Riding Backseat in Oakland

New pedicab service helps rejuvenate the city's nightlife.

If you frequent the Oakland bar scene, chances are you’ve seen a tall, bespectacled guy driving a four-seater bicycle, with house music bumping from his iPod speaker. Ken Ott rides the streets of downtown Oakland every Thursday through Sunday, and sometimes on Monday and Tuesday, if he’s feeling particularly enterprising. He sets off from his downtown apartment at 10 p.m. and circles Oakland’s retail core for four hours, occasionally stopping to shoot the breeze with bartenders or bouncers. Ott is the city’s first purveyor of a regular pedicab service. His path is roughly a square mile, from Ruby Room on 14th Street up to Broadway Auto Row, over to the New Parish on 18th Street near San Pablo and down to Jack London Square. Profit is not Ott’s motivation, and right now a sign on his cab merely asks for tips. Rather, he wants to boost Oakland’s nightlife and create the illusion of a denser, more compact downtown.

That can be a tall order, especially on a cold January night when few people are out on the streets. The air was brittle on a recent Saturday, and little clouds of steam issued from Ott’s mouth as he chugged down Franklin Street. He was dressed to the nines, with a top hat, white gloves, and a white blazer encircling his slight, beanpole frame. A pack of Marlboro Reds bulged in one of his back pockets.

Over eight months of business, Ott has developed a rapport with many behind-the-scenes people in Oakland’s entertainment district — particularly the security guards. He knows many of them on a first-name basis, and they know him, too.

“Hey John, you want a ride?” Ott called to one of the bouncers at Layover, a hip new nightclub on Franklin Street at 15th Street.

“Aw, man, you know I gotta work,” John said, strolling up to the cab anyway.

“You want a cigarette?” Ott offered.

“Ken, you don’t smoke.”

The guys at Layover josh him for buying cigarettes even though he doesn’t smoke. The ones at Somar ask about his wife’s ice cream business. Everyone points and waves when he passes by. Chicks dig the pedicab. Bargoers ask Ott for directions. Homeless people usually turn down his offer of a free ride, but smile reassuringly.

Ott got the itch to start a pedicab business in 2007, after returning from a two-year stint in Tokyo. He made a web site that year and called the operation Backseat Driver. Within a few weeks Ott got queries from potential advertisers and clients who wanted him to work their weddings, even though he didn’t have a vehicle at that point. Ott bought his first pedicab off of Craigslist in 2008. Made by Worksman Bicycle Company in New York, it cost $1,500 used and included an electric motor for one of the back wheels. Ott had to buy new brake parts and a new microcontroller for the motor. He installed a small iPod with one stereo speaker. He paid $2,000 for liability insurance. The following year he bought a second pedicab in the hope of eventually hiring another driver. So far, he’s funded everything out of his own pocket.

“It’s supposed to be this party bus animal,” said Ott, who has fashioned himself more as a man-about-town than an ecological visionary. “People aren’t supposed to think about the green aspect of it,” he added. Still, he hopes this innovation — coupled with the resurgence of bike transit in general — will help turn Oakland into a greener city.

Ott became a bicycle enthusiast in Japan, where he taught English in 2004 and 2005. “Everyone there bicycles and takes the train,” he said. “I would travel to Thailand and other places, and they all had pedicabs.” Some of the hipper American cities also use them as a form of transportation, he said. Bikes have long supplemented the bus and rail systems in New York, San Francisco, DC, and San Diego. “I feel like it’s a way to increase the city’s cachet,” Ott said.

Bike messengers proliferated in San Francisco during the dot-com boom, and a few like-minded enterprises — such as Berkeley’s Pedal Express — launched on this side of the bay as well. Yet, for the most part, Oakland has been slow to follow suit. According to Ott, the problem is largely economic. For a long time, Oakland suffered the lack of a vibrant downtown. Commerce was pretty sterile, and there was little demand for an extra delivery service or transit system. The city also has geographic handicaps, some of which resulted from staggered retail development. There’s a cluster of late-night establishments on Telegraph Avenue, a few on Broadway, another cluster in Old Oakland, and a few scattered on Auto Row, with a lot of gaps in between. “Things are pretty spread out in Oakland,” Ott said, explaining that “uptown” and “downtown” are not yet the urban epicenters they imagine themselves to be. Part of the impetus behind Backseat Driver was to bring everything together.

Ott wasn’t always very ecologically minded. Raised in the suburbs of Fremont, he graduated from UC Berkeley in 2001 with a degree in political science. At that time, he owned three cars and a moped, and was still a typical, decadent American. He drove a car in Japan, too, but ultimately got habituated to the public transit systems there. In 2005, Ott repatriated to the United States and sold off the last of his automobiles. For a while he worked at a biodiesel company. He started composting, gardening, and commuting by bicycle. Now he occasionally borrows his wife’s car, but otherwise sustains a pretty ascetic lifestyle.

And despite all his club hopping, Ott doesn’t drink and drive — or drink and bike, rather. A couple Sundays ago he parked the cab outside Somar Bar and Lounge in the Uptown. He’d retired his top hat and coat for a spiffy leather jacket (Ott doesn’t always hit the town in full Backseat Driver regalia). He was drinking ice water from the bar and carrying a container of sugary candies.

It would be another slow winter night, Ott knew. The New Parish was closed, and by 11 p.m. the crowd at Somar was dwindling. He had no clientele, save for three women who asked for a spin around the block. Ott was undeterred. Despite the lack of business, he typically goes out every Sunday. “I know Oakland is not a total tourist destination right now like San Francisco is,” he said. “Cab drivers here will tell me, ‘You know, you could make a lot more money over there.’ But I live here, I like it here, and I’d like to see the city develop.”


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