Get us in your inbox

A rickshaw
Image: Jess Hand / Steve Beech

How rickshaws claimed London’s roads as their own

Ripping off tourists, blasting EDM, blocking pavements: rickshaws have a reputation for mischief. But are they just misunderstood?

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

It’s 6.13pm on a muggy summer Thursday. I’m sitting in the back of an LED-spangled rickshaw, blaring ‘TiK ToK’ by Kesha from a Bluetooth speaker as we trundle along the A3211.

If you’ve ever been out in central London, you’ll have noticed the strange, fur-covered cargo bikes roaming the streets. Faster than walking, slower than cycling, they can usually carry two to three passengers and offer a flimsy hooded shelter – but no seatbelts. 

Outside Covent Garden tube station, there’s a cluster of four: one is wrapped in luminous pink and purple stripes, another is plastered with dodgy Camden punk stickers. One is hairy with strings of silver tinsel, while the last is loaded with flickering fairy lights. It looks like a cross between ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’.

Rickshaws covent garden
Photograph: Jess Hand

Cabbies hate them, tipsy tourists love them then hate them and the general public just puts up with them. Always lurking, they’ll wait outside city festivals and lure you in with the headliner’s greatest hits, or conveniently materialise when your third Uber of the night cancels. 

Rickshaws are the after-hours keepers of London’s darkest, drunkest secrets. Recently, there has been a flurry of headlines about rickshaw drivers charging massively inflated fares and causing chaos with their trashy tunes. Now, finally, it’s been confirmed that there will be an official crackdown on the unregulated industry. But are rickshaws really the problem?

The beginning

Rickshaws first appeared in the seventeenth century, when they were invented separately in Japan and France. It’s difficult to establish exactly when they were introduced to the capital: an article in the New Indian Express reckons it was 1995, while The Economist dates them even later. ‘Over short distances, they are quicker and cheaper than black cabs,’ writes an article from 2004. ‘Business has boomed since they started in London in 1999: there are now more than 250.’

Tom Kiley was a London rickshaw driver on and off from 1999 to 2004. ‘The best part of the job – apart from the money – was getting a full sober insight into the underbelly of Soho and being a part of its fabric,’ he says. Back then, rickshaws blended into the background. ‘In my time, you might as well have been a lamppost,’ Kiley says. 

He’s seen it all. There were gangsters, dealers and plain-clothed police – all of who’d want to know what was up. ‘Celebrities would always go to 50 St James: I was once tipped £50 from an NBA star for riding 100 metres,’ Kiley says. ‘There was one girl who was a rope artist in the circus. She was a rickshaw driver by night and a cat burglar by day – she’d climb the drainpipes in central London in two minutes, dip inside, steal jewellery and walk away down the street.’

There was one girl who was a rope artist in the circus – she was a rickshaw driver by night and a cat burglar by day

In 2014, it was estimated by the London Pedicabs Operators Association that around 700 rickshaws pedalled the capital’s streets. By 2018, it was estimated that the number had doubled. But as Uber came on the scene and the Night Tube was introduced, pedicabs had to find a way to differentiate themselves from all of the other central London transport offerings. How would they do that? Music! Fur! Tinsel! Lights! By 2020, a rickshaw ride had transformed into a full-on novelty experience. 

‘Something I’ve noticed is how much care and decoration drivers put into their bikes now,’ says Matt Blake, who was a rickshaw driver in 2002. ‘We were allowed to decorate, but it was nothing like the culture that there is now – especially at Christmas.’

These days, it’s difficult to know exactly how many rickshaws are in operation, as their activity remains unregulated by Transport for London. But, in May this year, the government announced in the Queen’s Speech that it would legislate a licensing scheme to keep things in check.  


The news cycle is never short of rickshaw horror stories. Only last week, a man was charged £500 for a ten-minute ride from Mayfair to Soho. ‘I’d had a few drinks, I should have realised but I blindly put my card in the machine,’ the customer told the BBC. In February, a London pedicab driver charged £180 for a three-minute trip. And in November 2021, a couple were charged £380 for a journey from Leicester Square to Stratton Street – less than a mile. 

It’s not just overcharging that’s an issue. Adam Hug, leader of Westminster City Council, said that unlicensed pedicabs have also caused accessibility issues by blocking pavements and entrances to buildings.

The council has been working with the Metropolitan Police to crack down on drivers, but inevitably, it’s not that easy – partly because there’s not that much to enforce. Rickshaws can legally operate in London as Stage Carriages under Section 4 of the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869. Outside London, they’re classified as ‘Hackney Carriages’, the same as taxis, and can be licensed by local authorities – although they’re only otherwise really widely seen in Edinburgh and Oxford.

