Can Pedicabs Change our World?

The need for desirable communities is well known, both intuitively and through research. Communities that are attractive, walkable, offer a variety of food, art, and commerce are desired places for people to live, interact, and do business. Communities can be joyful, active, and beneficial when they set the stage for interactions.

In an urban environment, a pedicab ride is a joyful experience that provides eco-friendly transportation with the potential to reduce the number of taxi-cabs and Uber drivers currently leading to congestion. For short urban routes, pedi-cabs can provide quicker transport times than cars and are a fun/novel way to be transported. Unfortunately pedicabs have not been seriously integrated into transportation planning.

I have wondered if the current pedicab model has kept pedicabs from thriving? Currently operators are out hustling for rides and interacting with a public that may be skeptical of the price. Sometimes pedicab drivers have demanded large fees that can surprise or even shock consumers.

I began to wonder what if people were offered free pedicabs rides to their destination? What would be the impact be from this kindness? Would people trust a free ride? How could this promote positivity?

The UNH Pedicab Project

At the heart of this proposal is a desire to find creative ways to build healthy communities. A healthy community has trust and reciprocity. Reciprocity is not an often studied community need, especially in community recreation, but is theorized to be an important variable. This project begins with a research question—Do Pedicabs have a positive influence upon a community? The secondary question is how do participants manage reciprocity?

Ciandalli (2006) theorizes humans have an innate desire to reciprocate kindness. This reciprocity principle has been capitalized by advertisers for over 70 years, evidenced by free offers and coupons presented to consumers. The desire to reciprocate kindness is quite strong, and remains beneficial even when people are aware that kindness is being used to sell a product (2006).

What if the kindness is not directly reciprocated through payment? Would people want to reciprocate kindness elsewhere (pay it forward or pay it somewhere else)? Would that kindness influence a persons attitude about a place or a sponsor? Or would this kindness have little or no effect? I wondered if the University of New Hampshire supported pedicabs rides, would the reciprocity principle extend itself to perceptions of the community that supports this endeavor?

As a pedicab driver in Portsmouth, NH in 1987, I found that the people enjoyed riding in a pedicab, they are unique vehicles that almost always led to laughter and joy from the riders. They are also special in the way they connect people with a city. A pedicab operator typically charges about $40-$100 for a ride, and drivers often try to hustle to maximize their income. If given a free ride, the principle of reciprocity should be more pronounced in a pedicab, the operator is using physical effort to transport the rider in an obvious manner, the passengers can understand the effort, especially when traveling a long distance or up a hill. These efforts are different from an Uber driver or a bus ride, in fact a pedicab is the closest travel option to picking someone up and carrying them. Pedicabs are fascinating laboratories to study reciprocity in a recreational environment and theoretically may have the power to leave a big impact.

This project aims to purchase three pedicabs that will be wrapped in UNH Wildcat colors and advertisements. This project is consistent with UNH’s role as a leader in sustainability while also giving riders a chance to meet with students, staff and faculty drivers. The reciprocity project will provide pedicab rides in local cities (like Portsmouth) or at special events in the Northeast (like town fairs, parades, road races, etc.). The pedicabs can be used around campus for special tours, to transport the board of trustees during meetings, and to spread the joy of human power that further demonstrates UNH’s mission of being a sustainable campus full of hardworking, resilient and creative community.

The Method of Operation

Rides will be offered for FREE. This is a key aspect of the reciprocity research. The riders will be asked to fill out a survey via QR code displayed on the side of the Pedicab. Users will be asked to share their email address for a further survey in the future.

Pedicab drivers will complete an assessment at the end of each evening to share information about how many rides were given, how many tips were offered, what was the general sense of the experience of each participants in regards to reciprocity?  

The questions:

  • Do the drivers see signs of direct reciprocity (offers to tip, help, etc.)?
  • Do the drivers observe signs of indirect reciprocity (talk about spending money at a business, staying longer, spending more at shops and businesses, talk about UNH in a positive manner)?
  • Do the drivers witness any positive or negative influences upon the way the riders talk about the town, businesses, etc.
  • Does the topic of UNH come up in the ride? How is UNH viewed by the drivers (positive, neutral, negative)?
  • How many rides are provided each day compared to how many surveys are completed via QR code?
  • How much money is donated to UNH after the ride?
  • How many people refused a ride? How many accepted?
  • What were the non-rider issues that came up? Any merchants upset? Drivers?
  • What would have to occur to best sustain the driver?

The project is very simple:Pedicabs will be driven around Portsmouth, NH or other towns/events and the drivers will offer free rides to the public. The public will partake in rides and get a little information about UNH and the project questions. The drivers will also provide information about the town/event in the model of a tour guide. During the ride, the passengers will be asked to compete a survey via their phone to let them share their experience in the project.

Participation in the research is not required (in fact the amount of participation will be one of the dependent variables in the research).

Beta Testing

Currently I am renting a pedicab in Portland, ME. I am operating a pedicab that I rent for $45 a day. My gas and parking costs are also about $45 a day. I was also required to get a City of Portland Pedicab license for $85.

My first day of testing this idea led to a few discoveries. The first is that it is very difficult for people to believe that anything is free. The skepticism was strong, with one woman from Ireland arguing forcefully that she knew it was a scam and she would not fall for it. I had no way to convince her otherwise, but in my heart of hearts felt she needed an example of kindness.

As expected, people generally wanted to pay something. Even when I said that I the cost of the ride was “doing a kindness to others,” I was twice provided some cash and a promise they would also be kind.

I found that young people were much more willing to accept the free ride concept and take me up on my offer. I gave a bunch of short rides to a group of camp counselors taking their evening off from camp. I have been a camp counselor before and it is a job that is all consuming. I wonder if the nature of their camp culture made it easier to trust the idea of a free ride? They were certainly a fun group to transport around Portland.

I received reciprocity in the form of gifts (free food) from vendors. The local ice cream shop provided free ice cream in exchange for rides.

The best event of my first day of riding was meeting Brian. He manages a local restaurant that ran out of napkins. We went out on a pedicab adventure to grab napkins from other restaurants who were also willing to help out. It was a great adventure and I loved being part of a solution for a restauranteur. 

Most interesting were the discussions about skepticism and exchange.


Brent Bell, Associate Professor of Outdoor Leadership and Management. I present this idea with the expectation of being involved and helping to get the idea off the ground. In fact, I dream of giving free pedicab rides. I have a backdrop in adventure risk management, especially bicycling and bike touring. I am a national certified EMT, an instructor in Wilderness Medicine, the author of a book on collegiate risk management, and a member of the accreditation council for the Association for Experiential Education.

My involvement comes honestly. I love cycling, I love UNH, and I want to make a difference.