London's Pedal-Powered Rickshaws: Scourge Of Soho Or Eco-Friendly Fun?

London's Pedal-Powered Rickshaws: Scourge Of Soho Or Eco-Friendly Fun?

"I can honestly say I've never been drunk enough to give one of those rip-off artists £20 to take me 100 yards down the road".

My friend Ben once spunked a month's wages on a night out in Vegas, but even he draws the line at getting a rickshaw in London. "I got one once because the lazy idiot I was with insisted on it," says my friend Patrick. "We were on Oxford Street and barely made it from Boots to H&M in ten minutes. We'd have moved quicker by lying on the pavement and crawling to our destination." Wouldn't recommend it then? Patrick says: "As long as I live I will never get another rickshaw. What an awful way to travel when I have legs that can do the job better."

"I fell under my bike and got a big skid mark up my back!" Wardour St. Photo: Samantha Rea

I am asking around for rickshaw stories, and so far the pedal-powered minicabs seem about as popular as the prospect of one of Trump's testicles cropping up in a pack of satsumas. Sarah says:

I was on Argyll Street outside the London Palladium and I asked a rickshaw driver how to get to Movida. He said he'd take us for a tenner, so we had a little tour through traffic, round Liberty's, and ended up back where we started. At this point I realised the club was next to the theatre.

Richard says, "I got one from Piccadilly Circus to Covent Garden and he charged us £20 — that was 15 years ago" Still nursing his grievance, he continues, "it was stupidly expensive. We were pissed and thought it would be fun, but for a tight-arsed Scotsman, the price took the fun out of it." Having waited over a decade to get this off his chest, Richard adds, "it's too bloody cold for them in London — and you’re taking your life in your hands."

Dot agrees, since a ride through Covent Garden left him wishing rickshaws were banned. He recalls the driver weaving through traffic, and remembers thinking, "get hit by anything and we are toast."

Pedestrians in a rickshaw's path may also be gambling with their limbs. Keeley says, "my mate was nearly run over by one on Charing Cross Road," and Rob says, "one went up on the curb and banged into my leg — then the driver told me to f*ck off."

"We'd have moved quicker lying on the pavement." Old Compton St. Photo: Samantha Rea

Prices, safety, and speed (or lack of) seem to be the main complaints about rickshaws — alongside misgivings about the drivers. Rob recalls getting a rickshaw with his ex-wife.:

She wanted a romantic trip, but the West End theatres were letting people out, and they were walking faster than we were moving. I wanted to get out but the driver wouldn't let us, even though we were pretty much at a standstill by the curb. After five minutes, I got up and gave him the fare, and he shouted at us to sit back down. I helped the missus off, and he was shouting, "oi, get back on!"

Rob describes his rickshaw driver as aggressive — and he's not the only one to see that side of them. Dot was walking along Westminster Bridge when he saw a rickshaw driver waving his arms around as he argued with two tourists who were, "obviously shocked, and took a step back." Dot went over to intervene and heard two different sides to the story. The driver claimed the customers hadn't paid the full fare, while the customers said the driver had doubled it. Dot has no doubt that it was a deliberate attempt to overcharge the tourists and intimidate them into paying — something that's been captured on You Tube, with one driver charging over £200 for one fare, based on a rate of £10 per minute, per person.

"My mate was nearly run over by one." Old Compton Street. Photo: Samantha Rea

Pedro's driver tried to take him to a brothel. Flagging a rickshaw in Soho to go to Covent Garden, Pedro says, "the driver immediately started asking if I wanted to meet beautiful ladies. He would like to bring me to an apartment, and if I don't like it, he will bring me back — no extra charge. He was very aggressive about it. Clearly if a passenger goes to this place they pay the driver for bringing customers."

While Pedro was targeted as a customer for the sex trade, Louise experienced an unpleasant approach of a different sort. Describing herself as ticking "all the stereotypical lesbian boxes," she says:

My partner and I were visiting London last year and we were taking a stroll to Covent Garden. A rickshaw driver asked for our business and I politely said no, at which point he called me a "fat fucking bitch" and a "fucking man" and subjected me to a tirade of sexist and homophobic insults. He was so venomous and loud that people stopped and stared. I said, "talk to me like that again, you little shit, and I'll ram your bicycle pump up your scrawny arse." Then he peddled off!

Louise points out that the driver might easily have picked on someone less resilient than herself, and adds that she was actually doing him a favour by saying no because, "pulling me about in a rickshaw would be a job for Ben Hur."

"The driver had to help my ex get me inside the hotel." Moor Street. Photo: Samantha Rea

Eloise came up with the only anecdote in which rickshaw drivers don't come across as the spawn of an angry pimp and a homophobic rip-off merchant. She says:

It was my ex's 30th and we'd hired out part of Bar Soho, but when we arrived, they didn't have the right cable to attach our iPod to the speakers, so we got a rickshaw to an electrical shop on Tottenham Court Road. We got there in the nick of time and the driver waited and took us back. We managed to set up just in time for the first guests, so his speed saved the party.

