Photography by Andrew Von Goellner
A student, a dentist, and a Vietnam veteran: could either be the setup for a “walk into a bar” joke, or the typical clientele at a no-frills watering hole downtown. Instead, this unlikely trio is a sampling of a diverse roster of cyclists employed by Savannah Pedicab.
“I even had a brain surgeon,” says owner Rusty Browne. He’s employed older cyclists, pharmacists, and members of his own family — a vast and varied gamut. “It’s just that much fun,” he says.
At Savannah Pedicab, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this November, people come to ride from all walks of life. Browne is the company’s sole proprietor (though he notes he had startup support from Charlie Russo, of Russo’s Seafood), and along the way, he’s built a nurturing, supportive work culture governed by the same mindfulness he uses to goose up his fleet of passenger-ready tricycles. The company was once named the second-best place to work in Savannah, recalls Browne — right after Gulfstream Aerospace.
“That’s something I’m really proud of, and I believe it’s because of the culture I created, where we are accountable for who we are and what we do as a team and independently,” he says.
There are work perks, Browne says, like starting your day around 10 a.m., pocketing cash tips, and ferrying around a wildly broad range of characters — couples who want to sightsee, overserved bachelor parties searching for a way back home, head-in-the-clouds artist types just wanting to take in all the city has to offer. Savannah Pedicab cyclists have even had their share of celebrities hop on; Browne himself recalls trips with Demi Moore, Clint Eastwood and tennis legend Martina Navratilova. The backdrop of downtown Savannah, all Spanish moss and evergreen squares and a whisper of breeze sneaking over from the islands, makes every ride a scenic one.
The tricked-out tricycles are also deceptively easy to ride. “The thing people don’t know about pedicabs is, they have good suspension, hydraulic brakes, a gearbox. There’s nothing about it that’s a difficult job,” he says, noting he had no formal cycling training when he began the company. That kind of leisurely ride — for both cyclist and passenger — fosters conversation, which has always been the soul of Savannah Pedicab.
“I get to engage with people and hear stories all day,” he says. “It’s lovely.” Although Savannah’s European atmosphere, with its cobblestone streets and prevalent Georgian, Italianate and Romanesque Revival architecture, continually inspires Browne, his idea to bring pedicabs to town came from somewhere even more far-flung. He remembers the exact moment his plans crystallized: in the waiting room at a dentist’s office, waiting to get his wisdom teeth pulled. “There was an issue of National Geographic, and in the back of it, there was a photo of a kid on a pedicab in Malaysia. That was it,” he says. It was summer 1994 when he bought a fleet of pedicabs in New York City and had them shipped back via fish truck — freshly caught, ice-cold bikes.
Browne’s goal was to ride for a couple of years and be a catalyst for change in the city, offering an affordable way to take folks to wherever they needed to go. As it happened, his brief ride went on and on, propelled by a growing demand for pedicabs, and by his wife of 14 years, Karen, who helped him expand and maintain the business. Browne learned blacksmithing to take care of repairs in the off-season, and his decorative filigree work can be seen on his fleet’s wedding cabs that come complete with overstuffed black or white seats and a tuxedoed driver.
Savannah’s slow pace and flat topography make it perfect for a pedicab cruise, but Browne has seen the city pick up speed and shift gears over the past quarter-century. He remembers when Savannah lost its chance to host volleyball during the 1996 Summer Olympics due to a last-minute schedule change, and that about a month later, Hurricane Fran hit. “I could’ve thrown in the towel with my head held high at that point,” he says. “It was three months of nothing, and the winters were so slow back then.” Despite trying experiences so early on in his business, you can hear Browne’s nostalgia when he thinks back on leaner times. “I miss those hungry days,” he says.
As Savannah Pedicab pedals on, clients can expect an upgraded fleet and perennially great service, Browne says. If you’ve yet to take a ride, the founder himself has a suggestion. “Dusk in Savannah on the back of a pedicab is absolutely gorgeous,” he says. “Try it at dusk.”