In July, Charleston Bike Taxi's Nicholas Herron had to hire 30 people. In October, he will likely have to let many of them go.
"I've got obligations to people," says Herron of Charleston Bike Taxi. "It's crazy. I have lease obligations. I have a wife. I have a daughter on the way. So we're trying to make it a little more stable."
Such is the unpredictable world of bike taxis in Charleston now that the city's pedicabs are using a lottery system they had more or less abandoned years ago. The reason: A new company, Swamp Fox Pedicab, has rolled into town.
The Holy City's long-standing bike taxi operations, Charleston Rickshaw, Charleston Pedicab, and Charleston Bike Taxi, previously had an agreement where the three companies split the number of city-allotted "tokens." Each token allows a company to put one bike on the road. According to the ordinance, 15 tokens are available to bike taxis around the clock. Eight new tokens have been thrown into the lottery as part of the city's pilot program, which was created to gauge if it was possible to add additional rickshaws to downtown roads.
After the summer lottery, Charleston Bike Taxi has 12 tokens in all, seven full-time riders and five in the city's night-time-only pilot program. Charleston Pedicab has two full-time tokens and one pilot, while Charleston Rickshaw has four full-time tokens and two pilots. The newcomer Swamp Fox has two full-time tokens.
Herron says that Charleston Bike Taxi uses teams of three people per bike. This allows the fast-pedaling riders to switch off. In order to meet the needs of having 12 tokens in all, he had to hire 30 riders shortly after July's lottery. On October 1, the date of the next quarterly lottery, he doubts he will get 12 again. He will likely have to let riders go.
Following July's lottery, long-time competitors Rickshaw, Pedicab, and Bike Taxi planned to divide the tokens they received amongst themselves in an effort to minimize the harm that the lottery would have on each company's business. But dividing the tokens in that manner violates the terms of the ordinance.
"They are not transferable," says Robert Somerville, assistant director of the city's traffic and transportation department. "The business that gets them is the business that has to operate with them."
Graham Gardiner, co-owner of Swamp Fox Pedicab, says that the three long-standing bike taxi companies did not speak with him prior to the lottery. But once the city determined that the three could not transfer tokens, he began to receive their phone calls.
He describes the agreement to trade tokens as a "backdoor deal" that creates collusion among the three firms. "The other companies don't want us to have bikes," Gardiner says.
Gardiner wants the problem to be solved immediately. "We want whatever is best for the city of Charleston," he says.
Joel Carl, owner of Pedicab, says that because of the limited number of bikes that Pedicab has, the company has had to cut the number of shifts bikers are able to ride. "We've had two guys that have already left because of that," Carl says. "They just can't make a living doing it."
The Pedicab owner says that the three long-standing firms are trying to solve the problem of too few bikes split amongst too many companies. He adds, "I've always said that if the city has the ability to limit the amount of bikes on the street, they should also have the ability to limit the amount of participants that can acquire those licenses on a yearly basis."
Charleston City Council has asked the city's traffic and transportation department to meet with the bike taxi companies, but Somerville says they haven't found a solution.
The city is looking at a more even distribution of tokens and possibly adding additional bikes to the road by allowing more tokens, Somerville says.
However, he says, "Unless an agreement is made between them on the issuance of the tokens, we will resort back to the lottery system."