City leaders are making it clear that the new bike lane on Chapel Street is the first in a series of bike routes that could soon snake their way through the peninsula and, they hope, over the Ashley River.
Earlier this week, the city unveiled three-foot-wide bike lanes along Chapel and John streets in the historic Mazyck-Wraggsborough Neighborhood. Scheduled to be completed next month, the bike lanes will connect King Street to the East Bay Street pedestrian and bike path that heads over the Ravenel Bridge. After that, the city will look at adding bike lanes to other streets in the Garden District. Lanes are also planned on St. Andrews Boulevard this summer and along Morrison Drive when the road is resurfaced later this year.
City of Charleston Transportation Director Hernan Pena says most downtown streets are too narrow to accommodate a bike lane. However, future bike lanes may require the city to takeover a lane of traffic, especially on heavily used bike routes, like St. Philip Street. "If you go downtown, we're addicted to having two lanes in one direction, in places were you don't have the need for it," says Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings. "We've got to go back and reclaim some of those lanes."
One road that will be at the center of this take-back-the-lane debate will be the stretch of Highway 17 that crosses the Ashley River. Cyclists currently ride on a narrow sidewalk that puts them inches away from traffic (Please see the City Paper video for more). The danger is compounded when a cyclist comes across a pedestrian or a cyclist coming from the other direction.
Earlier this month, HDR Engineering determined that an initial proposal to attach a new bike and pedestrian path to the side of one of the two draw bridges over the Ashley would harm the stability of the bridge. Engineers told the county that constructing a separate bike crossing or making significant improvements to the bridge would cost up to $62 million. The city and the county simply don't have that kind of money.
The city has asked Charleston County to allow one of the four lanes heading onto the peninsula to be used for cyclists and pedestrians. "Reclaiming that lane is a short-term solution that was there in our face all these years," says Seekings, an avid cyclist himself.
Mayor Joe Riley says an Ashley River bike route is the key to connecting West Ashley cyclists to work centers like the medical corridor just over the river or the College of Charleston. "That lane, when built, and we've got a lot of work to do, will see a lot of commuters — really for the first time in our history — using a bike lane to get to and from work," Riley says.
Seekings' mother lives just over the bridge in West Ashley. "It would be great for people like me," he says. "You're going to see a lot of two-way use for that bridge."
The city has asked the county to fund a study examining the feasibility of using a lane and the impact reducing the roadway to three-lanes will have on traffic. Although the initial HDR Engineering study cost the county $430,000, more money was set aside which can be used to study the new proposal.
Although traffic engineers have yet to study the impact reducing the roadway by one lane will have on traffic, particularly during peak commuter hours, Riley thinks drivers will be barely affected by the change. "We believe the study will show that this will work fine," says Riley. "There are three lanes coming off the peninsula, and [there would be] three lane coming on the peninsula." The mayor even argues that the one-lane plan might make the trip safer for drivers. "In merging — there's a good bit of jockeying for position going on there," he adds.
The lane is not a sure thing. Crash-tested barriers would need to be built to protect pedestrians. Access on either side will have to be improved, and the metal surface of the draw bridge features groves that could catch and misdirect the wheels of bikes and cars alike. "They're small problems, comparatively," Seekings says.
Deputy Charleston County Administrator Kurt Taylor says the new study will not only consider using a lane over the Ashley River bridges, but will also look at whether the James Island Connector can provide safe access. Some cyclists currently use the connector — a comparatively safer route — but there is no dedicated bike access. City police have largely turned a blind eye to the illegal use.