ON THE JOB

Working up a sweat: Pedicab operator offers rides through downtown, Uptown

5/27/2013
BY RONEISHA MULLEN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Maxwell Austin, owner of Glass City Pedicabs, gives passenger Matt Rowland a ride while he passes employee Brittany Ryan, right, on the street.
Maxwell Austin, owner of Glass City Pedicabs, gives passenger Matt Rowland a ride while he passes employee Brittany Ryan, right, on the street.

The warm spring weather couldn’t get here fast enough for Maxwell Austin.

He was on the verge of cabin fever during the winter months when he was stuck indoors, left only to anticipate the day he could get back to working the streets.

“I’m excited. I love being outdoors,” Mr. Austin said last week. “I’m pumped.”

The New York native and 13-year resident of Toledo, is the owner of Glass City Pedicabs and he also drives them for the business. The fair-weather company operates just seven months a year, and Mr. Austin is back at it, using natural pedal power to wheel passengers through the streets of downtown Toledo and the Uptown district in an open-air carriage.

He parks himself in busy areas and does whatever it takes, from shouting out to potential customers to ringing the bell on his eye-catching vehicle to convince wandering pedestrians and passersby to climb into his rickshaw-like seats.

“Free rides!,” he yelled as crowds passed him outside Fifth Third Field on the day of a recent Mud Hens game. “Come on, you know you want a ride,” he joked.

To passengers, the rides are cool and in some cases, downright fascinating, but for drivers, it’s work — hard work.

Pedicabs are really heavy. The cabs weigh about 300 pounds. Throw in an additional 300 pounds or more of passenger weight, and even with 21 gears, moving a pedicab takes serious effort.

It looks simple, but for a beginner, the physical demands can be overwhelming. Despite the fact that the cab adds an extra two wheels to the vehicle, making it a tricycle, it still feels unsteady.

“It’s not going anywhere,” Mr. Austin said, rocking and shaking the pedicab to show that it was planted firmly on the ground.

Maxwell Austin, owner of Glass City Pedicabs, right, and Brittany Ryan, left, with their bikes.
Maxwell Austin, owner of Glass City Pedicabs, right, and Brittany Ryan, left, with their bikes.

Turning the bike taxi proves to be even more difficult. Because it doesn’t lean, drivers have to rely on upper body strength to maneuver the bike and the attached buggy, cutting the wheel a little sharper than normal to turn. Going uphill is truly a battle.

For Mr. Austin, an experienced pedicab driver and former BMX rider, it’s all in a day’s work.

“You sure we’re not over your weight limit, Max?” Toledo city Councilman Steve Steel asked as he and his daughter got in the cab with a Blade reporter.

“Naw, you’re fine,” Mr. Austin assured them.

Mr. Steel and his daughter Ruth, 12, were leaving the ball game and needed a ride to their car a few blocks away. They piled into the cab and Mr. Austin pulled off.

He pedaled the taxi with ease, chatting with his riders. A cool breeze blew in his face, drying beads of sweat before they had a chance to drip.

A hill up ahead promised to be challenging. Mr. Austin switched gears to prepare for it. He stopped talking, saving his breath for the battle.

The ride from Huron Street near Summit, to 12th Street, took all of five minutes. Despite his experience, the short ride left Mr. Austin winded and sweaty.

“I’m used to it,” Mr. Austin said through shallow breaths. “I feel fine. But new riders, after their first day, they all say the same thing: ‘My legs feel like Jell-O’.”

The drivers don’t travel long distances and usually stay within a few blocks and work mainly in downtown and Uptown. They also ride in area parades and are hired for special events, such as weddings and parties.

The cabs double as mobile billboards. They are covered with advertisements and logos of companies, looking to attract new business. The obscure contraptions definitely turn heads.

Maxwell Austin, owner of Glass City Pedicabs, gives passenger Matt Rowland a ride to The Bronze Boar.
Maxwell Austin, owner of Glass City Pedicabs, gives passenger Matt Rowland a ride to The Bronze Boar.

“I’ve lived downtown for nine years and I’ve never seen one of these around here,” radio personality Steve Ramey said of his first ride in a bike taxi. “This is cool. It makes it a fun part of coming downtown.”

When the company opened three years ago, there was just one bike taxi and one rider, Mr. Austin. Now, there are four pedicabs and a small community of about a dozen riders who hold a variety of jobs during the week and drive in their free time. The drivers pay a small fee to rent the bike taxis and keep all tips earned.

The company doesn’t charge a flat rate for rides, meaning all drivers, Mr. Austin included, work solely for tips.

“Everybody can afford a ride this way,” Mr. Austin said. “I know what it’s like to be here in a downed auto economy. When you tell people you work for tips they appreciate it.”

Mr. Austin grew up on a Christmas tree farm in upstate New York. He discovered the pedicab business after being out of work for four months while living in San Diego. He’d been driving for about eight years before he relocated to Toledo, where he studied business at Davis College and worked as a bartender before starting Glass City Pedicabs in 2010.

“When I first started, I had some people tell me this is never going to work. Nobody is going to ride one of those dumb things,” Mr. Austin said. “Now it’s gone from ‘crazy to do that in Toledo,’ to crazy cool.”

Contact RoNeisha Mullen at: rmullen@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.