RALEIGH — There’s a miniature economy at the edge of the N.C. State Fair. Each day, tens of thousands of cars pull onto the streets around the bright lights, where their drivers are confronted by hordes of pedestrians, parking attendants with airport-style beacons, homeowners with spots to rent, and one college-age guy busking with a baritone ukulele.
In recent years, a few folks on tricycles have found another way to make a profit among this madness. And with some visitors parking blocks upon blocks away, the pedal-powered rickshaw has proved its worth.
“You’ve got to consider: The fair is 11 days, and attendance on some of those days is above 100,000. Everybody has to leave and arrive,” said Dylan Selinger, a manager for Crank Arm Rickshaw, who is working the fair for a third year. Raleigh Rickshaw Co., a competitor, has worked the fair for four years.
The companies now dispatch about 20 three-wheel cycles to shuttle people to and from the fair. Both companies are registered vendors and work for tips only. Their riders stay in touch by phone or walkie-talkie, scoping out the scene and calling for backup when needed.
Riders tend to congregate at the fair’s exits, eyeing the exodus for likely clients.
“Who needs a ride to the car? The last ride’s the best one,” said Blair Aitken, 24, riding one afternoon this week.
The key, according to Rashon Dickason, is humor and a sharp eye. “If they look, they have to be thinking about it,” said Dickason, 23.
Bruce Berry and his daughter Millar, 5, didn’t need any advertising. Father, daughter and giant Scooby-Doo doll made straight for a trio of primary-color rickshaws as they left through Gate 8.
“She said her legs were tired, so it was this or a piggy-back ride,” said Berry, who lives in Rocky Mount.
Typical customers include older folks running low on stamina, families with kids in tow, and young couples looking for a chance to cuddle.
“We – are so – lazy!” exclaimed two teenage girls as their ride pedaled slowly toward Trinity Road.
The bikes, complete with carriage-style seats, weigh close to 200 pounds empty, and with their low gearing, they can take a few seconds to accelerate past walking speed.
Once they’re moving, though, they zip past the weary. The cyclists will travel as far as necessary; some rode the rickshaws about six miles from their usual downtown turf at the start of the fair. On the busiest days, cyclists reported, they may take passengers to cars as far as two miles away.
The service was a welcome sight for Tracy Cypher, a former Cary resident visiting with a friend’s daughter. “I just had knee-replacement surgery, otherwise I would have walked,” Cypher said. “It was fun, friendly. It was great.”
The cycles tend to run from midmorning until midnight or longer, and individual riders can work long shifts. How many miles do they pedal?
“There’s no telling,” said Ryan Yancey, 24, of Raleigh Rickshaw. But he has definitely noticed, he said, a significant upsizing of his leg muscles since he started driving rickshaws.
Typically the rickshaw drivers leave tipping up to their passengers, though they do remind folks that the voluntary payments are their only source of income. For some it’s a full-time job, while others are students or work other gigs.
“It’s a full-time part-time job,” said Selinger, who also works at Crank Arm’s brewery. His rickshaw riders include a physician assistant and a civil engineer. Donald Mertrud, owner of Raleigh Rickshaw, reports a quarter of his riders are students, but also include attorneys and architects who like the exercise and socialization.
The companies also bring in revenue through sponsor advertising. For the longest rides, some cyclists will suggest a tip before they take off.
Some people, however, are just immune to the temptations, no matter how well they’re advertised. Candy Labau, 69, eyed the trio of cyclists and turned to her husband. “Do you want to?” she asked him.
No, no, Clay Labau, 69, shook his head. They’d already paid $20 for Polish sausage and drinks, $8 for ice cream, $12 for cookies and milk and 50 cents for a pickle.
“If you pay for everything they offer, you’d go broke,” Candy Labau said as they walked toward their car, through the endless rows of free parking at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“I’ve got to walk anyway – that’s what I’ve got two legs for,” her husband said as they finished their five-hour fair day and headed home to Rocky Mount.
Whether walking or riding, those last few minutes of the fair – kids nodding off, prizes stowed – are an inevitable part of the experience. As Sally Harris and her grandson toted a frozen turkey and a goldfish down Trinity Road, she told him about her first few years at the fair in the 1960s, when she and the other Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital nurses would bring female patients to the big event.
In 2013, after a few busy hours, the exit was a chance for some quiet family reminiscing.
Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC