On the narrow sidewalk that passes for a pedestrian route along U.S. 17 over the Ashley River, Katie Zimmerman stops her bicycle in a failed attempt to wrestle part of a door out of the way. Having apparently fallen from a truck, the door is just a little larger than the glass and debris she normally has to navigate around on the busy bridge. "That's pretty typical for that sidewalk," Zimmerman says of her commute. "It's a nightmare, but I've gotten used to how awful it is. When I tell people, they look so horrified."
The push for a safer, reasonable route for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the Ashley River was dealt a sharp blow earlier this month when a $430,000 study determined that the county's preferred option for a new path attached to the side of the two existing drawbridges wasn't feasible. It was disappointing news for cycling advocates and the West Ashley neighborhoods that have been fighting for more than a decade for a safer crossing. HDR Engineering told county officials the T. Allen Legare Bridge could handle the extra weight in the short term, but it would severely weaken over time. Proposed alternatives offered by the engineers would require a separate crossing or significant improvements to the bridge that would cost anywhere from $18 million to $62 million.
"The money isn't there," says Tom Bradford, director of Charleston Moves, a group that advocates for improved bike access. "I wouldn't even raise the question." Mayor Joe Riley has requested that the county and state Department of Transportation consider providing one of the four lanes heading onto the peninsula on the Legare Bridge for a bike and pedestrian path. Organizers are also meeting this week to grow a grassroots movement for the pitch. With three lanes heading off of the peninsula across the other Ashley River bridge, advocates say motorists should be able to sacrifice the extra lane on the Legare span for alternative transportation. "I'm betting all my marbles," Bradford says. "We, frankly, don't have any other near-term options."
More than 50 years old, the bridges linking the peninsula to West Ashley were built in a time when kids ditched their bikes once they got their driver's license. In the 21st century, many college students and a growing number of commuters are leaving their cars in the garage whenever they can. Recognizing the growing demand for safe bike and walking routes, local officials have invested millions in developing and maintaining the West Ashley Greenway. The city is restriping the lanes on St. Andrews Boulevard to accommodate bike lanes on either side of the roadway. And improvements are underway for the greenway intersection at Folly Road, as well as surfacing a long stretch of the path with money from the transportation sales tax.
On a nice day, Evan Brandon will bike up the greenway and enjoy the weather along the marsh. A board member of the Ashley Bridge District, Brandon says neighbors use it to visit the grocery store, shops at South Windermere, or schools like Porter-Gaud. "A lot of people just think of it as recreation," he says of biking and walking the path. "But it's a connection to different aspects of the community." The lack of a safe passage across the Ashley River is a recognizable omission that could link these residents with the peninsula and Mt. Pleasant.
Lisa Paul lives near the bridge in West Ashley and says it would be an easy commute for her day job at MUSC or this fall when she'll be teaching evening classes at College of Charleston, but she's concerned. "I've gone over the bridge on long runs into downtown," she says. "The bridge is just so narrow and a bit dicey."
And it's not just cyclists or commuters stuck on the other side of the bridge, notes Vonie Gilreath, mobility manager at the Berkley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments. "It's not really a walkable sidewalk," she says of the existing access. Zimmerman has walked the bridge a few times. "I'd have rather been biking — you get it over with faster," she says.
And it's not just West Ashley residents trying to get downtown. The longing is just as strong across the river. Peninsula resident, and City Paper contributor, Erin Perkins got rid of her car a few months ago. It's been a surprisingly easy adjustment getting everywhere on her bike's two wheels or her two feet, but she won't cross the Ashley River. "There's no easy access to get on the bridge, and there's no easy way to get where you need to go once you get on the other side," she says. "I have friends in West Ashley I haven't seen in a long time." Perkins' lease is up on her apartment, and she's looking around. Avondale and other neighborhoods across the river have a growing number of young residents, but the lack of bike access across the river makes West Ashley a non-starter.
MUSC hasn't taken a position on a bike/pedestrian lane, but Susan Johnson, the director of MUSC's employee wellness program, says the school's health-minded staff is always anxious for exercise options just like the trails they could find across the river — if they could make it. She notes the access would also be a plus for businesses in the South Windermere and Avondale area. "That would open up a lot of opportunities for MUSC employees," she says. "There are organic-minded businesses that promote healthy and active lifestyles. And it's almost easier than going downtown, but you have to get in your car and drive."
The grassroots movement for the bike and pedestrian lane is just forming. Perkins says she's anxious to get involved in the fight to put to rest the preconception that cyclists are the bike-short-wearing crowd that occasionally takes up a lane of traffic on long weekend treks. "People forget the every day, regular commuters like me," she says. "It's usually just me in my helmet trying to get to work." Bradford hopes to attract more community interest, noting this is not just about cyclists, it's about providing an alternative to sitting in your car. He says, "In three to four weeks, we should be able to see a groundswell."
For more information, visit the Ashley Crossing Coalition on Facebook.