Eloise adds, "we had to achieve a minimum spend on the bar, which I took as a challenge to drink as much champagne as possible. Needless to say, I was legless at the end of the night and no cab would take us. Step forward a rickshaw driver. I fell in and that's the last I remember — the poor driver had to help my ex get me inside the hotel."

Based on probability alone, I don't imagine all rickshaw drivers are aggressive con artists with a side line in boosting the sex industry. In fact, I suspect they encounter a fair few drunken arseholes themselves, especially on a Saturday night in Soho. So I went to speak to some, to see if they felt unfairly maligned…

"The driver asked if I'd like to meet beautiful ladies." Old Compton St. Photo: Samantha Rea

Dave is 53 and cycles into central London each day from Crystal Palace, a round trip of over 20 miles. He's worked as a rickshaw driver for the last twelve years, following stints as a mechanic and a doorman. A former competitive cyclist, he was introduced to rickshaw driving by a friend, initially using it as a way of training.

He now works from 11am to 4am each day, between five and seven days a week, explaining, "it's a lot of work, but you've got to put the hours in because the pay ain't good enough." So he’s not charging tourists extortionate amounts of money then? "No, when I approach a customer I put myself in their shoes and think, if that was me, how would I feel about being charged that amount of money, and how good is the service?"

He adds, "there is a pricing structure but there's so many new people coming over and they make up their own prices. All the old school people stick to their particular prices, and you can quite easily tell who's who from the way they handle themselves. The way they approach you is totally different."

According to Dave, the number of rickshaw drivers has increased over the last seven or eight years, while the number of customers has dropped dramatically.  "The terrorist attacks mean people are afraid of coming into London."

So is there competition for customers? "There is competition, but there's ways and means in how we sort it out. There's a gentlemen's agreement to stay out of one another's way, and work on a first come first serve basis."

"I told him to ram his bicycle pump up his arse!" Old Compton Street. Photo: Samantha Rea

Dave tells me he owns two rickshaws, one of which he's currently stripping back and rebuilding. As I'm talking to him on Old Compton Street, several other rickshaw drivers say hello to him as they go by. Is there a camaraderie? Dave says, "they all know me because I’m their mechanic." He repairs bikes at a base until five or six in the afternoon, before he starts riding round himself, adding: "We do stick together like a family, and we all help one another out."

Addressing the various complaints about rickshaw drivers, Dave assures me that he knows where he's going, and he gets there quickly. "Once upon a time I didn't know where I was going, but I did have a map. Nowadays, it's all mobile phones, but I don't use them anymore, it's all up there," he says, tapping his head, and adding, "rickshaws are a lot quicker through traffic. People ask us to get them to Kings Cross or Waterloo in the middle of rush hour and we do get them there in time."

Dave tells me he's never run anyone over, and no one's fallen out, although, "I've fallen off myself! I slipped and fell underneath my own bike — I had a great big skid mark up my back!" What would he say to people who think rickshaws are unsafe? "If they haven't tried it, they should get on board."

I ask Dave if he ever has to deal with drunken arseholes. He says, "many times, but being an ex-doorman I know how to speak to them. The police have actually commended us on getting them out of the West End as quickly as possible."

"Ladies fall asleep but I don't touch them."  Photo: Samantha Rea

According to a spokesperson for Transport for London (TfL), rickshaws are not currently licensed by either TfL or local councils, "which is something we're lobbying the government for a change in." They clarify that, "as there no regulation framework for pedicabs, they are legally able to operate."

Siwan Hayward, TfL's Head of Transport Policing, says they're working with the police

to deal with unsafe and antisocial pedicabs on the Capital's streets. Pedicabs are the only form of public transport in London that is unregulated and our powers are extremely limited, but we are doing all we can to enforce against dangerous and nuisance riders. The Mayor has been lobbying for powers to regulate pedicabs and we are pleased that the Government has committed to bring forward legislation to help us to better protect the public.

Dave is in favour of regulation, explaining that currently, "a few bad rickshaw drivers mean we're all tarred with the same brush." He points out that rickshaws are an eco-friendly way to travel, and if more people travelled that way, there'd be fewer carbon emissions.

TfL states that while pedal-powered rickshaws are operating legally, ones with motors will be seized by the police. I ask Dave what he thinks of rickshaws with engines. He says, "the bike, plus people in the back, amounts to a lot of weight, so the engine's good in a way because it stops you wearing your knees out." Would he use one himself? "No, for me it would take the fun out of it."

"We're all tarred with the same brush." Wardour Street. Photo: Samantha Rea

I meet Bob on Frith Street. Also in his 50s, he tells me he's from Eritrea, where he was in the military. He's been a rickshaw driver for three years, and he's currently homeless. He rents his rickshaw, and works pretty much every day. Once a month or so he gets a customer doing a runner without paying. The most recent incident was when a teenager ran off into Hyde Park. "You tell them bye bye, that's it," says Bob, explaining, "it wouldn't be fair to ask for the money first — when you're riding a rickshaw, you must respect the people."

