Dallas Pedicabs: Rolling in Uptown, But Will Anyone Go Along for the Ride?

Robert Tobolowsky wobbled through the doors of Stubb's as the echo of roots and jam rang in his ears. It was a January night earlier this year; Tobolowsky, a Dallas native and recent SMU grad, was in Austin visiting friends. He stepped onto the sidewalk, the letters on the street signs blurring out of focus, the sidewalk tilting. He and his friends, as young drunk guys do, debated whether to keep the night alive or return to the friend's apartment he was crashing at that night. They decided, as young drunk guys do, to press on.

Tobolowsky was sitting on the curb when the hum of rotating bicycle tires whirred down Red River Street and parked in front of Stubb's. Tobolowsky carefully planted one foot at a time onto floor of a pedicab, and the driver pedaled into the winter air. As it did, a sliver of ingenuity sliced through Tobolowsky's drunken stupor. Why couldn't he do this in Dallas?

If dashing around from block to block in a pedicab works on the party streets of Austin, why couldn't it work in Uptown? In Deep Ellum? When he passed out later that night, the seeds for his new business, Dallas Pedicabs, were already planted in the inebriated pastures of his brain.

The rickshaw business isn't booming, but it's far from dead. Pedicabs ferry people along the historic streets of Savannah. In Seattle, cabs shuttle shoppers over the cobblestone roads of Pikes Place Market. If you haven't waved one down during SXSW or ACL or some other Austin adventure, you know someone who has. But the service has never hit full stride in Dallas.

Red tape has long been a barrier. A few years ago Matt Spillers, manager and owner of Eno's Pizza Tavern in Oak Cliff, attempted to start a pedicab service that would shuttle pedestrians around the Bishop Arts District. He had cabs and drivers ready to roll, but when he approached the city for approval, officials asked him to design and follow specific routes, which Spillers knew wouldn't work for his business plan.

"The city didn't know how to regulate it, so they shut it down," Spillers says.

Debra Hundly, administrative specialist in the department of code compliance, sees it differently: "Some pedicab businesses want to act like taxicab services, but they can't do that," Hundly says. She says she gets plenty of calls from people who want to start pedicab and carriage companies. She sends them paperwork and the list of regulations and never hears back.

Gary Titlow, manager of transportation regulation for the city, says he recalls attempts in the late 80s and early 90s from pedicab businesses to make the service work in Dallas. They failed, he says, not because of red tape but basic economics. Not enough people wanted to ride around town in a rickshaw.

Despite the cautionary tales, Tobolowsky, now 23, was determined to make pedicabs work in Dallas. He gathered some friends to gauge interest, relying on the same Miracle Gro that had sprouted the original idea.

"I was pretty wasted when I came up the idea," he says. "I was really wasted when I decided to pitch it to [my friends]."

Tobolowsky's friend Gordon Kellerman -- the two met at SMU and graduated in 2010 with degrees in economics -- was among the first to jump on board. They marked up maps of the streets of Dallas in preparation for their appeal to the Department of Transportation, drawing up and testing out potential routes over several months. "[We] wanted to get a general feel of traffic patterns and how congested the area was," Kellerman says.

The first of a series of hurdles was compliance with city codes and designing routes. They compiled smog analysis and congestion reports, hoping to prove the environmental advantages of a pedicab service, and made their case at a public hearing in May 2011. City officials gave them the green light.

From there they went looking for partnerships. They found one in Buddy Cramer and Joe Tillotson, operators of the Katy Trail Ice House, which opened in March. The sprawling bar is awkwardly wedged into Uptown at the conjunction of Katy Trail and Routh Street, with not nearly enough parking to support its early popularity.

"Ice House is at a dead-end street and people have difficulty going in and out in cars. We didn't predict the reception," Tillotson says. "Seeing the density of people who are here, I see [pedicabs] as important to our business."

So Dallas Pedicab established its central hub at the Ice House, and the bar offered some help with marketing. Several other hubs are planted along their routes, spots for drivers to keep equipment and rendezvous after a ride.

"What we're doing now is trying to integrate [pedicabs] into the culture," Tobolowsky says. He and his crew are trying to become known as a constant presence on the streets; once a steady flow of business arrives, advertisers will follow, he says.

The service itself is tip-based, with a little nudge: Tobolowsky says he said may add signs, viewable by passengers, which will indicate what taxi cabs would've charged for the same distance driven.

"Every new phase has been more difficult than the last," says Tobolowsky.

The cabs hit the streets on September 30. In addition to running their pre-planned routes, they worked a special agreement with coordinators at Fair Park to let cab drivers shuttle passengers around at the State Fair of Texas. They're now running five cabs with 15 drivers.

On a recent night, one of those drivers, Jefferson Parker, was pedaling his pedicab uphill on the bump-studded Fairmount Street. He was winded, and dots of sweat began to appear on his back. Pedestrians turned their heads to watch the unfamiliar contraption compete with the current of vehicles.

Tobolowsky, sitting in the cab, couldn't help but smile. People were noticing.

"I bet you wish you had one of these!" he cried out, and rolled right past.

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Joshua Lagunez