Nicholas Herron at Charleston Bike Taxi has 20 bikes in his shop, but only five on the street. On a busy day, Herron has to turn away potential riders — and their money. "Ever other ride that calls in, I have to tell them I can't do it," he says. Fortunately for Herron, relief just might be on the way.
Since last year, the City of Charleston has been working on a larger pedicab ordinance that would allow rickshaw companies to put more bikes on the road.
The new ordinance keeps the existing 15-pedicab cap during the day, but would allow an additional 15 pedicabs at night. A pilot program of eight extra nighttime bike taxis has not only been successful, it's received little neighborhood criticism. The ordinance would also create a pilot program that would allow 10 extra pedicabs to be used for special events; however, each special event permit would have to be approved on a case-by-case basis by the City Council's Special Events Committee.
Perhaps more importantly for Holy City pedicabbers, the new ordinance will make sure that rickshaw companies have a consistent number of pedicabs on the street month to month, year after year, for up to five years.
Until recently, the city's three pedicab companies, Charleston Rickshaw, Charleston Pedicab, and Charleston Bike Taxi, had an agreement to split the 15 available pedicab tokens (For each token, a pedicab company can put a rickshaw on the street). But last year's entrance of a fourth company, Swamp Fox Pedicab, into the downtown market led the city to begin strictly enforcing a quarterly lottery system. The result? A company could only use the tokens it was awarded in the lottery. Sharing was a no-no.
The unpredictable nature of the lottery system led to potential boom-or-bust periods for the pedicab companies on a quarterly basis. "Two months ago, I had 12 tokens and had to go on a hiring spree," Herron says. "Now, I'm back to seven (five regular tokens and two night-only tokens). I've had to fire half my riders."
Under the lottery system, Herron says, "You never knew if you were going to be in business."
The proposed ordinance would replace the lottery system with a bidding process. Companies would bid on each individual rickshaw permit. The highest bidder would get the first permit, the second highest would get the second, and so on. No business can have more than half of the permits. The process is similar to the city's program for designated street vendor spaces.
This is a step in the right direction, Herron says. "Stability is more important than anything."
"Oh, Mr. Chairman."
Last week's meeting of the City Council's Traffic and Transportation Committee was scheduled for a conference room at Stiles Point Elementary School, but a small group of neighborhood leaders and pedicab owners forced the committee to move out of the tiny room and into the school's library.
City Councilman Mike Seekings started the conversation by suggesting there had been enough vetting of the pedicab rules. "I hope that this is the last time we'll talk about this in this form," he said, picking up a copy of the proposed ordinance.
The five-member committee has delicately walked the tight rope of addressing the concerns of neighborhood residents and the needs of businesses. For two decades, the city has held pedicabs to the 15-bike limit, even as tourism and the number of peninsula residents continues to grow.
Seekings, the only member of the committee who lives downtown, had hoped to offer five additional general permits for daytime use. "Five extra bikes on any given afternoon is unnoticeable to us, but noticeable to the businesses who use them," he says.
If pedicabs were equally dispersed across the peninsula, Seekings might be right. But the lion's share of the business is in the tourist districts South of Broad and in the French Quarter. It's an area were residents are already overwhelmed by horse carriages. Charlestowne Neighborhood Association Vice President Mary Cutler told the committee that she saw six carriages within two blocks. "If you add more pedicabs, it's going to make a huge difference during the day," she says.
While his community doesn't see as much pedicab traffic, Radcliffeborough Neighborhood Association President Harry Fendrich said more bikes would mean less cars. If a couple is looking for a ride, they'll either be in a small, easily passable pedicab or a large taxi. "Let the market decide whether they want more bikes," he says.
With most neighborhoods wanting to keep the number of rickshaws during the day as is, the committee settled on keeping the 15 maximum daytime pedicabs, but Seekings pressed for the special events provision. He argued that these wouldn't be extra bikes looking for passengers on Charleston's cobblestone streets. These additional rickshaws would be used for a very specific purpose, for example, to take a wedding party from White Point Gardens to a reception at Charleston Place. Or a group in town for a conference trying to get from their bed and breakfast to the Gaillard Auditorium.
The city's Traffic and Transportation Director Hernan Pena first argued against the special event permit by saying the matter wasn't supported by the neighborhoods. But he went on to argue the permit process would be more work for staff and the Special Events Committee. Exasperated, Pena then proclaimed that Mayor Joe Riley doesn't want the special permits and that all parties involved will have complaints about the permitting process. "We'll be back here. We'll be back in this room," he said. "They'll be saying we're being too strict or too lenient."
As members of the next committee hearing gathered together in the far corner of the library directly in Committee Chairman Blake Hallman's line of sight, Hallman looked at his watch and told the transportation committee, pedicab owners, and neighborhood leaders that they were running out of time and that the committee would have to regretfully defer a decision once again.
Seekings raised his hand in objection and said, "Oh, Mr. Chairman." He offered a motion to accept the staff's proposed ordinance, along with the special event allowance. The measure was approved. The first vote on the ordinance Tuesday received a 7-5 vote from the full council.
The new pedicab rules will still require a second vote next month, and it will likely be this summer before the bidding process is ironed out. That means rickshaw owners will have to suffer through the lottery for a little while longer.
But with pedicabs collecting dust in his garage, Herron is looking forward to cleaning house once he knows exactly how many bikes he needs. "I'm going to bid for 10 permits and sell 10 bikes," he says.