Free shuttle to serve city shopping district

Charleston is often described as one of the world's most walkable cities. But the trek from a store on Upper King Street to a Broad Street art gallery can be a fairly daunting hike for the casual shopper.

Now, a movement is afoot to eliminate that pedestrian impediment.

As part of a new push to lure more local residents to spend money downtown, the city and two partners are set to roll out a shuttle service that will provide free rides around and through the heart of the peninsula's business district.

"This is a game-changer," Mayor Joe Riley told a group of King Street property owners Wednesday.

The goal is to have the system running around the time that holiday shopping season kicks into high gear after Thanksgiving, he said.

The city hopes the service will be a big draw, not only for tourists, but also for area residents who otherwise would shop or dine closer to home.

The shuttle also is being held up as a way to ease traffic tie-ups in what is now a highly congested section of the city.

But the main selling point, as Riley stressed, is that it will be free. Currently, the walk-up fare for a ride on the Downtown Area Shuttle, or DASH, is $1.50.

"You don't have to worry about having a pass or money. ... You just get on," Riley said.

The plan, which still requires City Council approval, calls for merging two existing DASH routes into one. Riley said the shuttles will run about every 10 minutes and offer riders numerous pick-up and drop-off points along King, Broad, East Bay, Market and Meeting streets during regular DASH operating hours.

"It's a really good tight route," Riley said.

The city will fund the $416,000-a-year service with contributions from the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and the State Ports Authority. The buses will be operated by the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority, which approved the new route last month.

"It's a system that locals can use and visitors will use," Riley said.

The shuttle was one of the highlights of an informal, hour-long meeting that Riley held at the American Theatre on Wednesday morning, primarily with owners of commercial buildings along King Street. About 100 people attended.

Tim Keane, Charleston's director of planning, preservation and sustainability, said the city wants to improve communications with the landlords in an effort to ensure the vitality of the peninsula's main commercial corridor.

Like most retail destinations, King Street has not escaped the wrath of the economic downturn that took hold nearly three years ago. Numerous shops have closed since then, though the trend seems to be easing, according to Keane. He said vacant storefronts now total about 35, down from a recent peak of about 50.

Perhaps the most jarring closing of all was Saks Fifth Avenue, which shuttered its department store in July after a 14-year run at King and Market streets.

"Clearly, that was a disappointment and a jolt," Riley said.

The sudden departure of Saks was one of the reasons the city wanted to get together with property owners to discuss new ways to attract more business to the shopping district, he said.

The shuttle rollout is one of the linchpins of that effort, as is the recent decision to close King Street off to vehicles from 1 to 6 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month.

Keane said free shuttles have been a hit elsewhere, including Seattle, Chicago and Quebec. The city is optimistic about ridership, he added.

"Frankly, I think Charleston has as much potential as any of those cities because this is our only form of public transit," he said. "We don't have elevated guideways or subways. We have to squeeze everything we can out of our bus system."

A potential side benefit of the free service is that it could boost bus ridership by exposing more residents to public transportation, he said.

A key challenge in luring more local shoppers will be erasing the perception that the peninsula's business district has a severe parking shortage. City officials countered that garages within a block of either side of King Street house 3,649 parking spaces.

Chris Price, whose Charleston- based real estate business leases and develops commercial properties on Upper King, said he was glad officials are taking a fresh, hard look at bringing more business to the historic district.

"It's our bread and butter -- and their bread and butter," Price said.

Reach John McDermott at 937-5572.