Pedal pusher: Rick Carter, who is perhaps known more widely as Rickshaw Rick, takes Christopher Hugh, 9, and his brother Jonathan, 6, for a ride outside the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio as he waits for his next passenger, Aug. 18.Photos by J. GEIL/Photo Editor

The owner-operator of Rickshaw Rick’s pedicab is not named “Shaw.” But he is named Rick, and Rick Carter did fashion a slogan from his last name: “I’ll cart you around.” Carter has been carting tourists and locals alike around the Frank Lloyd Wright district and downtown Oak Park for six years now.

He partners with Greenline Wheels of Oak Park, which operates a six-seat electric car and rents bikes there for his guided bicycle tours.

“I’m the only option for live guided tours of all 35 Wright structures in Oak Park,” he says. Having recently moved to Forest Park, Carter is also looking into conducting tours there: perhaps a spin through the town’s historic cemeteries.

Growing up in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, Carter did not aspire to be a pedicab operator. He was drawn to the performing arts and graduated from Drake University with degrees in Theater and Journalism. In 1983, he moved to Chicago to pursue a stage career.

He performed in some improvisational and theater troupes but ended up using his performing talent to conduct tours of the city on double-decker buses. After being the man with the microphone for 10 years, Carter landed a job at the Shedd Aquarium. In July 2005 he was laid off.

Enjoyment, exercise and entrepreneurship

While searching for a new career, Carter happened to see pedicabs taking visitors to venues during an Olympic broadcast. “It looked like a combination of enjoyment, exercise and making money. I wondered where I could get one.”

He found a used pedicab on E-Bay for $2,500 and later purchased several Chinese-made metal pedicabs. They were heavy but have an exotic look that attracts customers. “If it looks weird,” Carter discovered, “People want to ride them.” The pedicabs also get healthy respect from gas-fueled vehicles.

“They don’t know if I’m motorized. I wave them past.”

So far, Carter has discovered the pedicab business to be fun and healthy. The former wrestler and football player found that pedaling keeps him from “turning into a big bag of goo.” For those who might be reluctant to take human-powered transportation, Carter reminds them, “I’m not working for the man. I am the man.”

The pedicab business is seasonal. Carter operates from April 22 (Earth Day) to October 31 (Halloween). He makes ends meet by doing tax-preparation work during the winter and acknowledges that the recession has been challenging for small, local businesses.

“You have to be versatile, or become extinct,” Carter said. “I’m always looking for ways to provide services to the community.”

His eco-friendly service has been a refreshing option for tourists and staycationers alike. Jessica, a recent customer, took a tour of the Wright district in Carter’s pedicab. For an hour and a half, he entertained her and her son with his in-depth knowledge of the master architect’s work.

“He’s very knowledgeable,” she said. “He not only knows the history, he knows the back-story behind the history.” Jessica was at first apprehensive about bringing her two-year-old, Cash, on the tour but Carter assured her that kids love it.

Cash mellowed out along with his mother. “It’s absolutely relaxing to sit back and listen,” she said. “We had lots of conversation. Rick is very personable.” The experience was so positive, Jessica plans to take her family on the tour when they come from California for Cash’s birthday.

Peddling pedaling

Oak Park, so far, has been friendly to pedicabs but operators in Chicago fear an onslaught of fees and regulations. Aldermen have discussed selling licenses and requiring pedicabbies to carry liability and workmen’s compensation insurance. The operators believe such prohibitive costs would wipe out their profits.

In the meantime, operators like Emily Ferrell describe the joys of transporting customers through the Wrigleyville neighborhood. Like Carter, Ferrell has a college degree but found professional satisfaction pedaling her cab. “It’s physically demanding, freeing and lucrative at the same time,” Ferrell said, “I managed to ride for four years, with the pedicab as my only source of income.”

The “green” aspect of pedicabs also appeals to her. There are no pollutants and Ferrell said they’re just as efficient as traditional taxis. “When parties split up into bikes and cabs, we take great pride in beating the motor taxis to the destination.”

But Ferrell doesn’t just compete with gas-fueled cabs. “Chicago has gone from about 20 [pedi]cabs on a busy night to about 200.” Some are undercutting her charge of $25, offering rides for as low as $8.

“It’s a huge frustration,” she admits. “Otherwise, I love pedicabs and have made so many new friends and have so many memories.”

While Ferrell works the North Side, Stacee Droege finds herself transporting White Sox fans. She also transported Cub fan Bill Murray from a Cubs-Sox game. “He was very polite and seemed to enjoy the ride.”

Droege certainly finds pleasure in her occupation. “I love the feeling of working hard on a bicycle,” Droege said, “Stretching; eating right and staying hydrated are the keys to enjoying my time in the saddle.”

Most enjoyable of all for Droege is working weddings. “Once the bride and groom realize I’m in control, they begin to relax and watch the scenery slide by. They realize they’re on a tricycle with someone they love, and then they are calm with giant smiles. Rickshaws are very romantic and intimate.”

The job also enables the Columbia College graduate to pursue her passion for photography. “I’m at the very beginning of photographing the Chicago rickshaw scene. I feel like it’s really important to document what it’s been like for us on three wheels.”

Full-service pedicabbie

Meanwhile, Carter continues to improve the experience for Oak Park tourists. He also works block parties and becomes part of family outings. “With a pedicab, you don’t have to worry about driving and parking. Mom and dad can have an extra glass of wine, knowing I’ll get them home safely.” To this end, Carter hopes to partner with local restaurants and bars to provide alternative transportation for patrons.

Carter charges $15 per half hour per rider for his pedicab. It’s $20 per person for an hour tour in the Greenline electric taxi. For customers who fear turning into “big bags of goo” he provides guided bike and walking tours as well.

As he pedals through the streets, Carter can’t help notice the number of businesses that have been shuttered. “Sometimes I feel like a rowboat circling ships that have gone down.”

An intrepid entrepreneur, however, he is an expert at marketing, parking his eye-catching vehicles at strategic locations to attract business. On a recent jaunt down Forest Avenue, he volunteered to take a photo of a family of Japanese tourists in front of one of Wright’s Prairie-style treasures. He casually mentioned that his electric taxi could take the whole family on a tour.

Prospective riders can contact Rickshaw Rick’s at 773-771-3922 or visit www.rickshawrick.com.

As it says on his business card, “Let us save your soles today!”

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