TALLINN - They look like futuristic cars straight out of a Spielberg film. Or like big, white fleas on wheels.
In any case, chances are that when you see one for the first time, you'll stop and stare like an idiot. But don't worry - everyone else will be doing the same.
This odd-looking machine is called a "velotakso" - or bike-taxi - and if you've never seen one before it's because they're brand new to this little corner of Europe.
On May 4, seven of these slick, German-built vehicles began cruising the streets of central Tallinn and Old Town, selling rides, giving directions, and kicking off their first season of operation in Estonia. Velotakso OU, the small, local firm that started the business, hopes that this novel, green-friendly form of transport will catch on, and locals as well as tourists will shell out 35 kroons (2.25 euros) apiece for a stress-free ride.
The early signs are positive - after only a few days of operation, the velotakso has already been causing quite a stir. In a town known for impromptu sword fights and galloping knights on horseback, you'd think that nothing would faze the locals. But for some reason this 21st-century European version of the old Hong Kong rickshaw is seen as something exotic, and the response to the velotakso so far has been somewhere between gentle curiosity and slack-jawed shock.
"This was like a freak show," said 22-year-old driver Matthias Telliskivi as he coasted down the grade on Niguliste Street. "Today I was driving in traffic and people were winding down their windows and taking pictures!"
But stories like this are music to the ears of Erko Valk, a bike enthusiast who started the company with two friends. Following up on an idea he got on a trip to pedicab-filled London, Valk and his partners paid the Berlin-based manufacturer a whopping 8,000 euros for each of the seven ergonomically-designed taxis.
Far more complex than their more traditional counterparts, each of these vehicles comes with sturdy, recyclable polyethylene chassis, three gears on the front wheel, seven on the back wheel, headlights, tail-lights, blinkers and an electric motor for extra power on steep hills.
With such a high purchase cost, it seems very unlikely that the vehicles will be able to pay for themselves on ticket sales alone. Luckily they don't have to. In fact, the drivers keep all the money they earn from passengers.
The real money, as you might have guessed, is in the advertising, and it's here that the company expects to make its profit. With other available ad space in the consumer-packed Old Town practically nil, these moving billboards are a hot commodity.
Painting up one taxi for a season (May - October) costs an advertiser 100,000 kroons. This price may seem steep, but after only a few weeks of being up for sale, Saku Brewery and Nivea have already signed up. Others have expressed strong interest.
An even stronger interest has been shown by the would-be drivers, who managed to track down Valk's company after the first articles on the project appeared last autumn. Without posting a single ad, Valk has already collected a pool of around 20 drivers, including a German and a Swede.
"I guess it's the best job in the world because you're in the fresh air, you earn lots of money, and because you can decide how much you earn. It's healthy and you can do it as often as you want," he said.
"This is our office," said 20-year-old Gleb Vulf, pointing around to the sunny Town Hall Square where he has parked. With a "psycho" badge on his jeans and smiley faces drawn on his red high-tops, he seems exactly the kind of outgoing rebel that the job demands.
"It's like a dream job," he said, explaining that the riding itself gives him the most satisfaction. "And I get money also, good money," he added.
The amount the drivers earn depends roughly on the length of the ride. A ticket from Town Hall Square to most places in the center, such as the passenger port or the train station, costs one 35-kroon ticket per adult passenger. Accompanied children under 12 usually ride for free. Traveling point to point on opposite sides of the center would cost two tickets per adult, or 70 kroons each, and the fare to outlying areas like Pirita beach would be by agreement with the driver.
The hope is that this transparent, fixed-price system will eliminate any suspicion that the velotakso is simply another tourist rip-off, an important consideration in a town where taxi drivers have something of a notorious repuation for ripping foreigners off. Valk also plans to start a system of guided Old Town excursions for 150 kroons per 30 minutes.
With these prices, drivers can easily make hundreds of kroons per day. But for a lot of them, money doesn't seem to be the main motivation.
"I like pain," joked Telliskivi, panting as he hauled two tipsy Norwegian tourists and one skinny journalist up the hill to Rataskaevu Street.
He said that though his "real job" is at the City Gourmet cafe, he drives the velotakso every time he gets a day off, hoping to get into top physical shape. He also admitted that he craves the attention that driving the odd vehicle brings.
"This is the hottest thing this year," he said. "I could get less attention if I was driving a Mercedes convertible."
The hardest thing drivers have had to contend with so far is sharing the road with faster-moving vehicle traffic. By all accounts, other drivers have been surprisingly accommodating.
"We have one rule - you have to wave to people all the time. Especially [to] car drivers. If you say hello and talk to these guys, I think it gives no room for aggression," said Valk, who is keen to stress the need for good relations with the local community.
He also hopes that the velotakso will be something that locals use as well as tourists. That may sound ambitious, but Valk has made the first step of setting up a mobile phone line (508 8810 if you're in urgent need of a lift), for ordering a velotakso pick-up in the center of town.
"If local people use it and recommend it, then I can't think of any way of it not succeeding," he said.