Tonja Nelson first had a glimpse of the pedicab business as a 17-year-old living in the north end of Hartford. He remembers seeing Hartford Guardian officers riding around downtown.
It was nearly three decades later that Nelson founded CBD Pedicab, LLC, Hartford’s first and only pedal cab company.
“I know downtown very well. My parents used to make us change our clothes to come here. It was a meeting center heyday with storefronts galore. I’m hoping to restore that charm,” he said.
Nelson, who has a bachelor’s degree in urban planning, began doing research and surveys of community needs while managing real estate investments. He wanted a business that would bring something new to downtown. Eventually, he realized pedicabs were needed in Hartford. He purchased two, leased storage space on Capitol Avenue and made a business plan. The cabs and insurance, he said, were his two biggest expenses, but he still didn’t need a loan.
On a typical day, Nelson and his part-time employee ride a downtown route that takes them from Buckingham Street to Pleasant and from east or west of the riverfront to the Hartford train station. They often travel around passing out pedicab flyers. Their prices start at $1 a block and the business operates Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 10 p.m. and during special events. Last year, the business operated all day during the summer. Nelson said not enough people were riding, so he cut back on hours this season.
So far, he says the downtown community has been bike-friendly.
“People have been pretty cool with us, giving us thumbs up, wishing us well,” he said proudly. “We’re getting to the point now where people are calling us for rides and introducing us to their friends, telling them, ‘you guys have got to ride this thing’. My goal with this is to make this as viable a means of transportation as any other transportation downtown.”
By his second year, Nelson said he developed the right stamina, endurance and street knowledge needed to traverse the downtown roads in a pedicab. He now knows which inclines and declines to avoid, and which to ride.
Still, the business can be daunting. Weather can kill a day’s work. Nelson’s earnings can also fluctuate dramatically, from $200 in five hours to $10 for 10 hours on other days, he said. That’s one reason why he’s happy he still manages real estate investments in the Hartford area and is working on other business ideas.
He remains optimistic that CBD Pedicab will grow. Most recently, he purchased 26-inch commuter bikes for people to rent downtown for $17.99 a day or $4 hourly, adding another component of “human power” to his no-carbon footprint plan.
“There’s lots of ways to measure success. If I looked at the bottom line, it wouldn’t be success,” he said.
Instead, Nelson focuses on the steady build up of customers who call him for rides, his first big advertisement with the Hartford Marathon and the fact that his business is still standing in the city he’s known for 46 years.
“Always stay positive. You live and you learn. I learned from last year that we just do better when there’s something going on downtown,” he said.