Bob assures me rickshaws are safe, “we never drink when we're driving.” and says nobody's ever fallen out. He has, however, had passengers falling asleep. "When women drink they fall asleep. I don't touch them because there are cameras everywhere! I take them to the police station and they sleep there until the morning. It's happened six or seven times. I know the law, that’s why I don’t touch."

A few feet away, on the corner of Frith Street and Old Compton Street, I meet Myo, a 26 year old from Slovakia. He started driving a rickshaw five years ago, when he was playing semi-professional football in London. He says, "my friend was doing it first, and he said, "you're a fit young guy, you like speaking to people, I think this would be a good job for you." I had a good first night, so I continued to do it."

"Most of us work honestly." Frith Street. Photo: Samantha Rea

After his first year, during which he did it part time, Myo now often works seven days a week. He says,

Monday to Friday I usually work from 10pm to 4am, then weekends I try to work a little longer. On Saturday I worked from five in the afternoon until six in the morning.

Looking back, Myo says, "when I started this job, I was the fittest I'd been in my life. I played football on a Saturday afternoon, then I'd come out to work, trying to get over the fatigue. It's not easy to pedal a rickshaw after 90 minutes of running up and down in central mid-field."

Myo says his favourite clientele are English customers from outside London. "They're nice — the families want to go to Hamley's or the Rainforest Café." In the evening, however, customers want to go to bars, clubs and strip clubs. "Very often they are drunk. Sometimes they fall out — not because of me, but because they're going too wild."

The drunk customers are sometimes rude, but Myo shrugs it off. "I think that's normal in five years of working in the job." Has he ever been offered kickbacks by strip clubs to take customers there? Myo shakes his head.

"The price takes the fun out of it." Greek Street. Photo: Samantha Rea

Myo says he charges £10-15 for most West End trips, although it could be up to £30, depending on the distance and the number of people. What does he think of the reputation rickshaw drivers have for overcharging?

There are some people who overcharge, but only a minority. We do not like it, because it gives us all a bad reputation. And we do not deserve it because most of us work honestly.

Myo is open to the idea of rickshaws being legislated. He says, "I think there's more advantages than disadvantages, but it depends how we are regulated." He explains,

I think it would help in the sense of seeing if the people working on the rickshaw have a professional attitude, sufficient communication skills to speak to people, and if they follow traffic rules and care about the safety of the customers.

Waiting on the corner of Wardour Street and Old Compton Street. Photo: Samantha Rea

Like Bob, Myo's had customers who've run off without paying. He says, "it's happened to me a few times. If it's a long journey, and I have some suspicions, I try to ask for the money upfront — or at least half of it. Most people say yes. If they don't, then it's an indication of what they might be planning to do!"

Myo estimates that his bike is worth around £1,500 and he owns two more that he rents out to other drivers. Looking to the future he says, "I think I will continue to do this. Even if I get into something else, I'll still come once or twice a week to meet my friends and earn some extra cash, and also just to come to the West End."

"I have a driving license. I'm very professional!" Frith Street. Photo: Samantha Rea

Martin, a 28 year old from Turkey, talks to me on the corner of Old Compton Street and Moor Street. A former professional boxer, he came to London six years ago, initially working as a close protection bodyguard. After becoming disillusioned with his job ("you can be bigger than someone physically, mentally and in personality, but because they're paying you, you have to respect them") Martin started driving a rickshaw two years ago, as a way of working for himself. He now owns his own bike, which he bought for £650, and has since spent over £500 on it.

"I bought a roof and had it welded on, then I went to fabric shops. I bought a music system, lights, an English flag — I'm still spending money on it. When people come out of the theatre, I don't have to say, "do you want a taxi ride?" They come straight away."

Martin tells me he's built up good friendships with the other rickshaw drivers. "We sit on the bikes, drink coffee and say, "how is your life?" We share our culture, our food. I say, "hey guys, let's go to a Turkish restaurant," and another day someone will say, "let's go to a Greek restaurant." We eat traditional food from our home countries."

"I don't drink while I'm driving!" Old Compton Street. Photo: Samantha Rea

Is Martin a safe driver, or has he ever knocked anyone over? "I have a driving license, I'm very professional." he says. What does he think about the accusations of overcharging?

Some people overcharge. It's not good but you can't control it because there are no rules. Customers get fun and enjoyment. Some complain about the money and we say, if £20 is too much, you can give £10. Other times, you say £40 for 20 minutes and they give you £50. Some people have so much money, they don't care — they give you £200 for an hour. It depends on the people — without rules, this will always be a problem.

Martin is in favour of rickshaws being legislated, saying"it's a good idea because this business hasn't got a director or a leader — no one is moderating it. Nobody looks at a driver's experience or mentality or how they talk to people. Nobody knows what you're doing."

Some names have been changed.

Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.

Last Updated 06 November 2017