The City Magazine Since 1975

A Bike-Friendly City?

A Bike-Friendly City?
October 2011
Ever since the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge opened in 2005 with bicycle and pedestrian lanes, the heavy use of the gateway span has been an eye-opener. On any given day, hundreds of people can be seen on foot or bike, making their way between Mount Pleasant and the peninsula. This daily human-powered display—highly visible to the cars driving past—is practically a banner proclaiming our city is a place where getting around car-free is possible. But once people pedal past that protected, 2.7-mile stretch, how bike-friendly really is Charleston?

Before the bridge was built, there were plenty of naysayers about the now-popular multi-use path. The turning point came when grassroots supporters led by the Charleston Bicycle Advocacy Group (now Charleston Moves) launched a huge “Can’t Wait to Bike the Bridge” campaign with T-shirts, bumper stickers, and a flood of postcards to the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the mayors of Mount Pleasant and Charleston.  They touted the health benefits along with the increased sense of community connection for people who pedal more and drive less—not to mention that with fewer cars on the road, there would be less pollution and an easing of road congestion and parking needs. Bicycle access on the Ravenel Bridge was a hard-fought victory that today demonstrates the promise of what’s possible throughout the Lowcountry.

And bicycling issues are once again a hot topic. On July 30, hundreds of people pedaled through downtown Charleston in the summer heat to remember civic leader and bicycling proponent Edwin Gardner—who was struck by a motorist while riding his bicycle downtown one morning last summer and died of his injuries days later—and show support for the movement. Only months after Gardner was hit, the League of American Bicyclists recognized the City of Charleston as a “Bicycle Friendly Community.” The announcement of that accolade has been followed by more tragic accidents, including the death of cyclist Dr. Mitchell Hollon, who was knocked from his bike while riding on the James Island Connector this summer.

Meanwhile, the city has announced a number of recent improvements in accommodations for bicycling—the striping of bike lanes on roadways, new paths, and improved signs. In August, Mayor Joe Riley announced the results of an extensive feasibility study concerning a dedicated lane for bicyclists and pedestrians on the T. Allen Legare Bridge connecting downtown and West Ashley. The findings showed that such a lane on the northbound drawbridge could work without adverse affects on vehicle traffic flow. (The northbound bridge is currently configured with four lanes for vehicle traffic, while the southbound span only includes three.)

Six years after the Ravenel Bridge opening, bicycling has again rolled into the realm of public consciousness. Perhaps this time we are beginning to cruise, however slowly, along a more consistent path to a thriving bicycle culture—where residents and visitors may one day pedal confidently and safely for recreation, errands, and commuting. Maybe that long-sought dream is right around the corner, just a few key road and bridge projects away.

Call it youthful optimism and energy, but on the whole, 27-year-old Dan Kelley has a bright outlook when it comes to two-wheeling around Charleston. The co-founder of the Holy City Bike Co-op and chair of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee says that in the latest batch of resurfacing projects underway around town, he’s been pleased to see the South Carolina DOT beginning to “voluntarily add bike lanes—paint striping—to roads during resurfacing, where there’s the width to do so.”  (The DOT is responsible for the majority of the state’s roads, and bicycling advocates have long criticized the agency for not being progressive when it comes to accommodating alternative modes of transportation.)

Kelley notes that in April, Charleston got its first “sharrows”—shared lane markers—on Chapel Street downtown, as a project of the city’s Traffic and Transportation Department. The MUTCD- (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices) approved sharrows are painted directly on the pavement and considered more meaningful and instructive to automobile drivers and bicyclists than “Share the Road” signs. The largest project on the horizon, though, is the potential pedestrian and bicycle lane on the Legare Bridge across the Ashley River. Kelley says that lane would have “a tremendous impact by connecting to the West Ashley Greenway.” He expects its lower elevation and milder inclines than the Ravenel Bridge will make bike and pedestrian commuting a more accessible and popular transportation alternative for residents who want to save money at the pump. (Kelley speaks from experience: he has pedaled the Ravenel Bridge to work for three years.)

