Bike-based companies find niche markets on Bellingham’s streets
Laura Henkel doesn’t ride her bike to work. She rides her bike for work.
As the owner of Mad Dash Bicycle Courier Services, Henkel said she rides approximately 35 miles on the days she makes deliveries on her bike. This time of year, when frost lingers on shadowed streets, the rain comes and goes on a whim and the temperature is still cold enough to require long sleeves, Henkel said her regular route can often be a challenge.
“I think it would be really hard to do this every day,” said Henkel, who delivers two days a week for the company. “But some days are better than others. A lot of it can be a mental game, too, if the weather is lousy. We’re pretty geared up but nonetheless, even with all the great gear, you still get damp and you still get cold.”
After 15 years of being most prominent bike-based business braving the streets and weather of Bellingham, Mad Dash Courier will have some new company on the roads this year.
Seattle-based Cascadia Cabs is launching a fleet of five bike-cabs, called pedicabs, this month. And a local nurse practitioner is also taking to the streets doing home and office visits via bike with a customized medicine trailer.
Pedicabs set to roll
Unlike Mad Dash Courier, Ryan Hashagen delivers people instead of mail. And if you haven’t yet seen a pedicab rolling around town, you’re sure to see one soon.
Hashagen, co-owner of Cascadia Cabs and a recent Western Washington University graduate, began pedaling around Bellingham last summer offering his services to “anyone interested in having a good time,” he said.
As the summer sunshine faded into winter snows, Hashagen put away his pedicab and began planning this year’s launch, set for March 1. This year the company has five pedicabs and 12 drivers in Bellingham who will work in shifts patrolling the streets for customers.
“Each bike goes out twice a day: daytime shift and nighttime shift,” Hashagen said. “That’s how it works in all the cities that we operate in. In Bellingham we’re going to emphasize the nightlife scene and really hope to provide a safe transportation alternative for the entertainment district.”
The pedicab fleet will serve mainly the downtown core, from the south end of State Street to Roeder Avenue to the Lettered Streets, but will also make the occasional trip up to Meridian Street and Northwest Avenue. “Anywhere that’s flat,” Hashagen said.
The company operates much like a regular cab company. They rent the pedicabs to individual drivers who must each have their own business license. At the end of the night, it is up to each driver to turn a profit or face a loss.
“The great thing about pedicabbing, unlike bike messengering, is that in bike messengering you’ve always got someone telling you where to be and what to do,” said Hashagen, who was a bike messenger in Seattle in high school. “On a pedicab, it’s entirely up to you to make your own money, which is why it’s such a great job for young college students because it teaches them how to be entrepreneurs. They need to be able to motivate themselves, and if they don’t, they don’t make money. The more fun they have, the more money they make and the happier they are, the more people will hop in their cab.”
Before pedicab drivers hit the road, however, each driver is given a full day of training on how to safely operate the cab, deal with traffic, and work with customers.
Operating a pedicab is much different from riding a bike, Hashagen said. First, a pedicab is technically a tricycle and thus wider. It is also longer and capable of carrying more weight, up to 800 pounds, which includes the driver and up to four passengers. Pulling that much weight around is certainly tiring: “They don’t call it work for no reason.”
Alongside the new fleet of pedicabs, Hashagen also unveiled a pedal-powered flower cart just in time for Valentines Day. Beyond holidays, Hashagen said he is in the process of setting up weekly flower deliveries for local offices and beauty salons.
Eventually, Hashagen said, he hopes the presence of pedicabs on the streets will inspire other business folk to consider alternative forms of transportation.
“I would like to see bicycles and tricycles used for commercial applications all throughout the Pacific Northwest.”
House calls by bike
After 10 years of having patients come to her, nurse practitioner Jody Hoppis finally decided to change the way she does business. She has done away with the waiting room and the outdated magazines in favor of making house calls on her bike.
In January, Hoppis launched her own private practice called Mobile Medicine. She got the idea to take her business on the road last year during Ski to Sea.
“I was sitting at the Ski to Sea parade and saw the bike police ride by and I thought, ‘I want to do that, but I don’t want to be a cop,’” she said.
Now Hoppis is taking her medical knowledge directly to her patients. Business is good but slow right now, she said, mostly because she hasn’t had time to spread the word or advertise. Hoppis said she would like to market to the business community, specifically to those who don’t have time to sit in a waiting room at the doctor’s office.
“I think there’s a huge need for people being stuck at work with no available sick time,” she said.
For Hoppis, being available to go see patients at their work or home also meant being available for any patient financially. Thus, she works by cash payments only, which she says is much easier — no insurance or co-payments to deal with. She charges $150 for the first visit and $100 for each visit thereafter.
As a nurse practitioner, Hoppis can diagnose patients and prescribe medicine the same as any family physician, though she said she is also open to recommending alternative forms of therapy.
She can also perform several tests, such as indicator tests for strep throat, and she carries with her all her necessary medical equipment thanks to a custom-built trailer. Hoppis said she just couldn’t find the right trailer here in the United States, so she began looking online. After finding a bike trailer company in Scotland called Carry Freedom that had the perfect fit — a three-foot-long tear drop trailer that looks much like an old Airstream fifth wheel — Hoppis talked to the owner and asked to have one shipped.
“He tried to talk me out of having him make me one because the shipping would be too expensive,” she said. “But he said ‘I’d be happy to send you the plans.’”
Besides sporting her new trailer, Hoppis said she is looking forward to connecting with her patients on a level that is just not possible within the sterile atmosphere of a clinic or hospital.
“The other thing that I’m looking forward to is how much you get to learn about a person just by being in their home,” she said. “You learn so much from walking into someone’s house.”
Mad Dash continues to deliver
In the age of motor vehicles and e-mails, finding a niche market for a bike-based company can be hard.
After 15 years of riding around Bellingham as a bike courier, Laura Henkel has seen niche markets come and go for Mad Dash Couriers. When she started the company, she said she had a hard time getting the word out and finding people who could take advantage of her service.
“Initially, I thought I’d be an on-call service like the couriers in the big cities,” she said. “It’s been one of the those things where a customer will ask for a service and then I think ‘gosh that’s a great idea, I’m going to market that service to other people.’”
Her “bread and butter” service, as she puts it, is picking up customer’s mail from the post office in the morning and dropping off their outgoing packages in the afternoon. Regular customers range from accountants to real estate agents, she said.
Besides the realities of business, Henkel said she has to deal with the realities of doing business on a bike. Some roads don’t have a shoulder and force her to ride with faster-moving traffic. Some drivers just don’t know how to deal with a cyclist on the road, which leads to many close calls.
“One of my employees has been hit twice,” she said. “The first time, fortunately, she just got banged up. But she did get hurt last year and was out for six months and had a knee surgery. It really made me think about having employees out there and the realities of this business. It’s actually amazing in the amount of time we’ve been in business that there haven’t been more incidents than there have been.”
Yet, despite the dangers of being on the road, Henkel said she enjoys her job. Working part time allows her to spend time with her kids and, since her job is already physically taxing, she said, she doesn’t need to schedule time to exercise after work.
Plus, when the sun is shining and the roads are clear, Bellingham is a great place to be riding a bike.