Carefree life of London's rickshaw men is about to get more complicated

Jonathan Brown
Saturday 06 November 2004 01:00

It is a chilly Thursday night in London's Soho and three rickshaw drivers are taking a break at Jimmy's on Frith Street. Business is slow. Anton, a driver from Morocco with a giant afro hairstyle has earned £10 so far, ferrying tourists between Covent Garden and Leicester Square. Reza, from Greece, has made £9. Dan Simon, who gave up a job in IT two years ago to pull a rickshaw, has built up "grotesque" calves, but little in the way of a fortune. Tonight he has earned nothing.

For London's burgeoning community of pedicycle drivers, the streets of the capital are far from paved with gold. In a good week they can earn up to £250, on a bad week they barely cover the cost of hiring the cycle. "I love my job. Most of us do this for the social side. Making money is not everything," Mr Simon said. "The appeal is the people you meet in the street, the people that you meet as passengers, the other drivers."

One tradition that has grown up is for drivers to meet at the Millennium Bridge after a Saturday night of work. They cycle east in a convoy to Brick Lane, where they share an early morning bagel. In the summer they then sleep in a local park.

Their lifestyle could, however, be about to get much more complicated. Transport for London announced plans this week to license the 350 bikes in the capital. This would see drivers forced to undergo health and criminal record checks.

Also, new legislation due to go before Parliament this month would mean their pediccycles could be treated as motor vehicles and be liable to penalties for stopping on a yellow line.

"We are all in favour of licensing," Mr Simon said. "But if we cannot stop on yellow lines we will not be able to stop anywhere in central London."

Even the proposed controls do not, however, go far enough for Bob Oddy. "We do not want them licensed; we want them banned," the head of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, said. He is animated to the point of fury at the way the rickshaw trade has been allowed to flourish in London.

Chief among his concerns was safety, he said. "Someone is going to get killed and when the first person dies I am going to lay the blame at the door of the licensing authorities."

Mr Oddy was particularly scathing about the dozen or so operators who rent out the cycles to the drivers. They charged up to £100 a week, he said. "Some of them have between 60 and 80 rickshaws. At £100 a week - you do the maths."

The taxi drivers are prepared to put their money where their mouth is. Last year they spent more than £50,000 in an unsuccessful High Court attempt to have the rickshaws curbed. Mr Oddy insists that the problem is not competition. The average rickshaw fare is less than half a mile, but what rankles is the belief that the rickshaws clog up the prime sites around theatres, preventing taxis from picking up their fares.

The other bugbear he hears from taxi drivers is that their vehicles are scratched by rickshaws, which pass them while queuing in traffic along Soho's narrow streets. "That means a bill for £400 and two days off work," Mr Oddy said.

The taxi lobby rejects claims that the rickshaws are environmentally sound. They say the only journeys they replace are those that would otherwise be made on foot.

Not so, says Chris Smallwood founder of Bugbugs, a non-profit rickshaw company set up in 1998 to provide green transport and jobs for unemployed young people. He says more than half of their customers are regular users. "The taxi drivers have been conducting a vendetta against us, They have used every possibly means to get rid of us," he says.

Mr Smallwood has long been petitioning the transport authorities to license rickshaws, but has been met with inertia from local government and hostility from the cabbies.

Meanwhile, on the rapidly emptying streets it is 12.40am and Mr Simon has just £16 in his pocket. He has spent the past two hours trailing around Soho, the highlight of which was a glimpse of Christian Slater emerging from the Gielgud Theatre.

Back in Frith Street he relaxes in the rickshaw with a friend, Ilmis, from the Baltic. Hill, Ismis's cousin, also in a rickshaw, approaches. "There's no money," he says. "Let's go cry."

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