Tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous three-wheeled people movers seen from Bangkok to the Bahamas, would be a great idea for zipping around Charleston, a local entrepreneur says.
Trouble is, Charleston City Council already has taken steps to make sure it won’t happen.
Valet and limousine businessman Jeff Newton faces an uphill climb in getting the three- to six-passenger vehicles approved in Charleston.
City officials have drafted an ordinance specifically written to ban the use of the wagons in any fashion, alongside other forms of outlawed low-speed, electric-powered vehicles, such as golf carts.
Mayor Joe Riley said safety questions about the door-less tuk-tuks, combined with their appearance in historic districts and neighborhoods, would negatively “contribute to a theme-park atmosphere.” The city’s Police Department also is against them, he said.
Newton said he’s well aware of City Hall’s opposition but wants a chance to pitch his idea. Tuk-tuks are quiet, have zero carbon emissions and would complement some of the more traditional transportation modes Charleston already has, he said, listing trolley buses, taxis and the legally acceptable foot-powered rickshaws.
“It’s my opinion the city is (against) this because it’s not ‘Charleston,’ ” Newton said Tuesday. “Then again, what is ‘Charleston’?”
The tuk-tuk (pronounced “took-took,” rhyming with “spook” rather than “book”) is one of the most popular forms of transportation in the world. From Asia to Europe and from Central to South America, they’ve been used as taxis, touring vehicles and for moving goods to market.
By tradition, some owners are known to show extreme pride in their paint schemes, often choosing elaborately decorative colors.
Newton, 26, of Charlotte, thinks tuk-tuks would fit in here but added he doesn’t want his fleet to be used for organized tourism. Instead, he envisions about 15 tuk-tuks operating as taxis on the peninsula, with service to West Ashley and James Island.
Downtown, rides would cost $5 point to point, he said, with rates for trips over the Ashley River bridges determined by the time it takes.
Some of the larger models he and his business partner want to bring to Charleston can hold up to six people comfortably. Some can reach speeds of 60 mph. None of the vehicles have been shipped here yet from his business partner’s operation in Tennessee.
Newton’s startup projection cost is steep. Each wagon can cost up to $18,000 at the high end, with insurance costs around $11,000, Newton said. But the biggest hurdle now is City Council.
Earlier this month, council gave first reading of a measure banning tuk-tuks by name. City Councilman Bill Moody, chairman of the Traffic and Transportation Committee, said council is against the idea on grounds the three-wheeled rides would not be much different from glorified golf carts.
“It makes it look like Disney or something else, and that’s not what we want,” Moody said.
Another factor is getting approval from the state of South Carolina. Beth Parks, spokeswoman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, said Wednesday the vehicles are an unknown here and the agency would want to see the tuk-tuk’s manufacturing specifications before clearing it for use on state roads.”We don’t know anything about it,” she said, adding that numerous so-called “green” forms of transportation are regularly entering the market.
Newton has a sit-down scheduled for today with Moody and city transportation officials about his idea. While the meeting is not a
gathering of the full transportation committee, Moody said Newton would have to show “a rather compelling” argument for anyone within city government to change their minds.
Newton remains optimistic. “I’m about 50-50 right now,” he said.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.