by Paul Bowers
After 10 months enforcing a rule against locking bicycles to posts on Upper King Street sidewalks, the Charleston Police Department has confiscated 207 bicycles from the affected area, according to a police spokesman.
The rule, which took effect on Nov. 15, 2013, prohibits the locking of bicycles to anything other than bike racks on King Street between Spring and Calhoun streets. City Council passed the ordinance as a one-year pilot program to help keep sidewalks clear in the popular bar and restaurant district. Since November of last year, police have been cutting the locks on bikes that are parked by trees and streetlamps and hauling the bicycles to Charleston Police Department headquarters on Lockwood Drive, where owners must pay a $45 fine to pick up their bikes — plus the cost of buying a new lock.
Police spokesman Charles Francis says 148 of the impounded bicycles from Upper King have been retrieved from impound by their owners, 51 have been moved to a city warehouse, and eight remain in the "bike cage" at CPD headquarters. At $45 per returned bike, that means the police department has collected $6,660 in fines from bicyclists who broke the King Street ordinance.
Last Tuesday night, City Council gave a first reading to an ordinance that would expand the King Street bike parking restrictions all the way south to the intersection of King and Market streets. Leading up to that meeting, the bicycle advocacy group Charleston Moves wrote an open letter to Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., Police Chief Gregory Mullen, and City Council saying that the policy has become a disincentive for bicycling.
"Many tourists and residents, unaware of the regulation and with very poor signage, have had bikes confiscated without proper warning," writes Kurt Cavanaugh, newly minted executive director of Charleston Moves. "And the entire experience has left them — and much of the public — with the unmistakable impression that the policy is harsh, unwelcoming, and discourages bicycle use, which negates the city's larger objectives."
In the letter, Cavanaugh makes several suggestions for tweaking the ordinance before expanding its geographic boundaries, including:
• Placing a bike corral on every block affected by the regulation.
• Placing no-bike-parking signs at eye level rather than high on utility poles, where Cavanaugh says some bicyclists miss the message entirely.
• Rather than immediately confiscating illegally parked bicycles, parking enforcement officers could place warning tags on bikes. "The warning would be clearly marked with the time issued and specify that the bike will be removed by police after a specified interval," Cavanaugh writes.
Early in the enforcement period last winter, there were no signs on King Street to indicate that locking bikes to street lamps was prohibited. Police said they had gotten the word out through social media and press releases, but some bikers obviously didn't get the message, as evidenced by the 55 bicycles that were confiscated in the first 21 days of enforcement. Charleston Moves pushed for signs in the affected area and eventually got them.
City Councilman Mike Seekings, a bicyclist and frequent supporter of bike-friendly ordinances, says he has been in contact with Charleston Moves as he prepares to revisit the pilot enforcement program in October. "I think they sell themselves a little bit short wanting one corral per block," Seekings says, adding that he would prefer to see one corral per side of the street per block in the affected area.
Seekings questions the other suggestions from Cavanaugh's letter. "We're getting into some serious micromanaging but also some practicalities," he says. "What happens when you put signs at eye level? People run into them and lose their eyes, and I get calls saying, 'That sign is too low; I hit it with my head.'"
And as for the idea of putting warning tickets on illegally parked bikes, Seekings says it would be logistically difficult without a citywide mandatory bike registration program, which the city did away with years ago. "At some point you have to have a mechanism of enforcement that works for everybody, and the truth of the matter is, on the Upper King Street side of things, once the first couple of weeks were over, there were far fewer bicycles getting confiscated," Seekings says.
Last December, Seekings said in a City Paper interview that people could call him if they were upset about the new rules. He says he received a few calls early on, but he hasn't received a single call on the topic in the past six months.
"People are complying," Seekings says.
The proposed expansion of the bike ordinance will be up for approval at City Council's next meeting on Oct. 14 at City Hall (80 Broad St.).