While we were busy sweeping up after Matthew and raking in, yet again, the coveted No. 1 City accolade from Conde Nast Traveler, many of us may have missed another whopper of an award that our high-ranking Holy City was recently bestowed. The latest list-topper came from Bicycling magazine: "2016's Worst City for Bicycling."
Talk about a flat tire.
But why should anyone care that a niche publication calls our fair city out for its bicycle unfriendliness? "For all that makes Charleston so great, the vast majority of its residents can't safely access that greatness by bike," the article noted, going on to point out while most thriving metropolitan regions in the U.S., and certainly our competitor cities, are rapidly investing in bicycle infrastructure, our city and regional governments "have implicitly — and sometimes explicitly — discouraged cycling. Throughout Charleston, bike lanes and trails exist sparingly, and end abruptly."
Here's why you should strap your helmet on and give a damn. For one, Bicycling is the world's largest cycling magazine, with a global readership of 2 million — compared to Conde Nast's 3 million, that's nothing to laugh at. Its readers are affluent (average household income of $102,573) and 77 percent of them are college educated. In other words, this is the demographic our tourism leaders are spending your tax dollars to target.
In fact, our fabulously successful and savvy tourism marketing mavens at the CVB are prominently featuring bicyclists leisurely two-wheeling down our charming streets in their "Explore Charleston" videos and print ads. Click on their website landing page and see for yourself. Some of our finest and most celebrated hotels, including Zero George, The Restoration, The Spectator, and The Dewberry, offer bikes as amenities to their guests and populate their Instagram feeds with guests-on-bikes pics, and guess what, it's working. Folks who are willing to pay upwards of $400 a night to stay in Charleston evidently are attracted by bikes. It's the new sexy. Similarly, look at promotional materials for new residential developments from Carolina Park to Summers Corner, and the ads routinely show bikes.
All of which I love, I applaud. It's smart for the CVB and others to use bike appeal as an effective marketing ploy. Plus, more visitors on bikes means less traffic on roads and a better visitor and resident experience. Exploring Charleston by bike is one of my absolute favorite things to do, and I encourage everyone to ditch your cars and pedal along, even those of you getting ready to write a snarky comment here about how bicyclists in Charleston are rude and get in your way. Yes even you, and perhaps especially you, could benefit from the pleasures of experiencing our incredible streetscape, savoring the scent of tea olives, jasmine, and restaurant kitchens, of making eye contact with the people around you, even if you glare.
What's not good is the disconnect that's apparent when you contrast one week's Bicycling magazine award with the next week's Conde Nast glory. It seems folks are being lured here under false bike-friendly pretenses, but that's not the CVB's fault — they're just doing their job, and obviously doing it damn well. It's our fault for not ensuring our region lives up to its claims, or its potential.
Our shameful Bicycling magazine designation brings national and international attention to our region's lack of connected infrastructure and to the neglect by the folks we've elected who have failed to bring us up to speed. Even more embarrassing, it highlights our city and county councils' failure to abide by established public processes and procedures and move forward with the linchpin Legare Bridge bike/ped access lane across the Ashley River. Witness City Councilman Marvin Wagner standing up in a County Council meeting and publicly calling his fellow council members "wrong" for twice voting to approve the lane. In refusing to admit defeat and in their doggedness to kill the lane, Wagner and his naysaying pal Moody are being as irresponsible and undemocratic as the tantrum-prone Trump who claims election results will be valid only "if I win."
But it's more than just unbecoming to be nationally shamed for our bicycling backwardness when the rest of the country, from Chicago to Austin to Chattanooga to New Orleans to Louisville — all of which appeared on the magazine's list of Top 50 Best Bike Cities — are all actively investing in making their communities safer and more accessible to those not in cars. It's detrimental to our region's quality of life, our health and wellness, and our economic growth.Case studies routinely show that stores and businesses thrive when bicycle and pedestrian access improves—just ask the King Street retailers who want more bike corrals (which initially received huge push back) added. High quality employers and clean industry, especially tech companies, are attracted to cities where their employees and their families can safely bike and walk. Bicycle tourism is booming across the country, with states like Oregon, North Carolina and Florida proactively investing in growing this sector because bicycle tourists have less negative impact, stay longer in a state and spend more per day than other tourists, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report. Shame on us, Charleston. We can celebrate our accolades all we want, and we can take well-deserved pride in attracting tourists and being friendly to visitors. But let’s also be honest. If we’re using the appeal of bikes to lure them here, let’s put some intention, vision and political muscle into making it friendly and safe for them to ride once they arrive. That’ll be a win-win for tourists and residents alike.