Tom Bradford, director of bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group Charleston Moves, says the decisions to be made about the Ashley River Bridge are a “significant test” for government leaders, and that there are still major “cultural and bureaucratic battles” to be won. To that end, Charleston Moves has created the Ashley Crossing Coalition, a network of neighborhood organizations, businesses, churches, and other groups and entities that support a safe solution for bicyclists and pedestrians. “To me, the question is what kind of city do we want to have?” he says.

Bradford explains that he’s been thinking a lot lately about the amount of space taken up by each auto—individual, boxy expanses of more than 200 square feet that encapsulate and isolate drivers and passengers. When you talk about making our city and our neighborhoods vibrant, he notes, you have to consider the physical space occupied by vehicles. He contends that cars in a city amount to “dead space.” Bradford and his wife live on the peninsula, and he says he regularly pedals to destinations downtown. He enjoys bicycling, but there’s also a convenience factor. When he doesn’t use his car, Bradford claims he can get anywhere south of Cannon Street at least five minutes faster, with no worries about parking.

Mike Seekings, who made bicycle issues a key part of his campaign for Charleston City Council in 2009, says he believes that projects to improve bicycle and pedestrian access and safety are particularly attractive to young professionals, parents of small children, people looking to exercise, and forward-thinking residents. Finding a safe way to bicycle between downtown and West Ashley is critical, he continues, noting that the idea for the pedestrian and bicycle lane is “genius—it will get done.” And when that happens, the Ashley River crossing “will be a game changer,” he adds. “People will like it and will quickly understand what we’ve been missing all these years.”

According to the councilman, accessible, safe routes for bicycling have become a much more important issue in recent years at all levels—among citizens, government staff, and elected officials. In 2008, the City Council and Mayor Riley adopted a “Complete Streets” policy to ensure that whenever a public street is built or resurfaced, the needs of all modes of transportation are considered.

Tim Keane, the city’s director of planning, preservation, and sustainability, says bicycle and pedestrian issues are central to local planning efforts. “We’re responding to what people tell us—that we need facilities, an infrastructure that makes people feel safe to ride the bus, walk, or bike.” A major obstacle, Keane explains, is that many of the streets in Charleston are maintained by the DOT, so the city doesn’t have control. Getting funding and securing approval can be tricky, and partnerships are often needed.

Keane shared a written list of recent and upcoming bicycle and pedestrian projects taken on by the City of Charleston, Charleston County, the DOT, and combinations of the three. For 2011, those include design work for Phase IV of the West Ashley Greenway (from Folly to Farmfield); design and engineering of bicycle parking corrals for the peninsula; design of a multi-use path for James Island’s Harbor View Road and for bike lanes on West Ashley’s St. Andrews Boulevard; re-striping of bike lanes on Folly Road; and striping of bike lanes on Morrison Drive downtown. This year, the city’s list also includes several off-the-street projects that are in the planning stage, including an interactive bike website, street design standards, bicycle parking requirements, and a bike-rack request program.

Charleston-based attorney Peter Wilborn is frustrated. The founder of Bikelaw says he’s one of the few attorneys in the country to focus full-time on cases of bicycle accidents, and unfortunately, he’s “swamped with work here.” Cycling collisions are “massively underreported,” he notes, estimating that an average of 15 bicycling-related deaths occur in South Carolina each year. In Charleston, those accidents not only include the widely reported fatalities of Gardner and Hollon, but also equally tragic incidents like the hit-and-run crash last May that resulted in the death of Yury Babenko, a 25-year-old West Ashley man who worked at the Marriott Hotel in Charleston. The driver charged in that accident was reportedly driving under the influence. Wilborn, who lives in Wagener Terrace, says that particularly on the peninsula, “Charleston has the historic proportions and natural advantages to be delightful for bicycling.” But much could still be done to create safer, friendlier conditions, he claims. “It’s not rocket science. It’s about political will.”

Wilborn and other advocates frequently point to Greenville as a regional example of a city that’s outdoing Charleston when it comes to bicycling. “Greenville has positioned itself as the bike capital of South Carolina,” the attorney asserts. “When it comes to bicycling, Greenville is eating Charleston’s sandwich.”

