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Fun trips rev up downtowns

When it comes to downtown transportation, sometimes the journey is the fun part. As several South Carolina cities have shown, fun ways of getting around can also boost downtown business.

SC Pedal Parlor in Columbia
SC Pedal Parlor in Columbia lets participants power their vehicle to bars and restaurants downtown. Photo: SC Pedal Parlor.

Rickshaws pulled by bikes, horse-drawn carriages, electric scooters and pedal-powered trolleys all offer visitors a chance to get from place to place while experiencing downtown from a different perspective.

"When we can get people out of their cars, it's helpful for everyone," said J. Perrin Lawson, vice president for business development at the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"The more options, the better."

In the City of Charleston, visitors can hop into a pedicab — a rickshaw pulled by a three-wheeled bike — or climb into a horse-drawn carriage, offering the quintessential way to tour the historic district.

"An association or corporate group may be in town, and they want a ride to a hotel or restaurant or some other venue. The carriages are a unique and atmospheric way to get from Point A to Point B, and people absolutely love it," Lawson said. The pedicabs hold only a couple people but appeal to visitors who get tired of walking and want to cruise around the city instead.

Lawson said the five carriage companies run year-round and employ 138 people with an annual economic impact of $19 million. The carriage industry has long been regulated. However, the city got involved with regulating pedicabs more recently, as more companies moved into the market.

"Many alternative modes of transportation are beneficial for any community. But transportation infrastructure is going to be different, depending on the community," he said. "What works in Charleston may not make sense in Columbia or Bennettsville or someplace else in the state."

'They're always smiling'
Columbia is home to the SC Pedal Parlor, a "bike" that looks more like a bar powered by up to 16 people who pedal it.

Columbia's pub-crawl-on-wheels tours the Main Street and Vista districts, stopping at two to four restaurants and bars, making it popular for birthday parties, corporate events or just a night on the town.

"It's a fun, unique and eco-friendly way to ride around downtown," said Mattew Koleske, co-owner of the SC Pedal Parlor. "It's a different way to do a pub crawl — a different way rather than a party bus."

While the party-on-wheels moves by the power of its riders — there is no drinking allowed on board — a driver is provided who steers and leads the tour.

"It's something new, cool and different to do. It's something fun to see, and it puts a smile on people's faces when we go by. There are dozens of people taking pictures of us, and they're always smiling. It's also stimulating the economy and spreading money around to local businesses," Koleske said.

Koleske said the restaurant managers love when people stop in for a drink and a snack before they hop back on the Pedal Parlor, with some bars offering specials for customers. He estimates the Pedal Parlor has generated $100,000 in local revenue in the last 18 months or so.

In a city with distinct downtown entertainment districts, finding fun ways to get to all of them is easier with bright, colorful buses like the Soda Cap Connector and bright green, three-wheeled scooters, known as Zapps. The electric cycles are rented through an app on smart phones and can be picked up and dropped off at dozens of locations around Columbia.

"The scooters are an innovative way (to move people around), and Columbia was one of the first cities in the country to embrace that, and city staff worked hard to establish areas to park the scooters," said Matt Kennell, president and CEO of the City Center Partnership in Columbia.

"It makes getting there half the fun," said Kennell.

The "fun factor" is a big part of the strategy.

"The (Soda Cap Connector) is a brightly decaled vehicle. There's free WiFi. Inside, it's like going back to an old Beatles album; that goes to the fun factor," Kennell said. "It's a way to enjoy getting around downtown and the different districts around Columbia."

Local vibrancy
While pedaling a trolley to a bar in downtown Columbia may draw surprised glances from the automobile-driving public, the Town of Moncks Corner has also found a way to give residents and visitors a taste of the unexpected. It, too, involves pedaling and generating local vibrancy.

Moncks Corner partnered with Santee Cooper to open a highly technical, 5-mile mountain biking trail. The town put up signage and trail markers and works with volunteers to maintain the course. Mountain biking is not something you find a lot of in the Lowcountry, so it attracts a lot of people from the area.

"Tourism-related economic development is all about finding what makes you unique," said Jeff Lord, town administrator of Moncks Corner. "What do you have that others do not? For a community in the Lowcountry, having a large greenspace with a 50-foot elevation change is just one of many things that makes Moncks Corner unique. It is something we can offer closer to home for the many outdoor adventure enthusiasts who live in the Charleston metro area that enjoy mountain biking."

He said the town sees visitors from further away who come for a bike ride as part of their trip to the Charleston area.

"And when they come to Moncks Corner for a day of trail riding, they are certainly going to stop at our local restaurants to refuel or refresh with a cold drink," said Lord.

Sometimes the fun starts when the vehicle rumbles to a stop.

On James Island, the nonprofit Smalls Music Lab, a bus filled with musical instruments, spreads the love of music throughout the area. Much like a bookmobile but stocked with keyboards, guitars and percussion instruments, the mobile musical classroom is a regular at town and community events, said Ashley Kellahan, the town administrator.

"It's a very engaging mobile unit that really makes the atmosphere at events more lively. Any time you add music to an event, you draw a larger crowd. When it's music that kids can help create, it adds another level of community and spirit," Kellahan said. "It's definitely a draw. Our Town Hall is in a shopping center with two restaurants. When we have events in the evening, it draws people, and they can go to the restaurants. And we're increasing our hospitality tax (revenue)."