A cheerful, mustachioed man on one of the ubiquitous machinesâ€”a cross between a bicycle and a rickshawâ€”offered to pedal me from South Congress to the convention center for $10, and I hopped in. He was wearing a blue t-shirt emblazoned with the Oreo logo, and as he guided his vehicle across Lady Bird Lake into downtown Austin, he told me he often pulls in $60-$100 for a good hour of work during South by Southwest.
My driver was one of the 400-500 registered pedicabbies who populated the streets ofÂ Austin each year during the festival, swelling the ranks of the cityâ€™s foot-powered livery by a factor of three. These iron-calfed dynamos schlep a solid chunk of the 250,000-plus visitors to and from the various concerts and parties that make South by Southwest what it is, and theyâ€™re well-compensated for their efforts.
Pedicab drivers generally donâ€™t own their vehicles; instead, they rent them from one of a handful of operators. Normally, the cost is only $60-$90 for a week. During South by Southwest, that number can soar as high as $870, according to one cabbie. Even so, itâ€™s worth it: pedicab rides can cost almost as much as yellow cab trips, and the overhead of operating one is much lower. One driver I spoke with expects to clear $2,000-$3,000 during the festivalâ€™s two weeks.
The pay is so good that some pedicabbies fly in from other cities, mostly Seattle and New York, for the weeks of South by Southwest. The aforementioned Oreo-shirted cabbie puts that number at 10% or less of the total force, but still enough to be reckoned with.
Out-of-town workers are drawn not only by the promise of steady pay during the festival, but by the chances of a lucky jackpot. As legend has it, two cabbies spent a recent night pedaling six revelers around Austinâ€”at the end of which one of the passengers removed a wad of bills from his pocket and peeled off $700 for each driver.
This year Nabisco has been offering some lucky pedicab drivers $50 an hour to pick up passengers, take them to their destinations, then announce that the trip was free, courtesy of Oreoâ€™s parent company.
Unfortunately, my first driver wasnâ€™t among that elite group. But he was still working a commercial angle. As I stepped out of his pedicab, he asked me if I liked healthy food, then handed me a coupon for 25% off at a nearby eatery.
If this journalism thing doesnâ€™t work out, I think I know what Iâ€™ll be doing next March