Photograph: Jess Hand

For now, the Control of Pollution Act 1974 is used to penalise rickshaws in London, tackling amplified music. In the most recent round of prosecutions, courts issued more than £5,000 in fines to six operators, and in June and July, riders were fined more than £10,000. Some riders had previously been reported for the same offence, while others faced extra charges for using false names and addresses.

But it’s a bit of a catch-22. Now that rickshaws have branded themselves as the ‘fairground’ transport option, that’s what punters have come to expect. ‘Once I had customers who wanted to go to Soho at 10pm, but they said they wouldn’t pay me if I didn’t play loud music,’ says Florin Barbu, who’s been a central-London rickshaw driver since 2014. After all, what’s the appeal of rickshaws if they’re not ridiculously look-at-me obnoxious?

Joy riding  

Let’s go back to that Thursday evening.

Myself and Time Out UK Editor Huw Oliver set off on a rickshaw journey from Covent Garden to London Bridge, determined to make up our own minds about these hot-button vehicles. A ride wasn’t hard to find, and soon we were scuttling down the road in the summer evening sun.

‘We’ll take a lovely scenic route, avoiding main roads, by the riverside,’ our driver assured us. We agreed on a price of £40: steep compared to the £2.50 it would have cost for the same journey on the tube, or the £16 quoted for an Uber ride, door to door. Almost as soon as we’d clambered in, we pulled into a cashpoint to take out some real, physical money (remember that?). Our guy didn’t take cards, for obvious reasons.

Two minutes later we were firing down the ‘scenic route’ of the dual-carriageway A3211, wind rippling through our hair as we bumped and swerved around the road. We felt invincible, scoffing at the poor pedestrians getting their silly little step counts up.

‘I have no boss, just my bike,’ our driver said, when we asked about his work. ‘There’s a lot of freedom – sometimes I just go home and nap. And if it’s raining, I don’t work.’ Our guy claimed to make £1,100 to £1,300 in profit a week, after the £130 weekly cost of his bike rental. He normally does seven to eight rides a day, working late afternoon into the evening. 

He dropped us off only 15 minutes later: a little windswept, a little startled, but all in one piece. Was it value for money? No. Was it great fun? Absolutely.

Taking control

But very soon, that fun could grind to a halt. Nickie Aiken, Tory MP for Cities of London and Westminster, has been campaigning for better regulation of pedicabs for two decades. According to her, a ‘minority’ of pedicab riders have caused nuisance on the roads. 

‘Those living in pedicab hotspots have suffered sleepless nights, with no choice but to listen to music hour after hour, day after day, night after night,’ Aiken said to Time Out. ‘There’s also no mandatory safety checks, so we have no idea who the riders are and how safe their vehicles are.’

Aiken has secured a licensing scheme in the forthcoming Transport Bill, which will be brought to Parliament ‘later this year’ – and after a few more steps, become law. Transport for London will enforce the scheme and fares will be controlled (meaning no surprise £300 charges for a five-minute journey). There will be a database of licensed riders and a cap on numbers, as well as clear guidelines on conduct and safety standards.

A rickshaw
Photograph: Jess Hand

The London Pedicab Operators Association has been campaigning for regulation in standards, training and licensing for more than a decade and, when it comes down to it, the majority of rickshaw drivers are actually welcoming the regulation. 

‘A small proportion of rickshaw drivers overcharge, and because of them, we all suffer,’ says Barbu. ‘I would be very happy to have a licence because if someone does something wrong, they’ll lose their job. I don’t think anyone is going to want that. And we won’t make less money [in the long run], because it should mean there will be fewer drivers.’

Barbu says that many rickshaw drivers come over from overseas for three or so months during the summer to make a bit of money before heading home. ‘They’re not ready to invest the money to get the licence, or buy their own bikes, which can cost about £5,000,’ he says.

Pedalling forwards

It’s clear that rickshaw regulation should have come into place a long time ago and any new rules are unlikely to come into effect until at least next year. So will the future of rickshaws mean less lurid chaos and mid-noughties bangers? There’s a high chance. 

Rickshaws are already used as greener options for deliveries and street cleaners. Under TfL, there’s a possibility that they’ll be urged to forgo their novelty dress-up and instead big up their eco credentials, taking their place alongside electric scooters, Boris Bikes and the sustainable Lizzy line. 

Still, it would be a shame if our three-wheeled friends disappeared completely. ‘Rickshaws are part of the furniture of Soho,’ argues Kiley. ‘They make up the charm of the West End.’ And spotting the elated grins of tourists on a rainbow-lit rickshaw during your commute home? You’re not going to get much more charming than that.

Discover the shocking secrets of Oxford Street’s sweet shops and souvenir stores.

And after that, explore the chewy, twisted history of the Brick Lane bagel shops.

    You may also like
    You may also like
    Bestselling Time Out offers