With the bike taxi's humble three wheels and modest backseat, Jeff Bierce's vehicle doesn't look like much from the outside.
Once inside, the real treat is looking out into the streets and sights of Salt Lake City as Bierce does the driving.
Pedaling past the ice skaters at Gallivan Center, up through City Creek's shopping lights, past Temple Square and on to the windmills of the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center, a passenger sees and senses downtown in new ways.
As all these sights converge into a luminous whole, and as the winter air glides across your cheeks and hair, you're reminded just how much car windows and the duty of looking at the road blind you.
"We're still a novelty on the street," Bierce said on a recent evening ride, as he turned onto 200 South from West Temple. "But people like us because it's more than a ride. It's a different view of the city. I like wintertime on the streets. It's almost like backcountry snowboarding."
The business of carting people a few blocks here and there is picking up, Bierce said, thanks to conventions in the summer and fall, crowds during Christmas and an increasing number of Salt Lake County residents buying downtown condominiums.
His fleet of bike taxis joins Carriage for Hire, which has offered horse-driven rides since 1987 in operation long enough now to be considered a city tradition.
Now the newest night ride on the block is Pedal Hopper, a 16-person bike imported from Europe that lets evening clubgoers, or even afternoon picnickers from Liberty Park, cruise through the streets in high spectacle. Even tipsy after-hours revelers can join in pedaling duties without worry, as Pedal Hopper's single, always sober, driver controls the wheel and brakes.
By hoof, pedal or multipedal, these rides are about more than simple fun although there's plenty of that to be had. They're about seeing the streets from a different tempo and vantage point.
"People tell us over and over that, even though they're riding in an open horse carriage during winter, they never feel cold until it's over," said Karleen Farnsworth, manager and driver at Carriage for Hire.
Vanessa Garret, manager and operator of Pedal Hopper Salt Lake, says riders feel as if they're in a parade. "Some people couldn't care less about pedaling. They just want to keep riding."
Bierce, a massage therapist who grew up in upstate New York, started pedaling for Salt Lake City Bike Taxi in 2009 during the summer, when the massage business at ski resorts ran dry. Within six months, he bought out the company's owner, added a few more bikes to the fleet, then took "it all by the reins," as he puts it.
His base rate changes depending upon the hour. Midnight to 1 a.m. is a peak time for passengers, when the clubs empty out and the inebriated need a ride somewhere else.
Bierce and his bikers, who work as independent contractors, use the street more or less in the fashion of cars, each bike taxi fully equipped with brake lights and turn signals. The city's many bike lanes are preferred routes, and destinations might include homes in the Avenues or spots in the western Marmalade District. So far, few customers want to venture past South Temple and 500 South, bordered by 500 West and 700 East.
Beyond helping inner-city dwellers with grocery runs, or out-of-town hoteliers with trips to the liquor store, Bierce said his favorite element of the job is acting as tour guide.
If you're not chatty with your back-seat partner, Bierce will offer a quick history lesson about Temple Square or City Hall. "I get to talk about a city I love," he said. "Otherwise, all you have to do is lean back and enjoy the fresh air."
O Three Salt Lake City businesses cater to people seeking short-hop transportation.
Salt Lake City Bike Taxi Co.
Info • Base rate between $3 to $5 per block, or $40 per half hour. Call 801-686-8294 or visit slcbiketaxi.com.
Carriage for Hire
Info • $40 per half hour, or $60 for a 40-minute ride to Memory Grove. Call 801-363-8687 or visit www.carriageforhire.net.
Pedal Hopper Salt Lake
Info • Between $360-$320 for two hours, or slightly more than $21 per person for a party of 16. Call 801-949-5946 or visit www.pedalhopper.com/slc.