According to Rachael Bronson at the Palmetto Cycling Coalition, Greenville, to date, is the only city in South Carolina with staff positions dedicated to bicycle and pedestrian issues and infrastructure, as well as the only one to have hired professional consultants to work with the city to devise a master plan focused solely on bicycling access and safety. (The Upstate city has county-wide partners for the study, and chose Alta Planning & Design of bicycle-friendly Portland, Oregon, as the lead consultant.)

“We try to make it look easy,” says Brian Graham, who’s the greenway manager for the Parks and Recreation Department of Greenville and in 2008 wrote a “2012 Bike Plan” for the City of Charleston while he was completing his graduate degree in City and Regional Planning at Clemson University. He says he’s kidding about the ease of the work he does today in Greenville, but only partly. “I don’t know that it’s easy, but we’ve built some good relationships, and we tend to follow the path of least resistance. Where there’s opportunity, we make the next connection.” He says that building bicycle infrastructure isn’t just about providing safe places to ride, but it’s about slowing traffic to safe speeds and making neighborhoods more livable.

Greenville’s efforts can be seen on the city’s website,, which offers comprehensive bicycling information on the “Bikeville” page, including separate maps to show the city’s various bike-friendly networks—bicycle lanes and routes, greenway trails, and mountain bike trails—as well as details on laws, safety, and etiquette.

Why the Upstate? Graham says Greenville has benefited from the foresight of earlier leaders who bought land—former rail lines and other properties—years ago when it was available. Additionally, Greenville’s City Council has been supportive, Graham says, and would like to make sure as many city residents as possible are within a quarter mile of access to a trail. “Bicycling infrastructure is important to the city because of its positive impact on economic development and attracting and retaining the creative class in Greenville,” Graham continues. “They see these trails and routes as truly adding to the quality of life, and businesses like that because their future employees will.”

Architect Whitney Powers, Edwin Gardner’s widow, continues to bike around town with the couple’s young daughter, Olive, just as they did when her husband was alive. “We love getting out,” she says. “Bicycling turns routine endeavors into adventures—that’s what Edwin liked about it.” Last April, Powers wrote an editorial to the Post and Courier, pushing for better conditions for bicycling. Her letter stated, “We need a system of policies in place to promote a quality of life that capitalizes on our natural landscape, that supports truly viable year-round transportation alternatives, and that acknowledges urban charms.”

Area bicycling advocates envision myriad projects ahead for Charleston and its surrounding communities. Aside from alternative transportation accommodations on the Ashley River Bridge, Charleston Moves has its sights on an ambitious project, Battery2Beach, which involves mapping out and creating signs for a 24-mile bicycling route from Isle Palms to Folly Beach. The path would wind through Sullivan’s Island, Mount Pleasant, downtown Charleston, and James Island. Students from the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at The Citadel have spent the past year doing an analysis of the costs and feasibility of the project.

Tom O’Rourke, executive director of the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission (CCPRC), says Battery2Beach is a good start, but doesn’t go far enough. He notes that the CCPRC is beginning a master-planning project that will address how to create a network of trails for walking and bicycling that would, ideally, connect the county’s parks to one another “from McClellanville to Edisto.”

Other ideas big and small are in the works for greater Charleston. And while many of these projects may appear far-flung or lofty today, the cadre of smart and engaged supporters of bicycling in the area remain hard at work. Both public and official sentiments seem to be warming toward two-wheeled transportation. If solutions and connections continue to be found, riding a bike around town is likely to become safer and more realistic for many residents and visitors. So, while the road might be bumpy for a while, hold onto those handlebars, Charleston—we may be in for a beautiful ride.

Keep in touch with two-wheeled issues:

Charleston Moves: an advocacy group for bicycle and pedestrian issues; current efforts include the Battery2Beach route and the Ashley Crossing Coalition.
Holy City Bike Co-op: advocates for the use of bicycles instead of gasoline-powered vehicles whenever possible; it also offers workshops for bicycle repair and safety.
Palmetto Cycling Coalition: organization working statewide to improve safety and access for bicyclists,
Safe Streets: Palmetto Cycling Coalition’s multimedia bicycle safety campaign that includes four popular video PSAs,