It started with a police sting. On Sept. 25, 2013, a plainclothes cop with a hidden microphone took a ride on a bicycle rickshaw and busted the driver for giving an illegal historical tour. The fine? A whopping $1,092.
Now, after cracking down on overcharged fares in car taxis, the tourism enforcement wing of the Charleston Police Department has returned its focus to the bicycle rickshaw industry. Friday night, police issued a warning to pedicab drivers saying that they could no longer park their bikes on King Street while waiting to pick up passengers. Pedicab drivers will be forced to park in designated rickshaw zones, away from the lucrative late-night crowds on King Street.
Neither of the two rickshaw ordinances is new — City Council passed both the touring ban and the parking restrictions in 2011 — but the enforcement is new. Sgt. Heath King, the head of CPD's Tourism Oriented Police Services division, says that while he hasn't written any tickets for illegal rickshaw parking yet, "the re-education period for that is almost over."
Why the renewed focus on rickshaw law? King says the original illegal-tour sting was prompted by South of Broad residents who complained about rickshaw drivers taking tourists on laps through their neighborhood, but, more broadly, he says the city needs to ensure that historic tours are accurate and slow-moving tour vehicles are limited to keep traffic moving. He says there have been no more rickshaw tour stings since September.
"The city is founded now on tourism, and it has to be regulated," King says. "It's such a crazy economic engine for the city."
The September tour sting, recently publicized by the Post and Courier, has raised the hackles of some pedicab drivers, who see it as a draconian response and a restriction of free speech.
"If people ask, 'What's that?' am I supposed to say, 'I can't tell you'? That's pretty silly," says Geoff Maas, a pedicab driver for Charleston Rickshaw who also happens to be a licensed historical tour guide. Charleston tour guides are required to study a 500-page training manual and take a tough city-administered history test before obtaining their licenses, and the pedicab law was partly written as quality control for historical tours.
"I get that they want to keep it so they're not giving out false information and just making stuff up, but it gets to the point where there's a bunch of common knowledge in the city ... and if he's not selling the ride as a tour, I can't see what the problem is," Maas says.
As for the no-parking zone on King Street, pedicab driver Carlin Reindollar says she often sees taxicabs parked and blocking traffic on King Street, so she's baffled by the increased enforcement against pedicabs.
"[Taxicab drivers] don't pull off to the side; there's three in a row just stopped in the middle of traffic," Reindollar says. "You don't ever see three of us in a row just stopped there. We always pull off to the side or get out of the way."
Maas says the designated pedicab parking zones, including ones on Hutson and Reid streets, are inconvenient for drivers looking to pick up late-night riders. "I checked on Saturday night, and each one had cars parked in it so no bikes could park there," Maas says. "So essentially we were stuck doing a loop around and around, slowing traffic down even more."
When asked about the obstructed rickshaw parking zones, King says pedicab drivers should contact police to have the cars towed.
David Criscitiello, the pedicab operator who got slapped with the $1,092 fine for giving an illegal tour, chooses his words carefully when asked about the sting. "We have to actually work with city officials. We exist as a company by them licensing us to do it, so we just try to say the company line as best as we can," he says over the phone. The company line? "We're trying to just get this whole thing to go away as quickly as possible." Criscitiello's boss at Charleston Rickshaw, Sean Nemitz, declined to comment for this story.
So, what exactly happened on that fateful ride-along sting in September? A Charleston police spokesman says no one at the department wrote an incident report about the arrest, but according to Sgt. King's recollection, Criscitiello took the plainclothes cop on a meandering tour that encompassed six or seven streets, when a more direct route would have only taken two streets. King says Criscitiello never asked for additional money or pitched the ride as a historic tour, but he did offer to "show them different parts of the city."
At Charleston Rickshaw, drivers charge $5.50 per passenger per 10 minutes, so a driver could potentially increase his fare by taking a longer scenic route.
"He deviated from what would be a direct route to the destination," King says. "So now you're going from being just a hospitable rickshaw driver to being what a reasonable person would consider more of a tour person than just a taxi driver."
King says the undercover cop rode in six different pedicabs for the sting, but Criscitiello was the only driver who broke the law — in fact, King says Criscitiello was the only one who spoke to his passenger at all during the ride.
Daniel Gidick, a U.S. history teacher at Wando High School who previously worked for five years at Charleston Pedicab, says he often felt like an ambassador for the city when he gave people rides in his pedicab. If passengers asked for a one-hour ride with a detour around the Battery to see the sights, he wouldn't turn them down. Today, he says he sees the pedicab tour issue as a matter of free speech.
"If you want to discuss something about, 'Oh, the Civil War started here,' or the importance of the slave trade in Charleston, who's to say what you converse with people?" Gidick says. "I'm a history teacher. If I take students around and I'm walking around, can I not discuss history with them in my own city?"