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City news, 29.06.2006 14:07

New Form of Transport Hits City Streets

cycle_rickshaws By Cori Weiner

Special to St. Petersburg Times

In sync with the worldwide trend, St. Petersburg has adopted a new mode of transportation. Since the end of May and continuing through the summer, cycle rickshaws have been rolling the streets of Petrodvorets. The budding business is manned by a handful of boys, aged from 18 to 20. From 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays as well as holidays, they earn money the old fashioned way: through hard work. Peddling their way around the area, with a seat for customers that fits two, these young entrepreneurs can also point out landmarks to Russian-speaking clients.

Unlike many tourist attractions, one price fits all, Russians and non-Russians alike. Posted on a small card is the “official” cost: 150 rubles for 10 minutes. But, as usual, the price is negotiable, if you can negotiate in Russian. Despite any language barriers, you can certainly make a deal, pay your money and hop right in. You can then select a particular destination or ask for a round-trip tour. Either way, the experience is unique, and because it is a new phenomenon, you’ll get lots of attention from passersby.

Viktor, one of the older drivers, enjoys various modes of transportation and feels comfortable on pedestrian walkways and small side streets alike. His driver’s license gives him a bit more security on the street, as does his other hobby, scootering. Aware of his surroundings, he follows road signs and rides at a steady, slow pace. The quality of the cycle itself adds to the experience: sturdy, but basic in an endearing way.

Viktor is so industrious that he has taken on velo taxis as well. A close relative to the cycle rickshaw, velo taxis run on the same principle, but with the help of an electric motor. The price is 100 rubles per kilometer, and while it may not be as endearing or exotic as the rickshaw, it’s more secure and protects you from the rain. Velo taxis can currently be found at various points along Nevsky Prospekt in the center of town.

The price and build are not the only differences between cycle rickshaws and velo taxis. Viktor feels that managing the cycle rickshaw is more burdensome physically for the driver; velo taxis are easier to manipulate across the wide range of obstacles in urban life. As a result, “they’ve created some serious competition for the cycle rickshaws,” says Viktor. The clientele also differs: the cycle rickshaw attracts younger passengers interested in a fun ride while the velo taxi appeals to an older crowd, tourists and locals alike, according to Viktor.

The rickshaw, predecessor to the cycle rickshaw, gives this new mode of transportation an interesting history. Originating in Japan, according to some, its name stems from the Japanese, meaning human-powered vehicle. And, indeed, the vehicle was originally pulled by a man on foot. As human labor was less expensive than using horse-powered vehicles, rickshaws began to spread throughout many Asian countries in the late 1800s. They were used for various practical purposes from carrying goods to transporting people.

However, over time, they were banned in many cities, perceived as being degrading, and today only cycle rickshaws or motor rickshaws remain in use.

As for St. Petersburg, only time will tell if this arrival will become a staple for transportation as it has become in much of Asia.

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(c) 2000