Free trolleys, Greenway improvements, and planned bike racks and bike lanes were all spotlighted in a recent presentation on the City of Charleston's alternative transportation success. But the new, less-than-ideal bike lanes running up and down John and Chapel streets in the Garden District were noticeably absent.
The recently created bike lanes on the pair of Mazyck-Wraggborough streets was thought to be a plus for cycling commuters, but the lanes are narrower than the standard four feet and run in between parked cars and passing traffic, a dangerous spot for cyclists.
Katie Zimmerman recently told the City Paper about the danger she faces on the narrow sidewalk crossing the Ashley River Bridge. She's willing to take that trip on a daily basis, but she says she won't return to Chapel Street.
"I tried that out and I will not do that again," Zimmerman says, noting the lane is littered with debris and cars are parked carelessly in the way of riders.
City Councilman Mike Seekings, an avid cyclist, says the effort for shared roads had to start somewhere, but the city can do better. "We have to go take a look at that and learn from our beginnings," he says. "The lesson is that we have a lot of work to do."
It was a recognizable stumble out of the gate. But city leaders and grassroots supporters aren't ready to give up the asphalt just yet. They remain undeterred in the race to safely improve bike access and reshape the way we see Charleston's roads.
Work should begin this summer on bike lanes along Morrison Drive and St. Andrews Boulevard, both wide commuter routes with room to spare.
The city is also close to announcing locations for bike racks along King Street. Drive down the busy shopping district these days and you're likely to find bikes anchored to trees, lamp posts, and parking meters. An effort last year to prohibit bikes from being hitched to anything but bike racks was met with a chorus of, "What bike racks?" Now, selected on-street parking spaces will be replaced with racks that could fit up to 12 bikes.
We may not see any more mini-bike lanes after Chapel Street, but the city is pointing to another likely option: new markings on the street that alert motorists that they're expected to share a lane with cyclists. It's an approach taken in other communities with narrow, low-speed neighborhood streets. "Other cities can be instructive," says Seekings. "Paint works. Paint is cheap."
Where it's possible, Seekings is leading the charge to take back car lanes — the most notable being a lane over the Ashley River that's eyed for commuters like Zimmerman who carefully dodge pedestrians on the slim sidewalk. "This is the key to us being successful," Seekings says. "It will be a game changer."
Bill Eubanks says he lives in West Ashley, but his bike lives at his Chapel Street office downtown. The dangerous crossing keeps him in his car for the daily commute. "I really strongly believe I will not miss that extra lane if it's given over to bicycles and pedestrians," he says.
That's not the only bridge that threatens cyclists and pedestrians. "If you're coming downtown from James Island, there isn't any safe way," says island resident Eric Shaffer, pointing to the Wappoo Cut Bridge. "If I make one false move, I'm in trouble."
Changes on these routes will require negotiations with the state Department of Transportation, but Seekings has been crisscrossing the peninsula to find roads that could be quickly converted for bike lanes. "It's about being creative and getting out there to see what the possibilities are," he says.
Seekings points to five potential routes: Washington Street along Union Pier, Rutledge Avenue south of Broad Street, Wentworth Street in the area of Meeting and King streets, St. Philip Street near the College of Charleston, and roads through Hampton Park. "We're addicted to two lanes on one-way streets, and we have got to get rid of it," says Seekings. Pointing to a picture of Rutledge, with parked cars blocking a lane, he says, "We're a one-and-a-half lane city — that's terrible for cars, but great for bikes."
Before Rutledge residents look out their window to find the bike lane, Seekings says the city will be working with communities on any changes, learning from mistakes made by other municipalities that have seen a backlash regarding bike access — a recent New York Magazine cover story called it "Bikelash."
"There wasn't enough conversation between the citizens and the government — it just appeared one day," Seekings says of bike lane strife elsewhere. "What we do shouldn't just appear one day."
It's also going to require cyclists to be on their best behavior. Local bike advocate Tom Jones says sharing the road is a two-way street. "You see cyclists acting like jaywalking pedestrians," he says. City police have been issuing warnings when they see cyclists coasting through stop signs, running up on sidewalks, or riding without lights or reflectors. "We have worked very hard to make sure the rules of the road are easy to follow," Seekings says. "Now, we have to follow them." The city is going to do its part to help with online resources for cyclists that show preferred routes and helpful guidelines.
Grassroots bike advocates are anxious for change, says Tom Bradford, director of the nonprofit Charleston Moves. "We really need to take some very bold, life-saving action," he says. Communities like Portland have gone so far as to prioritize infrastructure improvements to put access for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit before cars.
For his part, Mayor Joe Riley has taken the bike access concerns to leaders at the state Department of Transportation. "On a state level, we need a real cultural change to make streets safer for everyone," Riley says.
Dana Beach, leader of the environmental watchdogs at the Coastal Conservation League, notes there is no silver bullet to address bike access. "There isn't one thing that you do," he says. "There are 1,000 things that you do."