Over the past eight years, rickshaws have become a light-hearted distraction from the skimpy outfits, squad cars and drunken shouting matches that dominate most summer nights in downtown Missoula. It's hard to recall a time when they didn't roll by every few hours, pop music blaring and rowdy passengers squealing with glee.
The rickshaws will roll again. How often is a question even Garden City Gondola founder Jonas Ehudin can't quite answer. All he can say is "they'll be more rare."
"Last summer, demand was down," Ehudin says. "So was the average tip that people gave us. We figured it was just the recession finally hitting Montana and the rickshaw company being kind of a luxury."
In the past drivers collected $100 a night on average; in 2011, they were lucky to get close to thatlikely a "function of asking people to pay whatever they want," Ehudin says. So Garden City Gondola is scaling back. Last season the company had 20 drivers from spring to fall, says Gondola partner Steven Schorzman. This year it'll be more like five.
"We're not going to have bikes out all the weekend nights," Schorzman says. "Really, the frequency and scheduling and timing is going to be much more ad hoc."
The change is partly due to restructuring at Garden City Gondola. Two of the company's five partners left. The rest agreed that the present business modelrenting the rickshaws to drivers and requesting a percentage of tips in returnisn't working. Rickshaws have always been a novelty, says business partner Sophia Kircos. Maybe three drivers on the streets some nights is over-saturation.
One of Garden City Gondola's biggest concerns is return on investment. The company is a side project for everyone involved. Schorzman says the group was constantly repairing rickshaws last year, nearly doubling the amount of time and energy each partner put in. The financial returns remained roughly the same.
No one at Garden City Gondola is really complaining. They don't drive rickshaws to get rich. For Ehudin, the business is a community builder, connecting drivers and passengers with folks on the street simply dancing to the rickshaw's music. That'll be an infrequent connection this summer.
"It's kind of going back to the way the company started," Ehudin says. "It was just a serendipitous thing. If you found a rickshaw, you'd better jump on it, 'cause you don't know when you'll see another one."