Car-free community cropping up in rural Columbia suburb 

Bikes in the driveway

Bikes have had a growing presence on the Charleston peninsula, while Beach cruisers have been a staple on Folly and Sullivan's for years. There's even a push to connect the beach bikers and the urban cyclists with a dedicated route. But one Lowcountry Realtor and his partners are bringing practical bike use to the suburbs with the first bicycle-only subdivision in the nation. The community will be located in Gaston, a rural suburb just south of Columbia on Interstate 26.

The development will feature small access roads for emergency vehicles and moving and delivery vans, but residents and visitors to "Bicycle City" will be expected to park on the development's periphery and either bike or walk from there.

Joe Mellett, a Cincinnati-based internet marketer and one of the developers, says the community will feature miles of bike trails and homes built to "green" specifications, making it the "perfect place to live" for those who embrace sustainability, while also, potentially, becoming an "eco-tourism destination."

Mellett says they picked Lexington County because of its support for sustainable practices. While bike-friendly developments and initiatives are nothing new, Mellett says making the leap to a "bicycle-only" development is something that has yet to be embraced in the United States.

As a result, he, Edisto Island real estate broker Newton Boykin, and community designer Ozzie Nagler point to international developments like Zermatt, Switzerland, a ski-tourism Mecca, as a model for the team's intentions.

"There are lots of car-free developments, of course, but most substitute golf-type carts for cars," Mellet says. "I think we're the first car-free development that's seriously oriented toward cycling — and I think that's surprising. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, more people in America ride bicycles than play tennis or golf."

Mellett and Boykin have spent nearly $1 million on 140 acres about 15 miles south of Columbia. The first phase of the project will have 10 homes ranging from 800 to 1,600 square feet with prices starting in the $100,000s.

Mellett says if Lexington County gives the project the green light, construction could start as soon as this fall.

"Right now, we're looking at 10 homes and about 4.5 miles of trails," he says.

Nagler employed bike trails extensively in earlier work like the Columbia's Three Rivers Greenway and Harbison development. He also played a significant role in creating bike-centric communities in South Korea and Burma in the 1960s and even formulated a plan to make his native New York City more bicycle-friendly in the early '70s.

According to Nagler, the biggest hurdle the development team will have to overcome in making Bicycle City a reality is psychological: Americans expect their car is going to be parked right outside their front doors.

"The one thing we all realize, and Joe more than anyone, is that this development is not for everybody," Nagler says. "Some people simply won't embrace not having their car next to their home".

Nagler says promoting Bicycle City will in some ways be a process of getting people to take a closer look at how they actually live. Homeowners may like their cars close, but the reality is the same people think nothing of parking in a lot and walking several hundred feet to work or to stores

Nagler is no enemy of the automobile, but he says most communities are designed poorly for the driving experience.

"To me, the best environment for driving is freeway driving, getting out onto the interstate," he says. "Driving in city congestion isn't easy on our cars, and it isn't easy on us."

Nagler says the movement to create a bicycle-only community should be seen as providing a "bit of contrast" to the norm, a contrast that dovetails "nicely into people's interest in health and exercise."

If it catches on here, Nagler says you can expect to see similar developments sprouting up near Charleston and in other parts of the region.

"But again, and this is something Joe says all the time, we are not marketing this to 300 million Americans, or even 600,000 to 700,000 in the Midlands. We know this is not for everybody, but we think there are people who will love it."

Ironically, though, Nagler won't be among the charter residents.

"Oh, I would love to," he says. "It will be a great quality of life. Unfortunately, my wife and I have reached the age where our knees aren't up to it."

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