A cycle taxi: mission impossible?

Cycle taxis: they are a rarity in Flanders, despite more cities adopting measures to reduce air pollution and keep the cars out. We bring the story of Tim, a Ghent resident who tried it as a full-time cycle taxi man but threw in the towel: "My covered bicycle was definitely an eye-catcher. That was not the problem."

Cycle taxis are not what you would call a common sight in Flemish cities. You have to be lucky to spot one. One would think they could be in for a revival, as greater attention is being paid to new types of sustainable mobility, and as cars are being kept out of cities.

Antwerp introduced a low-emission zone, Ghent boasts a new circulation plan since the Easter holidays and Brussels is doing its best to create more space for cyclists and pedestrians.

Horse-drawn carriages

Our search led us to a couple of cycle transport services in Ghent, Antwerp and Bruges, but these are either done part-time in combination with logistics transports, are part of social projects working with volunteers, or focus on sight-seeing tours for tourists, such as the Cycle Carriage in Bruges, the bike-version of the horse-drawn carriage.

The Ghent Alderman for Mobility and driving force behind the Circulation Plan, Filip Watteeuw, can't immediately come up with any names for Ghent when we phone him. However, the city used to have a full-time professional cycle taxi rider: Tim, nicknamed 'Cyclo Tim', Watteeuw remembers.

It turns out Tim is now working as a guide on tourist boats. We were curious to hear his story - why is a cycle taxi business apparently poised to fail?

Seeking the right bike: 9,000 euros

We meet Tim in his humble home, a flat near the Vrijdagmarkt. He just delivered an evening parcel by bicycle. "How it started? At a certain point a couple of years ago - Tim was looking for a job at that time - I realised there was nobody in Ghent offering transfers by bicycle."

"I wanted to seize this opportunity and started looking for a bike. It had to be a covered one, in order not to depend too much on the weather conditions." Tim's search started in France but ended up in Brussels a considerable time later.

He decided to rent the bicycle, since buying would involve a budget of some 9,000 euros. Working as a self-employed, he hoped he could fill a gap in Ghent and make fame.

The start at the Ghent Festival

Tim started last summer at the kick-off of the renowned Ghent Festival, in July. "I took my place at a busy spot at the Sint-Pieters Station. The bike was in white, a real eye-catcher. I hoped that would help to draw people's attention."

However, while many gave him thumbs up or even stopped for a chat, the number of actual passengers was below expectation. "Maybe I should have offered space for more than 2 people. And when they had luggage, it was a problem to squeeze it in as well."

A tight financial plan: 100 euros per day!

Tim had worked out a strict financial plan before he started. "I knew I had to make 100 euros per working day to find myself in a sustainable situation. These 100 euros also had to cover my costs. The rent for the bicycle for example was 21.5 euros per day."

However, after the Ghent Festival, it turned out he only made the cut on one day during the 10-day festival. Tim asked 3 euros per kilometre, but couldn't make any money when waiting for new clients, and waiting he had to do a lot. One ride from the station to the centre earned him 8.40 euros.

Plan B also fails

Many passengers tipped him, but even that was not enough. "After the festival, I knew it was going to be tough. But I had decided before the start to continue to see what the rest of the summer and the autumn would yield."

"Soon I started thinking about a plan B: I had to offer more than just taxi rides. Taxi rides alone were not enough to keep it going. So I took a place at one of the city's busiest spots, in front of the Sint-Nicholas Church at the Korenmarkt and also offered tourist tours."

These would take longer and bring in more cash, but it was still below par. By mid-October, Tim realised it would not be enough, and winter was approaching. (continue reading below the picture)

"Yes, maybe I made some mistakes"

"Did I make mistakes? Maybe. I underestimated how difficult it was to make the people aware of your existence and the services you offer. I though this would go swiftly once I got started. But I should have prepared this better."

"Maybe I shouldhave started with just the odd job, while earning my money with something else as a main profession. I just decided to become self-employed and go for the full monty. I thought it would be a bigger success."

A comeback next summer?

Tim is presently working as a tourist guide on one of the tourist barges in the city centre. He is employed by the shipping company, but the old dream is still alive. "Maybe I could work together with my boss and take some of the boat passengers for a bike ride, to show them the other side of Ghent. We'll see. But he has good contacts with the different tourist hotels."

Reaching potential clients was one of the main concerns last year. But the weather was another one. "I think one of the main problems is the weather here. The difference was huge when the weather was excellent. So many more people coming out..."

A candle procession and steep climbs

Last December, Tim rode the bicycle all the way back to Brussels, but not without a whole basket full of good memories. On 21 July, the Belgian national holiday, he rode before a tradition candle procession in Ghent, transporting the local dean who was holding one of the torches.

"A lucrative mission, that was", Tim beams. "And another time, I received a tip worth almost double the transport fee." Other memories stay because of the circumstances. Ghent is a hilly city and this sometimes made him sweat. "I was transporting two ladies and had to climb the mountain to the museum of modern arts (SMAK) on the Ring Road." Tim almost wipes the sweat off his forehead when he thinks back of it, but his eyes are twinkling.