London

Who Are the People Paying to Ride London’s Extremely Loud, Expensive Rickshaws?

Forget nightclub noise. Central London in 2021 is full of pedicabs blaring diva-house remixes to extremely rich tourists and fools.
Ryan Bassil
London, GB
JL
photos by Jake Lewis
November 12, 2021, 9:15am
Bikes in Soho London
Image: VICE. All photos: Jake Lewis.

Beep beep! There's a bike coming through and it’s blasting a Eurotrance version of Black Eyed Peas’s "Where is The Love". Whoops, did you just try to cross the road? Sorry! Gotta wait an uncomfortable amount of time for another two seater chariot to pass. Oh – look – you’re on the bus, and another screams past below, ferrying prosecco heads off to panto

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This is central London in 2021, where it’s easier to ride a rickshaw than it is to book an Uber home. Maybe it’s because the country plunged into lockdown for months, so they’re more visible, or maybe there genuinely are more of them. But wherever you look, it’s impossible to turn a corner without seeing – or hearing – a fairy-light covered pedicab carting people around.

What are they? Think: a hooded-couch for you to sit yours and more arses, with a driver up front to cycle you between destinations. Think: pop-tunes and a roof coated in tinsel. Think: supposedly being charged a fuck-tonne per incredibly brief journey, like this big £206 bill to crawl one mile along. 

So considering the kitsch-cum-overpriced luxury of it all, who rides these lil’ buggers? With the aim of finding the city’s most expensive fare – and the reason these things still run – I spent an evening zipping between sightseeing hotspots, hoping to run into the wheelers, and the wheeled.

Ding-ding, ding-ding, and we’re off.

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Our evening begins in Leicester Square, home to London’s fiercest pedi-cab crew – and their collection of the most diverse bicycles seen across all currently steampunk-free London areas.

For example, here’s a bike that looks like a wheeled-version of the wall that teenagers / Brexiters smash in rage when they realise that mum isn’t cooking chicken nuggets again for dinner. It’s a cycle that gives both!

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Or how about this one, which I call “sex-club sadness on a furry bike”.

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It’s easy to track down passenger-less bikes like the ones above, because they’re bloody all about, appearing everywhere in a mile-or-so radius.

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For example: In Covent Garden, a shit-yourself-gold number pumps past playing drum and bass, while another blue bike hovers around near the Tesco Metro and a red ride ferries two gals past at the speed of a light jog.

But, considering their prevalence, finding someone who has rode a bike is unusually difficult. Where art thou, London’s pedi-cab riding super-fans?

Then:

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Oi oi!

But then they’re gone, lost to the rhythm of the night.

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Sensing the rare odds of landing upon someone the second they get off a rickshaw, I decide to change tack. Instead, as we arrive at our next destination, Chinatown, I head toward two drivers for their stories.

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“Hello – who are the worst tourists for throwing up all over your vehicle?” I ask. But before my interviewee can get the words out his mouth, one of his irate working companions comes over. “No talking,” he growls.

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Discussing rickshaws is risky, it seems. Over the evening I slide up to over 40 different drivers, none of whom will chop it up about their business on record. Of course, given the pedicab’s history of largely operating without a license, their lack of chat is hardly surprising. 

Also: 20 odd years later, news is breaking about incoming pedicab regulations. Me, I’m just trying to do an article, mate.

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Over in Soho, I stand as Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" sashays up to one ear and Adele's "Easy On Me" into Boy George’s "Karma Chameleon" flumps in the other. It's just like one of my mental breakdowns! Except this is all courtesy of two separate bikes spinning in circles, trying to charm tourists their way.

Then, again – a cab!

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A cab with people!

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But sadly, the pedicab refrains from stopping. Instead, the ladies projectile a “get out of the road!” toward me, which buzzes past at the same frequency as someone tossing the “wanker” gesture from a car.

So, I stand, dejected and alone.

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Then, once more (they’re bikes, they come along every minute): a cab!

“This is the rhythm of the night….”

A cab blasting get-the-time-of-your-life synth pop!

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“Woah-oh.”

It’s a bike, with some more riders.

This time, I chase them, determined to see the riders depart.

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My guys! 

What prompted you to get on the bike? “Oh, we were drunk. We came from Mamma Mia.” 

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How much was that? “£15 each. For the experience.” 

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For the first time in my silly life, it becomes clear that I should ride one of these bikes myself to experience the upscaled fares at hand. So, I approach a driver outside the theatre housing the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play.

How much would it cost to go to Leicester Square (a two minute walk)? “£10”.

How about a photo? “Oh, that’s free…”

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Taking a 15 minute ride in a bike? £300. Posting a photo to social media to advertise said bikes to more tourists and potential customers? Priceless.

When far more sinister acts of exploitation take place across London’s city on a daily basis, it’s hard to fault the bike drivers. As girl bosses and media bros promote hustle culture in a very expensive city, it’s fair enough that rickshaw-drivers are making their packet too, even if it means charging the odd cash-rich tourist a 20x mark-up on their travel.

What’s more frustrating is how every central London area seems to be the same. Spritz soaked onto the street, curb-side chats congealing with a bike-boombox’s “What Is Love” – and no one wants to share their cigarettes.

Where the people paying to ride these things? Wouldst thou like to take a trip with me? All I want is a city that never sleeps, but post-lockdown all we’re getting is one that closes at 11PM, with louder bikes than clubs.

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Still – here’s a bike, and me on it. Again, an absolute corker for some: “Rhythm Is A Dancer” and it’s crawling through W1, £200 for 1 mile.

@ryanbassil