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Most people have taken a cab before, but what about a Pedi-cab? Human-powered rickshaws first appeared in Japan around 1868 during the Meiji Restoration. Today, the concept remains essentially the same: a bike attached to a carriage, and some lucky soul to pedal it. So what's it like in DC? Intern Edition's Spencer Thanhouser takes us for a spin.


That's the sound of the heavy, garage door of the National Pedicab's shop opening in Blagden alley. It's about 6:30 on a chilly, D.C. Friday night, and our small crew of drivers is preparing the bikes before we head out into the city.

I'm running a little late, so when I get there the evening ritual is already well underway.

The pedicab phenomenon is relatively new to DC, but, with environmental concerns and unemployment skyrocketing, the peculiar-looking bikes have already become a fixture in many cities around the country.

Manager of National Pedicabs, Danny Cochrane, explains a little bit about the bikes.

"These bikes are made out in Colorado, they weigh about 165 pounds, they have a fiberglass tub, they're custom made - steel frame they have a hydraulic brake on the back, an LED lighting system."

Cochrane says he came to D.C. to start the business after pedicabbing in Boston.

"I got hired and I started workin' and I worked like 8 to 10 days in row to start out working a red sox home stand. I had no job set up.. so I was like kinda on my last dollar," Cochrane says.

And he's not the only one. The other pedicab drivers are unemployed, students or unpaid interns all trying to make ends meet in an economy that's, well, less than forgiving. With the bikes ready, we head into downtown. Between rides, I have time to chat with a few of the other drivers. Brady Chalmers was laid off from an urban development firm after they were unable to secure a loan to buy property. He started pedicabbing after weeks of unsuccessful job searching.

"Obama described my situation: He was just like, 'you wanna know what it means when there's a financial crisis? It means that banks cant give business loans to businesses, and they can't make payroll and they lay people off.' That's exactly what happened to me," Chalmers says.

Meanwhile, it's John Mulpun's first night out. He's a senior at Catholic University. I ask him how the rides have been.

"Good, I mean, I only really had - had one ride besides the training.. and they were like super nice, they gave me a good tip," Mulpun says.

As pedicab drivers, we work for tips only - there is no flat rate for the service, but a tip is expected. These can range from anywhere between $5 to $40 for a ride around the block - depending on how generous the rider is of course.

John and I are posted up on the corner of 7th and H street in Chinatown, looking for fares when a radio call comes in from Danny, our boss. He's down on 11th street.

*radio call from Danny*

But there's activity in Chinatown too. People are everywhere – walking to bars and restaurants, movies and plays - it's pretty hard not to find takers. And sometimes they get a little more than they bargain for.

"Pump the brakes! pump the brakes!! Oh my god oh my god oh my god! We're going to run into the back of this car!"

For Imani and Shanay, who asked that their last names not be used, weaving through DC traffic definitely gets the adrenaline going. But for me, best part is the people you meet and the conversations you have with them. Lately, the topics of choice are the economy or politics… or both.

My last fare of the night is a group of highschool students. I take them from Chinatown to DuPont circle. It takes about 40 minutes including a few stops and a few more insights along the way. When I ask them about the economy, they are well informed, to say the least.

"We can't really all blame it all on Bush, we have to blame it on banks and lenders who made all those corrupt loans, and that's why we're in a fix," one high-schooler says.

Back at the shop, it's almost 3 a.m. and we're putting away the bikes, sharing the odd stories of the night, and counting our earnings.

It was a good night, and I've made out with about $130. The others did similarly. Indeed, pedicabbing is a good way to make cash in difficult economic times. One of the pedicab drivers, Ben, is ready to take time off of his unpaid internship so he can take on more pedicab shifts.

"I'm going to have to resort to working like Friday, Saturday, Sunday days, and just take Friday off of work, because they're not paying me, and I actually get money doing this."

Winter is almost here which means business is likely to decrease. But despite the cold, Danny says he's still looking to expand the business.

"We need more rides. We need more drivers," Cochrane says.

As one of the few employers not on a hiring freeze, getting more drivers shoulnd't be a problem.

For NPR's intern edition, I'm Spencer Thanhouser.

© NPR Intern Edition, Fall 2008