Pedaling people around town for profit

When was the last time you went on a five-hour bicycle ride?

Marco Alvarez does it for a living.

Alvarez is the heart, soul and tireless peddler of Ashland EcoCab. He has quickly gained a reputation for turning heads while crossing Ashland's busiest streets on his rickshaw-style "pedicab." From his base camp on the Plaza, he takes individuals or couples around town at the rate of $10 for 15 minutes. Five, six, even seven days a week he is out on the town — customers or not.

"I had the idea while I was a bike instructor in Santa Barbara," Alvarez said. While living in California, he watched several independent bicycle-taxi operators run successful businesses. "There were lots of them there."

Like his Santa Barbara peers, Alvarez relies heavily on tourists to make a profit. So it can be hard for some to understand why he does it, continuing to bike even on days when he gives as many free rides — "Everybody wants to travel for free," he joked — as paid ones.

"This is to promote a lifestyle," Alvarez said, "to promote cycling. It's not just about a business."

He received his pedicab permit from the Ashland Traffic Safety Commission last year. Any commercial passenger vehicle needs to be approved by city officials, who make sure the operator has enough physical strength and mental discipline to ensure his or her passengers' safety. Besides his EcoCab business, Alvarez works as a server in a local restaurant, and tutors students in Spanish, French and Italian — all languages he speaks as fluently as English. Further proof of strength and discipline were not required.

"This is my favorite of the jobs," he said from the front seat of his pedicab. "It pays me the least." While business has not been as profitable as he had hoped, he says work provides him benefits that cannot be fixed with a dollar sign.

"I'm doing good for my body, and I'm doing good for the community," he said. "That's rewarding." There is also the attention. Shouts of "Hey, Marco!'" follow him everywhere.

"Even people I don't remember shout," he said. The back of his cab he uses as a billboard, selling advertising space for local businesses. It is a way for Alvarez to make a few extra dollars, but he sees it more as fulfilling an obligation to the community.

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"I want to promote local businesses, especially those that care about the environment," he said. "There are a lot of businesses that do."

It is this commitment to environmental activism that keeps Alvarez on his bike, even when profits are not keeping pace with hours worked. He wants to see Ashland develop more alternatives to automotive transportation, and would even welcome some competition, so long as it were in the spirit of a cleaner environment.

"This is the way I am in the community, doing my part as far as keeping the world a nice place to live," Alvarez said.

He is currently training a second peddler, and hopes to buy another pedicab this year. The model he wants could cost as much as $5,000. But Marco Alvarez is hailing his future purchase as a high-tech beauty, one that is sure to turn even more heads than before.

"It looks like it's from outer space, but it's a bicycle," he said. "It'll blow everybody's minds."

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