Is it possible to live in Charleston without a car?
Thousands of people do, relying on CARTA, bikes, and their own two feet to get around. But can a reporter living in West Ashley, with daily obligations all over town, successfully kick his car habit? For the month of April, City Paper staff writer Stratton Lawrence delved into the world of alternative transportation to experience life without four wheels and an engine.
I love my car. The blue 1972 VW Beetle I grew up with has taken me from coast to coast, and I care for it as if it were living. But she's getting old. If I had to pass emission inspections, it'd be all over.
While I don't have plans to ever junk my love bug, I'm responsible for my knowledge about how the harmless-looking little car is killing polar bears, and it was time to make a change. I greased up the chain on my secondhand road bike, found some ratty pannier bags to carry my gear, and even visited the thrift store for a $2.99 helmet.
My house is about a mile up Highway 61 from downtown, in the Avondale neighborhood of West Ashley. City Paper's office is on Morrison Drive, about as far north as you can go and still be "downtown." It seemed like an imposing ride.
On the first day I ever rode to work, sometime in January, I pedaled past what looked like a wad of money out in the street in my neighborhood. I figured it was a biblical tract, made to look like cash so people pick it up and find salvation, but I stopped to check it out regardless.
The packet was mostly $20's, sandwiching $100's and $50's. I knocked on the closest door and counted to $1,300 before a truck pulled out of the driveway behind the house. I said I'd found some cash, and the driver asked if it was a big pile in a rubber band, confirmation enough that I had found the bundle's true owner. I handed it over and now obsessively pan the ground when I'm riding.
That wad of dough gave me a new appreciation for passing through our city exposed, as opposed to inside a steel cockpit. I can wave or stop and speak to the neighbors. I can cut through Hampton Park and spend a few minutes relaxing under the trees. Last week I found a cell phone on Lockwood Drive and again made someone's day by returning it. Charleston becomes a much smaller city on my bicycle. There's a connection with my surroundings that I just can't get from the inside of a car.
Hanging Up the Keys
One week with no driving. Doing it for a story seemed like the best way to motivate myself to really make the commitment. I printed out 30 pages of CARTA maps and schedules, folded them into my bike's pannier bag, and set off on a sunny Monday almost a month ago.
The commute takes about 30 minutes on a bike — cut through Avondale, cross 61 at the SuperLube, then ride the opposing sidewalk over the Ashley's north bridge. From there you can go by The Citadel and Hampton Park, or make your way through the neighborhoods across and up the peninsula.
On Tuesday, I slept through my alarm and woke up at 8:45 a.m. I had an interview scheduled at 9:30 a.m. The experiment failed as I turned the ignition and sped into town.
In shame, I vowed to extend my carless period to three weeks as retribution for having driven on day two. But the next week I scored a last-minute ticket to the sold out Flaming Lips show in Myrtle Beach. Take a Greyhound? Fat chance. I got back in the car. The following Thursday I played a gig in Marion Square. How do I get the PA, amps, and guitars downtown without my car? CARTA was out of the question.
The fact is, my current lifestyle requires a car. I can get through an average day without it, but there are occasions where I need it, or would otherwise have to rely on a friend. Still, that Tuesday is the only time I've driven to work in the last month, so I'm giving myself a little credit.
Highways or Die-ways
"There is one thing that is holding me back (from bicycling) — I don't want to die," said Elizabeth Mabry, Executive Director of the S.C. Department of Transportation. That quote is highlighted on the website for Charleston Moves (charlestonmoves.org), a local organization dedicated to bettering our city's alternative transportation infrastructure, acknowledging that in our auto-centric culture biking can mean the occasional brush with danger.
In 2006, 23 bicyclists in Berkeley, Charleston, and Dorchester Counties perished in collisions. Another 178 suffered injuries. Drunk drivers and cell phones are obvious culprits, but roads built with inadequate bike lanes must bear a portion of the guilt.
"It's the cars' road," says Steve Merz, manager of The Bicycle Shoppe on Meeting Street. "You obey the laws, try to keep your head, and eventually when there's enough of us the city will say, 'Oh, look at all these bikers out there. Maybe we should put in a bike lane.'"
Merz was hit by a driver hurrying through a stop sign and broke his wrist. He shrugs it off, and still commutes daily from his West Ashley home, bringing along pannier bags if he needs to stop for groceries, hardware, or art supplies. "It's a lifestyle change where you go to the market three times a week instead of once," says Merz. "The city's not going to change for us. We're going to have to change the city."
To Charleston's credit, access for bus, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic has improved in recent years. Last fall, Mayor Joseph P. Riley announced the formation of a Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, a group that will soon hold its first meeting. High on the agenda is a retrofitted bike lane across the Ashley River, connecting the West Ashley Greenway with a route around the peninsula and over the Ravenel Bridge. The project could cost several million dollars to complete on a drawbridge, but it's a key component to the East Coast Greenway that will one day connect the entire East Coast like an urban Appalachian Trail.
The success of Wonders' Way (named after the late bicyclist Garrett Wonders), the bike and pedestrian lane over the Cooper River, is itself a testament to public desire for more out-of-car access to thoroughfares. Citadel professor Don Sparks, a founder of Charleston Moves, worked tirelessly for years to assure that the new bridge would include bike access.
"The planners and politicians had no idea how popular Wonders' Way was going to be," says Sparks. "I'm convinced that given a safe alternative route, a lot of people would prefer not to have to get in their cars."
