While modern technology mostly aims for ever faster, more futuristic vehicles, the last decade has also seen the comeback of an ancient means of transportation: the rickshaw.
A leisurely alternative to crowded high-speed trains, this cheaper and greener version of the taxi began to roam the streets of Berlin in 1995. The first of these vehicles were genuine Chinese rickshaws which had been imported by individual drivers; two years on, the Berlin-based company Velotaxi was founded with a new concept of financing the business through advertisement. With international companies like Nokia and Starbucks – as well as local theatres – using rickshaw adspace to promote themselves, Velotaxi began to flourish. Kai Lübeck, a 29-year-old Berliner, witnessed the birth of the western rickshaw and became involved early on. In 2003, he and a colleague founded their own company, BikeTaxi; six years later, BikeTaxi joined the Velotaxi corporation.
Over the years, the rickshaw’s popularity steadily increased. Velotaxi has expanded dramatically, initially in Germany and now across the world: 45 countries now make use of this unique transportation system, with Japan as the frontrunner. The company’s growth shows no indication of slowing down – South Africa has even purchased 50 rickshaws to facilitate transport during the 2010 World Cup.
With its own 50 rickshaws currently providing environmentally friendly transport through central Berlin from April to October, Velotaxi benefits mainly from a steady stream of tourists eager to explore the city at a leisurely pace. The company’s drivers frequently take on the role of tour guide as well: most speak English and all know the city centre like the back of their hand. About 120 of them currently work in Berlin. They are from 18 to 65 and come from all walks of life, mostly students and artists, but also people who have abandoned their previous careers in order to structure their own work schedule. Lübeck remembers a woman in her forties who arrived at an interview in high heels: “She couldn’t even steer the rickshaw in a straight line. Now she holds the record for driving the most in Berlin!”
Velotaxi’s rise in popularity has also led to competitive rickshaw riding. During the 2009 German national championships, Velotaxi drivers raced towards the Brandenburg Gate to compete for a qualifying spot in the 2010 world championships in Berlin.
A two-person rickshaw ride costs €18 for 30 minutes.
Velotaxi | 030 4005 620, www.velotaxi.de
BikeTaxi | Tel 030 93958346, www.biketaxi.de