Ryan Barber peddles downtown as he pedals through it

People who have been to the big cities where most pedicabs are found often light up with a smile when they see one coming around the block in downtown Kalamazoo.

Ryan Barber has made it his business to offer rides through the downtown on the vehicle he sometimes calls the Green Machine. It's a late-'60s model, Russian-made surrey.

Barber found the pedicab for sale on Craig's List and traded his moped for it, not realizing it had business potential. The bicycle expert then noticed every time he took it out someone wanted a ride. And he found as he pedaled through the downtown honking his horn that people would look up and wave.

A business was born. He's been pedaling for two years now. He calls the business Taxi for Tips and riders pay whatever they think is fair. Barber, demonstrating an astute understanding of customer psychology, says setting a price for a ride would limit his income -- some people would decide to walk when they saw the price while others would be willing to pay more than any price he set.

A few people have taken advantage of the set-your-own-price arrangement, but Barber says generally people are fair. "They've been very receptive," he says.

Of an evening, Barber and his pedicab can often be found outside local pubs in the downtown. A quick trip to the ATM or from the pub to the car are his bread-and-butter runs. Some people are intrigued by the novelty of riding in the pedicab. Others, like women alone who want a ride to their car, simply appreciate the service for its convenience.

The best trips for Barber are those that involve creating memories for his customers--those who go on a ride for a first date or bachelorette parties (it's possible he insists). Weddings, prom dates, and birthdays are all special events he and his pedicab have been a part of.

"Every night is different," Barber says. "So many interesting people get on for a ride. Some people want to race us on foot. Like if a party gets split up, they will race to see if we get there (to the next stop for the evening) before they do."

It's typical for him to pedal 5 miles a night and he usually quits about an hour before the bars close.

Riders can help with the pedaling or sit and let Barber do all the work. The pedicab can seat three comfortably, he says. He's also found that from his seat on the bike he can spot introverts and extroverts quite easily. Introverts won't make eye contact. Extroverts will want to get on and then will ask him all kinds of questions about where he got the pedicab and what it takes to maintain it.

(Hint: Don't ask if he will take you to Schoolcraft. That joke got old a long time ago.)

Changing out belts, cranks, rims and tires is part of the ongoing maintenance of the vehicle that is at the center of Taxi for Tips. "There's a lot of constant wear and tear that has to be taken care of," Barber says.

Barber also promotes local businesses on his bike with signs he hand painted. Businesses pay him for the advertisement but it's fair to say he's also promoting downtown as he travels through it. "It's great to see how local businesses have been willing to help support another local business," Barber says.

Bella Patina, Pop City Popcorn, Old Dog Tavern and Tudor Tea & Spice are just a few of the businesses that help keep Barber's pedicab on the street. Main Street Cafe, Olde Peninsula, Harvey's on the Mall, K-Street Eatery and Spirit of Kalamazoo also are supporters.

The pedicab is not geared for uphill climbs so his business is bounded by the hills that surround the downtown. "It keeps me in this valley. If I get more pedicabs of various kinds I would have them geared differently," Barber says.  

Any decisions to expand the pedicab business, however, will be made down the line, Barber says. Right now his focus is getting his vintage bicycle shop, Kzoo Swift, up and running. There he will be restoring vintage bicycles and repairing used bikes. Bikes also will be sold for between $75 and $200. He says, "Our motto is: One less car."

Over the past six years he has built up a loyal clientele repairing bicycles from his parents' basement that he hopes will follow him to his new location. Earlier this year Barber decided it was time to quit his primary job working for Central City Parking that he says was wearing him out and put all his energy into the businesses he loves.

He's recently been refurbishing the space where he will work and the grand opening for the bike shop at 445 Forest takes place Aug. 2, timed to coincide with the Art Hop in downtown Kalamazoo. The grand opening also will be celebrated by two other businesses that recently relocated there and share the building at  South Westnedge Avenue on the corner of Forest Street--Retro at 1301 South Westnedge and the art gallery Lotsa Little Things at 1305 South Westnedge.

The vintage bike business and the pedicab service go hand in hand. And Barber is happy that Mayor Bobby Hopewell has praised his work. "The Mayor said he's so glad that there is one of these (a pedicab) in our town and he's delighted with what I am doing."

"My goal is to provide something fun and unique for Kalamazoo," Barber says. "Something people look forward to that helps bring people downtown."   

Kathy Jennings is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Erik Holladay.