Rickshaws City Market

Rickshaws wait for customers near horse carriages in the crowded Charleston City Market area on a spring day. The carriage drivers can talk about the city's history; the rickshaw drivers can't. File/Wade Spees/Staff

Charleston's rickshaw drivers who were hoping that a judge’s ruling on the city’s tour-guide restrictions might give them a little more freedom say they still can't answer questions from passengers without risking getting a ticket.

"My drivers are pedaling around scared to say anything," said Sean Nemitz, who owns Charleston Pedicab and Charleston Rickshaw. "If I pedal past the Calhoun Mansion, and somebody asks me what’s that, I’m afraid to answer. I mean it's common knowledge."

A federal judge in Charleston ruled Aug. 3 the city's requirement of a test for a special license for tours was an unconstitutional burden on free speech rights. The result is that anybody with a business license can give tours for money.

But that doesn’t apply to rickshaw drivers, who are regulated under the ordinance for traffic and motor vehicles.

A tourism enforcement officer ticketed two rickshaw drivers near The Battery on Aug. 24 for "conducting a tour in the historic district." The ticket comes with a $1,085 fine.

"The drivers were pointing across the harbor," Nemitz said. "They say if we see you pointing, you’re giving a tour. How is it illegal to say that’s James Island?"

The city ordinance that regulates rickshaws was passed in 2007 after complaints that they were circling around The Battery, interfering with traffic and cluttering up parking spaces, according to city attorney Susan Herdina.

"It’s a safety issue," she said.

The city reinforced the message in 2013 by sending an undercover officer to take rickshaw rides. At least one driver got a ticket for giving a tour.

The ordinance specifies that drivers are supposed to take passengers directly from one point to another. Their "operation shall be exclusively for the purpose of such entry into the district to pick up or discharge passengers."

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The ordinance goes on to say, "No person shall operate or cause to be operated for hire or otherwise a rickshaw for the purpose of conducting tours or sightseeing within the Old and Historic District."

The question is what constitutes a tour.

The ordinance doesn’t forbid simply answering a question from a passenger, Herdina said. Whether that was the case or not with these tickets, a municipal judge would have to decide. A court date is set for Oct. 8.

The city issues decals for 15 rickshaws during the day and another 15 at night. The city also uses a similar medallion system to regulate horse carriage tours, with about 20 carriages on the streets at any one time.

While the horse carriages are widely portrayed as a symbol of the city’s history, the ordinance that covers rickshaws pretty much characterizes them as a nuisance.

"The continued proliferation of rickshaws in the Peninsula Area tends to create a carnival or theme-park atmosphere which is destructive of the historic and traditional ambiance of the Peninsula Area which is substantially made up of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century structures," according to the ordinance. "The unregulated operations of rickshaws on the streets of the Peninsula Area would add to the congestion in the streets and would greatly inconvenience, if not endanger users of the streets in the area."

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.