He says he provides “transportainment” for our community, and he certainly does that. It would be hard to imagine a transportation source better suited to fun-loving Happy Valley than the pedicabs operated by Todd Miner under the banner of “Vamos! Lion Chariot.”
Ever since April 2012, Miner and his dozen or so fellow drivers have been pedaling townies and gownies alike throughout the State College area for downtown visits, birthday rides, anniversary celebrations and campus tours. Last week, Todd and several of his buddies rode in the local Fourth of July parade, and this weekend they’ll be ferrying people around the Arts Festival.
“It’s transportainment,” says Miner. “A hybrid between transportation and entertainment. But the entertainment is the main focus, now more than ever.”
State College is well-served by public and commercial transportation services such as the CATA bus system, Handy Delivery taxi company and both major ride-sharing services, Uber and Lyft. But none of them can deliver the bells and whistles that adorn Miner’s chariots, not to mention his holiday decorations, diverse musical playlists and entertaining commentary. Says Miner, “It was a question of ‘How do you differentiate yourself from more utilitarian transportation?’ “
STUDYING THE WEATHER
Miner arrived in State College in the fall of 1990, having finished two years of college at SUNY Oswego and ready to pursue a bachelor’s degree in meteorology. He was gripped—nearly obsessed—by a desire to understand the dramatic winter weather that is experienced by his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. There was nowhere better to pursue such knowledge than Penn State, an elite university for weather studies that has produced one out of seven American meteorologists.
A self-described “weather weenie,” Miner earned topnotch grades and impressed his professors with his passion for meteorology. Thus, after earning his bachelor’s in 1992 and his master’s in 1995, he was hired by Penn State to serve with its Weather Communications Group. For the next 15 years he worked with that group teaching classes, preparing the New York Times’ daily weather page and occasionally appearing on television as a forecaster on Penn State’s daily show, Weather World.
When the Times’ contract moved down the street to AccuWeather, he followed it and worked for several years at the well-known State College-based weather company. But even though he still had plenty of passion for the weather, he was intrigued by pedicabs that he observed during a trip to San Diego.
Would that mode of transportation work in Happy Valley? Could a bicycle taxi service capture sufficient ridership to pay the bills? Right away, Todd decided that the eco-friendly nature of this transportation would be viewed positively. “It’s green transportation,” he says, “and people would like that in a university community. Also, it didn’t exist here, so it would be a novelty.”
Todd Miner relaxes between rides during State College’s “First Friday.” Photo by Bill Horlacher
After plenty of market research, help from the Penn State Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and discussions with a then-successful pedicab operator in East Lansing, Mich., Miner was off and running with his bicycle chariot service. He named it “Vamos! Lion Chariot,” to give a nod to the Nittany Lion and make a reference to a non-gas powered transportation. But what about the use of the word “vamos” (“Let’s go!” in Spanish)? That reaches back to Todd’s long-standing effort to learn the Spanish language in which he is now “semi-fluent.”
At first, little creativity was required to turn a profit. Just being visible on the streets of State College would produce a baseline of business—especially from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Yes, Todd served the “bar crowd,” taking folks from bar to bar or from bar to home. “That was enjoyable for the most part,” he says. “The hours weren’t the best, but people were generally jovial and wanting to have fun.”
But things changed with the arrival of Uber and Lyft. Although he’s not upset by such competition — Miner occasionally serves as a driver for those services — he’s needed to find new ways to maintain the viability of his own company. And his primary solution is to provide transportainment, especially in the form of campus tours.
“It’s not entertainment in terms of making people laugh,” explains Miner, “but engaging them and helping them learn. It’s fun to teach people about Penn State.”
A pedicab ride adds novelty to birthday celebrations. Photo provided by Vamos! Lion Chariot
TAILORED CAMPUS TOURS
Depending on the size of the group being served, Todd may be accompanied by one or several other chariot drivers. (One of his main assistants is Brian Dempsey, a 71-year-old retired Penn State professor.) Regardless, the drivers from Vamos! Lion Chariot are all about tailoring their tours to the interests of their customers.
“It’s such a special way to see the campus,” says Miner, “because it’s got versatility. You can get off and take a picture or do a little bit of walking if you want. As one person said, ‘When you’re on it as a passenger, you feel special.’ “ (Those who want to schedule a campus tour or other pedicab experience can contact Todd at [email protected] or 814-404-2782.)
Music is often a key aspect of a tailored chariot ride. When a woman from Harrisburg brought her father on a tour to celebrate his 90th birthday, she asked Todd to play “Anchors Aweigh,” since her dad had served in the Navy, along with another of his favorites, “Pennsylvania Polka.” Todd will never forget watching the man gesture in time with the Navy song. And he especially enjoyed the offbeat experience of playing the 1940s polka song on the contemporary Penn State campus. “When we were playing the Pennsylvania Polka,” says the man from Buffalo, “there was an element of goofiness to it. And I kinda like goofy.”
