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Sorry, Uber and Lyft -- Downtown Austin Is Still Pedicab Territory

Ride-sharing in the open air.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

The hardest-working folks in Austin, Texas, this week don’t stay up into the wee hours coding like they do in Silicon Valley.

Instead, they’re pedaling their bikes, usually in and out of traffic, and depending on the time of day, with at least one (or three) tipsy passengers in tow.

Ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft have turned the taxi cab industry on its head across the country, and are in force here as expected at the South By Southwest interactive festival.

But in Austin, at least the downtown area, pedicabs still rule the show.

“We’ve been here for a long time, so people recognize us,” said Dia, a Texas State student who drives a cab on the weekend, when she doesn’t have finals. “We know that a lot of people in town still associate Austin and SXSW with pedicabs.”

 A “Game of Thrones”-inspired pedicab in Austin
A “Game of Thrones”-inspired pedicab in Austin
Kurt Wagner

And here you’ll find them in all shapes and sizes, from the “Game of Thrones”-inspired sword seat to plush, blue velvet-covered cabs with speakers blasting.

There are a few reason pedicabs haven’t gone the way of San Francisco’s taxi industry (that is, run off the road by Uber). The logistical one is traffic. SXSW turns Austin’s streets — the ones that remain open — into a parking lot. Pedicabs can slither around where bigger cars can’t.

The other reason: It can actually be cheaper, especially when surge pricing kicks in on Uber or Lyft. This weekend, I’ve seen surge pricing reach 4x multiple times on Uber, and one pedicab driver told me it has been as high as 8x.

“We don’t surge prices outrageously,” Dia said of the pedicab business. “If you want to come up and talk to us and negotiate a price, we’ll work with you. If you don’t want it, you walk away. You don’t pay a $5 charge for canceling.”

That doesn’t mean Uber is absent. You can actually hail a pedicab using the Uber app, since the company hands out equipment, like phones and batteries, to drivers who may put it to use.

It’s a strategy in use by Aaron Catlett, a SXSW first timer with dreads and a laid-back demeanor usually reserved for California surfers. He’s using Uber when he can’t get a passenger on his own. He charges his Uber riders more, though, since the company is taking a cut.

“For some [passengers], $10 doesn’t make or break it for them,” he explained. “If I’m still in the Austin area and I’m still not rich, then I’ll probably be out here next year.”

Even without Uber, the money’s not bad for a pedicab driver. Multiple drivers said $50 to $100 an hour is standard, and some drivers can make a couple thousand dollars through the conference.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Chris Schelske is a house painter and musician from Oregon, who flies all the way to Austin just to drive a pedicab. He works 15-hour days during the festival. “If you plan it out right, you can definitely turn some money on it,” he said.

The pedicab drivers all say they like the flexible schedules — a perk I often hear from Uber and Lyft drivers as well, although the pedicab folks definitely get a better workout.

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