Behind the bike: Downtown Austin’s unique pedicab drivers help keep the city ‘weird’

Behind the bike: Downtown Austin’s unique pedicab drivers help keep the city ‘weird’

March 21
23:15 2018

As the mass of people from across the globe empty the streets of Austin after a week filled with music, film, conventions and parties at the annual South by Southwest festival, one thing is sure to remain behind: pedicab drivers.

It is nearly impossible to maneuver in downtown Austin without seeing an array of bicycles with attachable carriages, hauling people to and from their destinations, oftentimes blaring music from speakers. With numerous street closures, expensive parking lots and venues scattered from one side of downtown to the other, hitching a ride with a pedicab driver is an appealing option for festival-goers’ wallets — and feet.

The Texas capital is just as unique as its pedicab drivers, who can be found on every street downtown all year — not just for festivals. However, most pedicabbers will likely say because SXSW brings the biggest crowds, the festival helps them bring in the big bucks.

“It’s one of the only jobs I know that you can have money in hand without taking your clothes off by the end of the night,” Austin pedicab driver Sarah Yopp said. “South by is our Christmas, as we call it.”

Wonder Woman can do it all

Yopp is one of the more unforgettable pedicab drivers downtown — she’s hard to miss with her head-to-toe Wonder Woman costume, a look she’s been rocking ever since she started pedicabbing in Austin seven years ago.

“I was just some crazy lady who obviously loved Wonder Woman, but now people recognize me,” Yopp said.

Yopp stumbled upon this job and found herself pedicabbing full-time after leaving her job as a charter school teacher. She taught children about gardening and environmental skills during her teaching stint, helping her put her degrees in zoology and environmental studies to use.

“I was just wanting an extra job at the time, but I ended up making a lot of money my first night pedicabbing,” Yopp said. “It was just like that — I went from no money to having all this money by the end of the night.”

This job allows Yopp to wear many hats apart from being a cyclist.

“With this job, we do everything,” she said. “I’m a psychologist, I’m a tour guide and I’ve rescued people.”

With an extensive background in bicycling and mountain biking, combined with her experience as a bike messenger in New York, the self-proclaimed gypsy said she has become immune to the fear of constantly peddling next to cars.

However, cars aren’t the only thing Yopp is cautious about in this line of work.

Yopp recalls a time when a fellow pedicabber was assaulted and robbed. The woman was hit with the butt of a gun by a man, leaving her with an empty wallet and permanent brain damage.

This Wonder Woman was faced with a dangerous situation herself, in which she was attacked and luckily rescued by a taxi driver. In addition to being a rescuee, Yopp has stepped up and done some rescuing herself.

“I’ve actually saved women on 6th Street late at night who are incapacitated — who have had too much to drink — and some guys have touched them inappropriately,” Yopp said. “I’ve seen some horrible stuff.”

Keeping her pepper spray close to her at all times, Yopp said although she likes her job and where it’s been able to take her, at the end of the day, it is “extremely difficult” to be a female pedicabber.

“It’s not only having to deal with bad customers, but also my male peers who give us girls less credit than we deserve,” Yopp said. “You definitely have to not take any s—t and just be a tough person in general.”

Yopp now owns her own business and has plans to continue her work as a pedicabber this summer in Chicago for a second round. Austin can expect a return of its Wonder Woman pedicabber in time for the Austin City Limits music festival.

Groovy, baby

Covered in psychedelic hand-painted patterns is Adam Carrell’s pedicab bike. Carrell has been pedicabbing in Austin for five years, with this year’s SXSW marking his fourth time working the festival.

Carrell’s colorful ensemble was inspired by an attempt to stand out for a job he picked up for the Las Vegas Electric Daisy Carnival rave last year.

“Because of the nature of the event, though, I blended right in — no one batted an eye,” Carrell said. “Maybe people were just too high to notice it. When I brought it back to Austin, though, it was a big hit here, so I just kept it.”

Everything on Carrrell’s bike and carriage glows at night, making it a fun ride for his customers, who he can often be spotted taking selfies with after each ride.

“It definitely looks the best at night,” he said.

Carrell installed all the decorations himself, and recently added even more color to his carriage. He transformed an ordinary zebra print blanket into a vibrantly plush seat cover with the help of a few UV blacklight fabric markers and a little distraction.

“It took me about five episodes of ‘Breaking Bad’ to color it all,” Carrell said.

It all started with Tinder

If all goes well, some people get lucky and end a Tinder date with some sort of relationship. This rang true for pedicab driver Julia Wagner — only not in a traditional sense.

Wagner’s relationship with pedicabbing bloomed after she was picked up for a Tinder date in a pedicab. The driver noticed her athletic physique and suggested she look into getting a job on the bike. Fast forward a few months later and Wagner completed her chauffer’s permit certification and began her job as a pedicabber. She has now been on the job for eight months.

When Wagner isn’t filling her role as a biology student at the University of Texas at Austin, the newbie is busy working so she can save money for a big move on the horizon.

“South by Southwest is such a good time of year for us [pedicabbers],” Wagner said. “This is my last chance to rake up as much cash as possible, and this is a great opportunity for that.”

A Killeen, Texas native, Wagner said she fell in love with the big city after having to move here two years ago for school.

“[Austin] is so much better than the small town I came from,” Wagner said. “Especially as a pedicabber, you get to meet so many lively people and so many different types of people. I love it.”

With meeting new people comes new relationships, and as for the Tinder date that started it all, Wagner has since hung up her dating boots.

“I have a boyfriend now, so it obviously did not work out with the other guy,” Wagner said. “We are still friends, though — we actually work for the same company.”

Man’s best friend                         

With all the high energy SXSW brings to Austin, it isn’t common to see dogs with their wagging tails and happy smiles around downtown. That is unless you’ve met Justin Freeman.

Freeman’s 4-year-old dog Macy has been accompanying the pedicab driver for more than two years, giving “bring your pet to work” a different take.

“She just developed into it,” Freeman said. “This job really helped her [become a people-person].”

Macy and Freeman were introduced to each other thanks to Freeman’s mother, who he says “has a habit of picking up dogs.”

“I met [Macy], and she was so perfect and such a stand-out good dog that I took her from my mom,” Freeman said. “My mom got [Macy] from someone who wasn’t able to care for her anymore and who was trying to get rid of her, so in that sense she is a rescue.”

Freeman, a Houston native, has been pedicabbing for eight years and has lived in Austin since 2003. Freeman estimates Macy has biked 50 miles a day on average as his pedicab co-pilot.

Pedicabbing allows these bikers to stay connected with their Austin community while also enjoying the freedoms around not having to work a 9-to-5 job. Since pedicab services are used by locals all year long, pedicab drivers have a permanent spot in Austin’s culture.

Featured Image: Pedicab driver Sarah Yopp, also known as Wonder Woman, has been pedicabbing in Austin for seven years. Yopp quit her job as a life skills teacher and finds herself trying to balance working full-time and running her own business. Nina Quatrino

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Kaitlin Pennell

Kaitlin Pennell

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