Some of the mid-tour stops produce memories for the participants and for the driver. One man, a young Penn State alum, told Miner that he intended to propose marriage to his girlfriend during their tour, and he wanted the pedicab to stop near the Hintz Alumni Center’s gazebo.
RE-MAKING A MEMORY
It seems that when the couple were dating during their college years, that gazebo was their special place to spend time together. Later, the man suffered a serious car accident that produced some amnesia. And one of the things he had forgotten — to the disappointment of his sweetheart — was that special place. Now he was determined to make a new memory at that location, one he would never forget. So he popped the question, she said yes, and then they shared their story with Miner who was deeply touched. “It was definitely special,” he says, “almost a tear-jerker.”
Another engagement unfolded in a very different fashion. A fraternity member and his girlfriend were riding in the back of the chariot when suddenly the man yelled, “She said yes!” Though delighted for the couple, Miner would have liked to get a heads-up from the guy. “I wished he had told me he was going to propose to her so I could have done something special for them — music and signs like ‘Just engaged’ and ‘She said yes.’”
Miner claims to be part introvert, and he notes that “some of my most edifying times are when I am alone in nature.” But anyone who has ever seen him cruising along on his chariot knows he’s in his element as he pumps the pedals, rocks to the music, chats with his passengers and waves to those along the sidewalks. Sure, there are days he doesn’t feel quite so exuberant when he climbs onto the bike, but he’s learned to offer a smile and a kind word and then feed off the high fives and fist bumps that come back to him. Before long he’s an enthusiasm machine, pumping out the joie de vivre throughout campus and community.
The Lion Chariot adds to the festivities at a Beaver Stadium football game. Photo provided by Vamos! Lion Chariot
FOOTBALL BRINGS FUN
Miner and his customers always seem to have fun, but nothing approaches the positive environment of a home Penn State football game.
“There’s just excitement in the air,” Miner says. “The anticipation. I really like stopping off at some of the tailgates and sensing the camaraderie. Sometimes I find myself in the tailgate zone and just not wanting to leave.”
But duty calls, especially since the owner of the company typically has a tight schedule for picking up customers who want a ride to Beaver Stadium. Some just enjoy riding to the venue while listening to Penn State songs, but others have limited mobility and need a Lion Chariot to get around on game day.
Miner cherishes the memory of a ride he provided to Mahala Thoele and her daughter, Jan Zuckerman, from their College Heights home to a family tailgate one November Saturday. He says, “The look on Grandma Mahala’s face when she came out the door and saw the chariot in the driveway was priceless. And then the mom and daughter wasted no time in honking horns and ringing bells while ‘We Are Family’ blared from the chariot’s speakers. Those on the street got swept up in the hoopla as they clapped to salute these ladies.
“When I dropped them off at the tailgate, everyone was clapping and taking pictures. Grandma Mahala looked like a little kid from the gleam in her eyes and she said, ‘Of the 40-plus years I’ve been coming to this stadium, this was the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had!’ Sharing in this family’s joy is something I’ll never forget.”
Surrounding Mahala Thoele at a tailgate are family friend Bill Oldsey and Mahala’s daughter, Jan Zuckerman. Photo provided by Vamos! Lion Chariot
BUSINESS OR PLEASURE?
All told, Miner estimates total ridership of about 4,000 passengers per year. And of course, that requires the efforts of a team. He insists on giving credit to his dozen or so drivers, and he says the company’s unsung hero is its chief mechanic, Lorn Ray. “Lorn, along with some of the staff at The Bicycle Shop, are the ones with the golden screwdrivers that keep these bikes humming along. Goodness knows I wasn’t blessed with that skill set.”
But with all the hours he logs at major community events, it’s no wonder that Miner has become one of Happy Valley’s most recognizable figures, even to those who don’t know his name. Perhaps only Terry Pegula, the alum who gave $102 million to build Penn State’s ice arena and Division 1 hockey program, has brought more happiness from Buffalo to State College.
Even though he’s paying his bills, Miner isn’t getting rich — at least monetarily. “Some days,” he notes, “I’m more mindful that this is a business, and I’ve got to make money. But then you have those moments when you think of the end of your life. What is it that you’re going to remember? It’s not, ‘If I do this, I’m going to make $100 extra.’ It’s going to be those conversations and special human connections that give you goosebumps, and you think, ‘This was pretty cool.’”
The chance to ply his trade in his adopted hometown adds more satisfaction to the life of this weatherman-turned-charioteer. “I like the college town atmosphere,” he says. “State College is like the Fountain of Youth in a way because you have these people who are so young with so much energy, and it kind of bleeds out into the community.”
So, Miner, tell us what the future holds. Even though you live near a Fountain of Youth and even though your pedicabs have an “electric assist” feature to help you climb the hills, your job can be tiring. You’ll be turning 50 years old next March. How much longer for this gig?
“I think I’ll continue to do it as long as I can make a profit and feel like I’m making a positive impact on the community. When that goes away — either one of those — it will be time to hang up the cleats.”
Todd Miner always operates a decorated chariot during the Christmas season, much to the delight of his sister, Kim. Photo provided by Todd Miner