Portland pedicab business hopes to mix fun, function, profit
PORTLAND — By now, we were supposed to have flying cars.
Instead, city streets will see a fleet of bicycle rickshaws offering cross-town rides this summer as a national pedicab company expands into Portland.
The arrival of Maine Pedicab – with eight pedicabs, an office at 58 Fore St., and the guidance of the USA Pedicab managers that have brought bicycle taxi operations to Boston, Washington D.C., and four other cities since 2005 – makes the practice a serious business rather than a whimsical pastime.
One previous mom-and-pop pedicab operation in Portland called itself Bike Hero 207, while Nate Hamburger, recruited to be Maine Pedicab's local manager, said he was a "rogue" driver, keeping a low profile to avoid official scrutiny.
In a city with a "go green" mentality, Hamburger said, the time is right for the corporate approach.
Hamburger said he rode the streets for two years, giving rides for tips on his own pedicab rig. People who took the leap of faith and rode along loved the service, he said, but others in Portland were wary, not knowing what to think of the lone driver with no official backing.
"I think we need to be seen everywhere," he said. As Maine Pedicabl's bright lime-green pedicabs become more familiar, people will start to use them more often, Hamburger said. "I'm confident that Portland is ready for it."
Marketing and maintaining a constant, visible fleet in the city will be key to the company's success, said Bike Hero 207 owner Nicholas Maravell, who has been running pedicabs since 2001.
While he dabbled in Portland, Maravell found more success in Old Orchard Beach. He said Maine Pedicab faces challenges, including high insurance rates and target customers – young people downtown and tourists off the cruise ships – who don't spend as much money as might be expected.
Portland, Maravell also noted, is also a "nice walking city."
Nevertheless, Maine Pedicab hopes to have its full fleet on the street by summer, ready to transport people anywhere in the city – but with a focus on high foot-traffic areas like the Old Port, Arts District, and Hadlock Field on game days.
Justin Bruce, manager of USA Pedicab's Boston operation, calls pedicabs "transportainment."
The company's tip-only fee system is partly responsible. Passengers pay as they like, and drivers hoping to score bigger tips have to work harder by providing an engaging, personal experience.
"What I like to say is 'if I was sitting in the back and you were up front pedaling, what would you want me to pay you,'" said Roger Lussier, a three-year veteran of the company's Boston operation.
"Even on short or simple rides I like to give a lot of Boston history and trivia and I work really hard to make a connection with the customer" he said. "I actually feel like I would earn less money at the end of the day if I just told everyone that it was like $2 a block or something along those lines."
"It's basically like having your own tour guide," Hamburger said.
At the moment, the company has just one licensed driver besides Hamburger. Another six or seven are working on getting their licenses, he said, and the company is looking for more recruits.