Sometime soon — it's not clear exactly when — bicyclists and pedestrians will be prohibited from crossing the James Island Connector. The S.C. Department of Transportation is going to put up signs warning non-motorists to turn back, and Charleston police will have to enforce the law against people who disobey them.
Tom Bradford, director of the bicycle advocacy group Charleston Moves, says the impending ban is "really bad news" because it will push bicyclists to use an alternate route between James Island and the peninsula. That route, starting on the peninsula, is across the westbound Ashley River Bridge, south on Folly Road, and over the narrow Wappoo Cut Bridge.
"That's death waiting to happen," Bradford says. "That's like multiple deaths waiting to happen." The Ashley River Bridge has no bike lanes yet, and while it is possible to cross it on a bicycle, many commuters opt to walk their bikes across on the narrow raised sidewalk. Folly Road has no bike lane at all, and Wappoo Cut makes some commuters nervous even in their cars.
Bradford stresses that some people currently biking the Connector do so because they cannot afford a car, and they will take the longer, riskier route out of necessity.
Technically, the SCDOT might be correct in shutting down the Connector to bike traffic. State law prohibits bicyclists from entering any "freeway," a term defined as "a multilane divided highway with full control of access, and grade separated interchanges, of the type comprising the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, or other highways built essentially in conformance to the standards of them." The Connector does bear a strong resemblance to an interstate, with its four lanes, center divider, and exit ramps, although certain features are missing. Notably, interstate highways are required to have 10-foot right paved shoulders, and certain sections of the Connector's shoulders are not nearly that wide.
Still, even if the Connector is a freeway, it's a technicality that law enforcers have overlooked for nearly two decades.
"Here's a fact: That connector was built approximately 18 years ago," Bradford says. "For 18 years, our local officials have turned a blind eye toward that presumed ban, and they have acknowledged for 18 years that there was no safer way for people on foot or on bicycles to get to James Island or downtown."
Charleston Moves plans to ask the state legislature for an amendment or exception to the law for the length of the Connector, or at least a portion of it. Bicyclists and pedestrians on the bridge encounter white-knuckle moments when they must cross over exits, where motorists can be seen barreling down the lane at upwards of 60 mph. Bradford says when he rides over the Connector, he sometimes comes to a complete stop to look over his shoulder and make sure the coast is clear at exits. "If you get practiced at it, it's something that can be done," he says.
Some of the discussion on bicycle safety in Charleston over the past year has been spurred by the death of Mitchell Hollon, an MUSC anesthesiologist who was killed on his bicycle in July 2011. A man driving an AT&T service van drifted into the emergency lane on the Connector and knocked Hollon off of his bicycle and into the marsh. According to the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, the driver had a history of speeding violations and careless driving.
"People make the mistake of thinking the accident had to do with [Hollon] being on the Connector," Bradford says. "That could have happened on any road. This was a distracted driver wandering out of his lane."
The state law against riding a bicycle on a freeway carries a penalty of up to a $100 fine or 30 days' incarceration. Officials from the SCDOT have not yet responded to questions about when the law will be enforced on the Connector.