Students create bike-taxi business

BY ADAM SALAZAR | JUNE 15, 2009 7:26 AM

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They zoom around on three wheels — not four — and it may be a bumpier ride. And the fare is, well, whatever the customer wants to pay.

Cart-bearing bicycles called IC Ecocabs are Iowa City’s new option for late-night taxi service. For a month now, founders and UI students Vik and Veena Patel have maneuvered their vehicles through the downtown hordes, offering locals a more personal and greener form of transportation.

And patrons can pay the Patels whatever they wish. The lack of flat rate hints at the duo’s unique philosophy.

“The more diverse the transportation, the more vibrant the community,” said Veena Patel, a UI junior and geography major.

While a student at the University of Texas-Austin, Veena Patel saw various forms of Pedi-cabs, a half-rickshaw and half-bicycle cross that is a popular form of pedestrian transit in Asia. Outside that continent, Pedi-cabs are used more often as a tourist attraction in such large cities as Paris and New York.

Veena Patel’s brother, Vik Patel, a graduate of the University of Texas-Dallas and a current Ph.D. student in physics at the UI, had been living in Iowa City for three years when the two started IC Ecocabs.

“Our goal was to bring an alternative transportation and help support the walk-able, bike-able community of Iowa City,” said Vik Patel.

Together they bought two two-wheel coach carts from New York City — each of which cost more than $1,000 — and started taking people for rides.

They did their research. Before beginning their first day.The Patels interviewed taxi drivers from competing companies to ask them what dangers they should be alert for — particularly given Iowa City’s party-town reputation. But they said they feel comfortable around downtown.

At first sight, Marcos Cab driver Helene Lubaroff was concerned more about the safety risks for the two than the poverty.

“My first thought was sympathy and [their] well-being with the drunken behavior,” Lubaroff said. “But it shows that Iowa City is consistent with a lot of the eco-friendly views that are supported by people around here.”

And although biking a cart with two adults in it can seem physically daunting to those lacking athletic prowess, the pair doesn’t have any qualms about the physical demands of the job. Vik Patel ran cross-country for University of Texas-Dallas, and Veena Patel has run half marathons.

But despite strength and endurance, there are certain limits. Because there are only two of them, the boundaries that Vik and Veena serve are limited to only the nearest residential blocks from downtown.

Even though expansion is impossible because the financial viability of the endeavor, both Patels agree that bringing Ecocab to Iowa City was something that they felt was right.

“It is in keeping with our social values and our vision for the community,” Vik Patel said. “Even if they don’t take a ride, they’re just excited that we are here.”

Indeed, the duo said they get compliments at every turn. Many ask questions regarding cost and boundary limits. Some ask if they’re hiring. But most simply congratulate them.

“I thought it was awesome,” said UI graduate Matt Denten. “It shows that there are a lot of ways to solve problems with the environment.”

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