For a Charleston pedicab driver, pointing can be expensive.
Though the city's licensing requirements for tour guides have been lifted, the ban on pedicab operators giving tours hasn't changed.
Drivers of the bicycle cabs can get slapped with a more than $1,000 fine if it looks like they're giving illicit history lessons during rides.
Now the city of Savannah, one of the only other cities with a similar rule on the books, may be taking a step in the opposite direction, allowing its pedicab companies to register as tour providers.
In August, a federal judge ruled Charleston’s mandatory licensing program for tour guides violated free speech rights. Since then, the city has made the program voluntary, but opted to appeal the decision to the federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the hopes of bringing the requirement back.
But that ruling hasn’t changed the city’s standing on pedicab drivers giving tours. Four of the six guilty rulings for illegal tours issued over the past three years were handed down in the last eight months.
Savannah, which recently did away with its mandatory tour guide exam following a legal challenge, has a rule now that prohibits pedicab drivers from giving sightseeing tours.
Chris Medford, the operations manager for Royal Bike Taxi in Savannah, said he “hadn’t heard of” any drivers being ticketed for giving tours.
Unlike Charleston, Savannah may soon allow pedicab companies to legally conduct tours. On July 2, Savannah City Council is likely to approve an ordinance that would allow pedicab companies to run as tour operators.
The new ordinance, notably, strikes the phrase stating that pedicabs may not "be used to conduct sightseeing tours" within Savannah.
Medford said the Savannah pedicab industry has been advocating for the change for nearly six years.
“We’re very excited,” Medford said. “It’s been a long and arduous process.”
Charleston’s law against pedicab tours exists for safety purposes, said Dan Riccio, the director of the Department of Livability and Tourism. The department’s tourism enforcement officers, who also look out for carriage, walking and bus tour violations, are tasked with determining whether a pedicab driver is illegally acting as a tour guide.
According to Charleston’s tourism ordinance, no pedicab can be operated “for the purpose of conducting tours or sightseeing.” Sean Nemitz, the owner of Charleston Pedicab and Charleston Rickshaw, said he’s always found the wording unclear, particularly the reference to “sightseeing.”
“It’s really hard not to sightsee in Charleston,” Nemitz said. “It’s not like you can tell people to close their eyes when you pass Rainbow Row.”
Erik Currie, a 24-year-old James Island resident who has been driving pedicabs for two years, said management has advised drivers to “be cautious” about appearing to be giving tours while out on the road.
In practice, that means refraining from pointing and never taking an indirect route, but there are few details on what qualifies as a tour. A different section of the tourism ordinance defines touring as “sightseeing in the districts for hire or in combination with a request for donations.”
Pedicab drivers are often asked by tourists to give tours, Nemitz said, especially by people who want an open-air tour but aren’t interested in a carriage ride or walking tour.
The city has made it clear pedicabs should be used like taxis by getting passengers from "point A to point B" rather than making stops like a tour bus or carriage. But Nemitz said it’s never been clear how long passengers have to be outside of the pedicab to consider it a drop-off.
In 2016, the city received some backlash when Charleston police officers went undercover as tourists to catch pedicab operators giving tours. Officers took two rides at the city's three pedicab companies and issued one fine.
The standard fine for any citation from the Department of Livability and Tourism is $1,087, though the actual amount an individual or company has to pay is determined in livability court.
That also applies, Nemitz noted, to pedicab parking violations. Pedicabs can’t be parked at metered spots and can never be left unattended, according to city rules.
Nemitz said one of his drivers recently received a $1,087 ticket from a tourism enforcement officer for leaving her pedicab outside of a restaurant while running inside for a glass of water.
Though the fine was significantly reduced when she appeared in livability court, Nemitz said, the amount attached to the initial citation is often stressful for his drivers, who are mostly college students or people working a second job for supplemental income.
“One-thousand dollars is a ton of money for a 21-year-old,” Nemitz said. “Even if it’s reduced, they had to have that over their head.”
Pedicabs have their own section in Charleston’s tourism ordinance, covering everything from the proper design to operating decals. The ordinance states that pedicabs create a “carnival or theme-park atmosphere, which is destructive of the historic and traditional ambiance” of the peninsula.
For that reason, the city has limited the number of pedicabs that can be out during the day to 15, with an additional 15 permitted at night. That means no more than 30 pedicabs are ever on the peninsula’s streets at one time.
The three-wheeled, non-motorized vehicles don’t have as many rules as the carriage horse industry, which also has policies in place to protect the horses and mules hauling tour groups.
For example, city rules mandate that, when temperatures reach 95 degrees Fahrenheit, carriage tour operations must be temporarily suspended. The ordinance also requires that a loaded carriage be no more than three times the weight of the animal or animals pulling it.
The city has no heat and weight restrictions for pedicab drivers. The drivers can decide for themselves what they can handle, Nemitz said. “If a driver says they aren’t feeling well, they can go home. The horses can’t speak for themselves.”
Charleston is still waiting on the 4th Circuit Court to issue a ruling on its appeal. Until then, the city and the tour industry has been adjusting to a new optional testing program.
Arif Panju, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, the free speech group that filed the lawsuit against Charleston's tour guide law, said he also sees the city's policy against pedicab tours as a violation of First Amendment rights.
“The city can tell pedicab drivers where they can go, but it can’t dictate what they can say or if they can point at things,” Panju said. "No one has a monopoly on telling stories."