be done to a ‘t.’”

To a tipsy tourist looking to avoid the long walk from Bay Street to the DeSoto Hilton, the differences between the two companies seem minimal save their blue and yellow shirts: Savannah Pedicabbies ride for tips, Royal’s rates are charged by the block.

In the end, whoever gets the fare is the cab that gets there first. But whoever gets there second will likely get a customer, too.

 “Competition is good for everybody,” muses Terrell, also reiterating the wisdom of Rusty Brown. “With more pedicabs on the street, it actually creates even more of a demand for pedicabs. Savannah will become known as a pedicab city.”

That reputation appears already solid, with two companies and one independent operator covering the territory (there’s also Javon Jennings, who rides solo in the evenings as Savannah Bike Taxi.)

Back on Bull Street in the shade of Wright Square, Savannah Pedicab’s Grey, Arons and a couple of other cohorts temporarily break the Rule of Three to share the day’s stories.

The animated conversation stops momentarily Terrell passes by in his bright yellow shirt with a middle–aged couple smiling on the back of his cab. He turns his head ever so slightly to acknowledge the players on the other team.

Maybe it’s perfect fall breeze or the hordes of tourists pouring down the sidewalks looking for a ride, but the animosity between Savannah’s two pedicab crews seems tempered this afternoon.

“It’s competitive, but we’re all human,” Arons says finally.

Everyone seems to be thinking it: Keep calm and pedal on.