Hop on the Bus, Gus
For those unable, unwilling, or afraid to bike in Charleston, CARTA provides an increasingly viable alternative to driving. The January addition of express service from West Ashley and Mt. Pleasant to MUSC and Downtown is already experiencing maximum capacity on its buses, and more will soon be added to the route.
When compared to bus systems in other cities, CARTA has never thrived. For decades, SCE&G ran a lackluster public transport system in Charleston. CARTA took over after getting a good deal on used buses from the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, beginning service in 1999. When their $25 million in startup funds ran out in 2003, they were forced to cut service by 75 percent. Four years ago, our city of nearly half a million people had a public transit system with three employees. Had the half-cent sales tax not passed the following year, CARTA would likely have only a few routes or be nonexistent today.
Fortunately for the 11,000 riders who utilize CARTA daily, 60 buses now operate on nearly 30 routes. Special "Flex" routes like CARTA-at-night will drop passengers anywhere in a designated area, and the Tel-A-Ride program picks up disabled citizens at their homes. Twenty-two shelters have been installed at bus stops this year, keeping those waiting for the bus dry and out of the elements.
Each CARTA bus is equipped with a rack for two bikes, and Executive Director Howard Chapman says they're currently looking at plans for racks that will hold six additional bikes on the back. For bicyclists stuck with the hair-raising dilemma of crossing the Ashley River at Cosgrove Avenue, CARTA has begun offering free shuttle service over the sidewalk-less bridge. "With the passage of the half-cent sales tax, we've been able to make a lot of improvements," says Chapman.
Both MUSC and the College of Charleston are making an effort to alleviate pressure on parking spaces by funding a program that allows students to ride CARTA for only 50 cents. Ashley Pulley, a CofC student, commutes daily from Goose Creek and enjoys the extra time to read and study. "It's easy and it's inexpensive," she says.
Out of current financial feasibility but still on CARTA's radar is the future addition of light rail. Tracks are already in place between downtown, Summerville, and Goose Creek, so purchasing cars and building stations are the two main hurdles to overcome. Studies estimate the cost at between $50 and $75 million dollars, significantly less than the minimum cost of $1 billion to widen I-26 along the same stretch.
"With our population exceeding half a million in the metropolitan area, that threshold causes you to start thinking a lot harder about improving public transportation," says Chapman. "It provides benefits like alleviation from gas prices and avoiding the headaches and frustration of traffic congestion."
During my month of biking and busing, I never felt unsafe. Highway 61 initially seemed daunting, but fortunately boasts a luxurious median. A car nearly backed into me once as it pulled out of a driveway, but I saw it coming and got out of the way. Dogs occasionally chase me, and I get an extra workout leaving them in the dust. Crossing the James Island Connector or the Ravenel Bridge on a bicycle provides unparalleled views of Charleston. If you're stuck battling a headwind, at least there's the downhill leg to help you recover. I even enjoy crossing the narrow sidewalk on Highway 17 over the Ashley. It's nice to feel what the water and wind are doing, and it gets me inspired to kayak or sail after work (alternative transportation methods that ironically require my car to utilize).
When I got a flat tire, or, as occurred on my first trip over the Ravenel, my derailer pops in half as I dig in up the incline, there's no need to call a tow truck. The bus is never too far, and I can ride it home or to a repair shop and then be on my way (thanks to The Bicycle Shoppe for helping me out). There were times I waited half an hour for the bus, but until more people ride it, there won't be the funding for more frequent routes. Plus it's a good chance to listen to music and ponder my next harebrained story idea.
"Charleston is probably the best cycling city in the Southeast," says Charleston Move's Don Sparks. "Traffic downtown is light and slow, there's a good grid network, and lots of parallel streets." If trends to improve roads continue, he sees this becoming one of the premiere biking communities in the nation.
Vonnie Gilraith of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG) reports that the tri-county area recently received a five-year, $200,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to improve our bike and pedestrian infrastructure, focusing on safe routes to school and work. Events like Festivelo, an annual gathering of cyclists from around the Southeast that recently moved from Wadmalaw Island to downtown, continue to put us on the biking world's map.
Although improvements will help, thousands of Charleston citizens already utilize alternative transportation on their daily commutes. We can't all be like environmentalist Ian Sanchez, who kayaks from James Island to the Aquarium and Shem Creek to work, but nearly everyone in the area is within walking or biking distance of a CARTA route.
"When people go to resorts on vacation, the first thing they do is get out of their car and rent bikes," says Don Sparks. "Why not do that in your hometown? I ride my bike because I'm lazy and don't want to find parking."
Even with the progress Charleston has shown, it's evident that the government's priority is still on cars. Sparks sees the proposed completion of I-526 from West Ashley to James Island as a strong indication that unsustainable development will continue, but hopes new bike lanes and completion of the Greenway will help counteract that.
In a breezy, warm month like May, there's few excuses not to ditch the keys and get outside. Steve Merz at the Bicycle Shoppe hopes to encourage that trend by offering inexpensive classes on Sunday nights for new bicyclists who want to learn basic maintenance and side-of-the-road repair for their two-wheelers.
"People in cars overlook the world," says Merz. "You see so much more on your bike, and there's real human interaction."
This Friday, May 18, is National Bike to Work Day. Go by bike once and you'll likely go again and again. As the city continues to improve bike infrastructure, that commute should only get safer and easier. Share the road!
Staff writer Stratton Lawrence is waiting to find his next wad of money in the street so he can get a bike that stays in one piece going uphill. See Video Clips from his month of biking on Stratton's blog,The Truffula Seed, and check charlestonmoves.org for up-to-date info on current projects and events that aim to make Charleston more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly.