A tourist steps onto the sidewalk outside a restaurant on East Bay Street and looks for a ride. But he sees no cabs.

Taxi fare ordinance

Effective July 1, 2011, all taxicabs in Charleston were required to activate a meter and charge no more than the maximum rate shown:

1. Max rates downtown

$5 flat fee for all trips that pick up and discharge on peninsula.

For trips with more than one passenger, a $1 surcharge is permitted per additional person.

2. Max rates elsewhere

$4 for first 2 miles and 35 cents per 0.2 miles thereafter.

$1 passenger surcharge allowed.

3. Gas surcharge

Any surcharge in effect must be posted in a conspicuous place for rider to see. Gas surcharge is according to Carolina AAA’s per-gallon price:

$3 per gallon 50 cents

$3.50 $1

$4 $1.50

$4.50 $2

Source: City of Charleston

Instead, a line of Ford Crown Victorias, Lincoln Town Cars and Dodge Grand Caravans stretches onto nearby King Street in downtown Charleston. These cabs take up every roadside parking spot from Cannon Street to Marion Square.

And they’re not going anywhere.

That scene is not yet a reality in the Holy City, but it’s a measure of protest that downtown cab drivers might take if they’re forced to continue charging a flat $5 fee for rides anywhere on the peninsula.

The price, determined by a city ordinance enacted in mid-2011, barely covers their expenses for gas and upkeep and leaves little for profit, the drivers argue. The fee messes with free enterprise, they add, by not allowing them to set the prices for their services.

“We take pride in what we do,” said David Barnes, a downtown taxi driver who helped devise the “Occupy King Street” plan that has not taken place. “We take pride in the city because it’s the best in the world. But this law is unfair for the city and the drivers that help make it a safe, friendly place.”

For now, Barnes and about 20 other drivers settled for a meeting with Mayor Joe Riley last week to argue against the flat fee, which caught recent attention after The Post and Courier reported one resident’s account about a driver who had declined to give her the rate. The rider called the police, who helped sort out the dispute.

Instead, the drivers said meters should determine fares citywide.

The police have issued citations to drivers not following the ordinance, said Robert Somerville, assistant director of the city’s Department of Traffic and Transportation.

Taxi customers also can complain to the city’s Livability Court, which investigates each case and can also issue citations.

Somerville had no data on the number of tickets written since the ordinance took effect.

The mayor vowed to revisit the issue by asking staff members and legal experts to research it. But Riley didn’t immediately take a side on the topic.

He said the ordinance arose partially to provide a reasonably priced, convenient way for residents without cars to get around. But the city, he said, also has a stake in regulating how its streets are used for such a “public conveyance.”

“There’s a philosophical issue about whether the city should regulate fares,” Riley said. “But in this instance, it could be a money loser for them, so maybe it should be revisited.”

But not everyone in the city’s political circles is in favor of reconsidering an ordinance less than two years after it took hold.

Councilman James Lewis, who represents part of the city’s West Side, served on a special committee that studied the issue in early 2011. It came about because of the wide array of rates offered by different companies: some that used meters, some that used flat fees, some that made up the rates depending on who stepped in their cabs.

One of its primary backers: Yellow Cab Co., which has been in business here for a half-century.

Rather than the fee anarchy, the committee decided on $5 as a reasonable amount that would cover drivers’ costs because the peninsula “isn’t a big place,” Lewis said. Drivers also can charge $1 per additional rider, as well as a surcharge that fluctuates with gas prices — usually another $1.

Lewis would not support a change in the scheme.

“What we have now is reasonable for the people downtown,” he said. “With the meter, it wouldn’t really be that much different. This keeps everyone on the same plane.”

But that’s not the case, argue many in the business.

They don’t get enough respect for what they do, drivers said: They often act as ambassadors for the city by greeting tourists at the cruise terminal or at the airport; they keep the streets safe by chauffeuring drunkards or watching for suspicious activity.

Sheila Seagers, a driver for more than four years, said she takes it one step further.

In her 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan, she acts as somewhat of a DJ by offering music genres that suit her guests’ tastes. But all the extras that make riding a pleasure, she said, cost money. On top of that, she gives half of every fare to her employer.

If she charges the flat fee for a ride from Mount Pleasant Street in the Neck Area south to The Battery, $5 won’t earn her a living, she said.

By the meter, such a ride might run about $11.

She acknowledged not complying with the $5 fee, instead determining higher flat rates based on the length of a trip and the number of riders.

“The maintenance costs are going up, and the fares are going down,” Seagers said. “It doesn’t work.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.