Angus Colwell Angus Colwell

In defence of Rickshaws

London rickshaws, or pedicabs, are always described as a scourge. They’re too bright and they’re too loud, the charge sheet reads: they block up the road and rip people off. Last week, the government announced in the King’s Speech that Transport for London will be given powers to license them. Drivers will have their fares regulated, their backgrounds checked and their driving abilities probed. At the moment, it’s a Wild West. If you buy a pedicab – congratulations, you’re a pedicab driver. You can now take German families over Westminster Bridge and play ‘Despacito’ as loud as a jet engine.

I went out over the weekend to speak to some of London’s pedicab drivers about their trade, and whether they were worried it’s going to die.

Most of the drivers insisted that pedicabs are good fun and that their charges are fair. But there are reports suggesting that some drivers have charged up to £500 for a ten-minute trip. A lot of the drivers I spoke to seemed to be aware of that image problem, and had fixed rates on the side of their cabs: £20 to Westminster Abbey, £25 to Big Ben, £45 to go down Oxford Street (per person!). ‘People should negotiate a price before they get in the back,’ one driver told me, more than hinting that it’s the fault of the customer if they get fleeced. Several of the drivers had other jobs: one worked at Tesco during the week, while another did waitering shifts at a restaurant.

One driver told me that pedicab-driving was a ‘bad job’. ‘It’s raining,’ he said, as he waited outside a theatre for a performance of Matilda to end. ‘I don’t want to be doing this.’ About 20 hungry rickshaws were swarming around nearby, one cab’s ‘Jingle Bells’ melting into another’s Whitney Houston. I asked him if he thought his cab was too noisy. ‘Yes,’ he said, though he turns it down at 9 p.m. He sighed. He looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, as well as the 100kg attached to his saddle. Cycling around with a heavy pedicab along with two or three passengers must be immensely draining if you don’t have a motor. I only asked to go from Leicester Square to Covent Garden on my ride, but I felt bad about how knackering it looked for the driver. He was out of breath when we stopped, and we’d only gone for five minutes (£15 – I negotiated well).

Are they even fun? It’s complicated: the pink fur is comfortable, but the journey can be bumpy. The open air should be nice – I could have a fag in one of these, I thought – but not in sleety November. People who had friends and family looked like they were enjoying themselves. A group of three grinned a lot, though a bit too manically for people stuck in traffic outside a Slim Chickens.

Should they be banned? Of course not. The Tube is always shut, the bus is always delayed, e-bikes are temperamental, and taxis are too rare. Rickshaws shouldn’t be banned, they should just be cheaper.