Two weeks ago, in the thick of exam season, College of Charleston senior Taz Dossaji chained her purple beach cruiser to a lamppost in front of Joe Pasta on King Street. When she finished eating dinner and realized her bike was missing from the lamppost, she assumed it had been stolen. It hadn't. In fact, it had been confiscated by Charleston police under the city's new bike parking pilot program, which prohibits the locking of bicycles to anything other than bike racks on the stretch of King Street between Spring and Calhoun streets.
Less than a month since the ordinance took effect on Nov. 15, Charleston police report they have confiscated 55 bicycles from the popular shopping and entertainment district. Owners must pay a $45 fine to retrieve their bikes, and they also have to buy new locks since their old ones have been destroyed. The ordinance created a one-year pilot enforcement program that City Council will revisit next fall.
Dossaji never heard about the law until she broke it. In fact, she only found out that the police had taken her bike when a friend saw a Live 5 News report that evening that showed an officer cutting the chain and hoisting Dossaji's bike into the back of a pickup truck. Dossaji's friend recognized the bike and called her immediately. "She literally said, 'The police stole your bike,'" Dossaji says.
At the Charleston Police Department headquarters on Lockwood Boulevard, where all of the confiscated bicycles are kept, bike owners have been walking in flabbergasted for the past few weeks, explaining to employees at the front desk that they were blindsided by the new law. There are no signs on King Street to indicate a no-parking zone for bikes.
Public Information Officer Charles Francis says the department gave people fair warning about the ordinance. "We gave it to the media. We put it on Facebook," Francis says. A press release went out to all of the major local media outlets, and several TV news stations picked up the story. "I don't know what else we could have done," Francis says.
The rationale for the law is that a bicycle, when chained to a tree on a narrow sidewalk, can fall over and obstruct the entire walkway. Bicycle advocacy group Charleston Moves supported the ordinance in theory, but they've been less than jazzed about its execution.
"We're not sure that the punitive approach is the best one. Obviously, the best approach is providing adequate parking," says Stephanie Hunt, board chairwoman of Charleston Moves. The city of Charleston has been installing bike corrals in place of parallel parking spots around the peninsula this past year, but Hunt insists those corrals aren't enough. Her organization is pushing for one bike corral on each side of the street for every block within the area covered by the ordinance. "Adequate signage" is another must, she says.
City Councilman Mike Seekings, a bicyclist and Traffic and Transportation Committee member who pushed for the King Street ordinance, has frequently come out in favor of bike-friendly ordinances in his time on Council. "I have some quarrel with people who say that ordinance is an anti-biking ordinance. It's not, and it's not perfect. That's why it's a pilot," Seekings says. "I think it puts the ball squarely in our court to expand bike parking, access to corrals, and access to biking."
Seekings echoes the position of Charleston Moves, saying that the city should set a minimum standard of one bike corral per block per side of the street in the affected area. He also says the city needs to put up signs notifying bicyclists of the rule change, and he says he's working with city officials to get that done.
In the meantime, though, what about the folks who have already had their bikes confiscated? "Call me. That's what I tell them, and I'm happy to talk to them," Seekings says. "The buck stops here on that one."
As for Dossaji, now reunited with her cruiser and in need of a new bike lock, she says she would gladly have obeyed the law — if she had known about it.
"It wasn't publicized. If there was a sign, 'No Parking,' then obviously I wouldn't have parked there," Dossaji says. "To be honest, I think it's just a ploy for the city to get money off of college students."