On Wed., April 25, motorcyclists parked in any of the 11 city parking garages operated by Republic Parking System returned to their vehicles to find a memorandum informing them that they would no longer be permitted to park there, effective Monday, April 30. "The new policy is in response to the increased liability that the City faces with motorcycles not always being detected on the loops and the potential of the gate coming down and injuring the rider," states the notice, which forbids motorcycles from entering the facility, a violation now punishable with a fine.
The new ordinance severely limits downtown parking for motorcyclists, most notably in the College of Charleston area. Metered and flat fee lots exist at the corner of Market and Beaufain streets, as well as around East Bay and the Market area, but due to rain and sun exposure many motorcyclists prefer to park under cover when possible. Their only downtown options are now the private Palmetto Parking garage on Cumberland Street and one of the two MUSC garages.
Alex Endert, a rising senior at CofC, was personally handed the notice by an attendant at the Wentworth Street garage where he's parked daily for three years. "Since then I've been taking my car," he says. "They gave out a flyer that described other places to park, but they're all on the far edges of the peninsula — at least an eight- or nine-block walk, which really defeats the purpose and convenience of a motorcycle."
Motorcyclists are allowed to park in regular metered spaces, but the two-hour time limit on city streets makes that infeasible for students or employees with a day-long commitment.
"Fast Fred" Ruddock is the S.C. coordinator of the motorcycle rights organization ABATE and the creator of local riders' advocacy site www.fastfreds.com, regularly updated with current legislation potentially affecting bikers. After the memorandum appeared, he published a commentary titled, "City of Charleston's Motorcyle Apartheid" that accuses city leaders of "spitting in the face of reason."
Citing motorcyclists' contribution to alleviating traffic and parking congestion and their low fuel consumption, he compares the discrimination against the riding minority to the Jim Crow laws of the segregation era.
"The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public facilities," says Ruddock. "All new traffic sensors installed by SCDOT now detect motorcycles, so the weak excuse given in the notice holds no water. It makes about as much sense as 40 years ago saying, 'We don't want little black boys going to school with our little white girls.' They say it's for our safety, but I'm just not buying it."
Both Republic Parking and city officials claim they have no choice but to ban motorcycles due to the risk of gates coming down on riders, and employees at several facilities claim to have witnessed riders being hit.
Dwight Potter, general manager for Republic Parking in Charleston, says that his company has approached parking equipment vendors about a sensor that will consistently recognize motorcycles. "There is no safety loop available at this time that would guarantee the safety of the person on the motorcycle," says Potter. "Hopefully somebody will come up with something."
City representatives echo that sentiment of having no choice. "We'd be remiss to allow motorcyclists to use the garage knowing that the gating apparatus can cause injury," says Jane Borden of the city's legal department. "If we could've found another way to get motorcycles in and out without using the gate, that's what we would've opted for." Instead, Borden encourages riders to view a map they created of alternative parking spaces, available on the city's website and at all Republic garages.
"The parking garages' fears seem somewhat unfounded," says Richard Lester, an attorney with California-based Aid for Injured Motorcyclists (AIM). He says that whiplash is the worst injury that's been reported to AIM from a falling gate. "Not allowing them in there seems a lot worse than any injury that could possibly come from it."
Many motorcyclists are suspicious that the new regulations are motivated by more than concern for safety. "It's purely economic," says Ruddock. "They've always had a problem with making sure motorcyclists pay." (Riders can often get around the gate or use the sidewalk.) "I think it's just political stuff that they've done just to find some excuse other than being straight out against motorcycles," says CofC student Endert.
Ruddock cites the SCDOT's successful installation of "figure eight" loops at intersections, sensors that consistently recognize motorcycles, and believes that the city ought to find a better way to accommodate bikers at covered lots. He's contacted Beaufort-based attorney John Daugs, a lawyer for the National Coalition of Motorcyclists. "Motorcyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as an auto car or pickup truck under S.C. law," says Daugs, who is currently formulating a letter to the city in hopes that they'll resolve the issue out of court.
If letters and discussion aren't enough, Ruddock hasn't ruled out a lawsuit or civil disobedience. He's received multiple tickets during protest rides in N.C. without a helmet, and helped organize a rally where motorcycles occupied all the metered spots on a Sunday on Market Street, successfully challenging the policy of one bike to a space. He says a similar mass parking inside a city garage may send the signal that riders demand equal rights.
"I don't even own a car, so I don't have a choice whether I ride or not," says Ruddock. "I prefer to get 50 miles per gallon and make a little less impact on the environment." Charleston's public garages were built to accommodate motorcycles, and Ruddock says he'll gladly collect a few parking tickets to challenge the rule forcing them out.