Dr. Mitchell Hollon's death on the James Island Connector July 5 was not the first bicycle fatality in South Carolina this year. There have been at least 10, with four in the month of May alone. Peter Wilborn, a Charleston lawyer and bike advocate, says the state sees 12 to 16 bike fatalities in an average year. We are well on our way to exceeding that total.
Among Charleston's fallen bicyclists is Yury Babenko, a Russian man who was hit by a car late at night on May 20, and whose family Wilborn represents in court. Wilborn says Babenko had been working at a downtown hotel and was going to fly back to Russia soon to propose to his girlfriend; instead, members of the local Russian community raised the money to have his body shipped home. The driver of the car has been charged with driving under the influence.
What is to be done to make Charleston safer for bicyclists? Wilborn makes a few suggestions in a column he wrote for us, and one of the points he raises is that Charleston will not become a safer bike town until it becomes a town where a lot of people ride bikes. As bikes become a common sight on the road, drivers become accustomed to sharing it with them. There is, in other words, strength in numbers.
Wilborn is a fan of a rhetorical tweak that has gained currency in biking circles recently: referring to bike riders as bicyclists, not cyclists. The word "cyclist," he says, connotes elitism. The image is of a road warrior in a pricy spandex getup. "Bicyclist," on the other hand, includes anyone who happens to ride a bike, from the hardcore racer to the pokey commuter.
Daniel Russell-Einhorn, co-owner of Affordabike on King Street, understands the distinction. He says other bicycle shops have failed because they only catered to high-end bicycle purists who would come in looking for, say, a $4,500 Cannondale carbon-frame racing bike. At Russell-Einhorn's shop, you can find such a ride. But you can also buy a proletarian mountain bike or a $110 beach cruiser.
"This is not an elitist shop," he says. "Everybody is treated the same here."
In the spirit of Wilborn's strength-in-numbers idea, we at City Paper would like to introduce you to some of Charleston's bicyclists. They ride for transportation, for exercise, for pleasure, and out of necessity. They are your neighbors.
After Mitchell Hollon's death, Jaime Tenny started lobbying her husband, David Merritt, to buy a second car.
Merritt, co-owner of COAST Brewing with Tenny, rides 13 miles on his bicycle many mornings from his home in Mt. Pleasant to the brewery at the Navy Yard in North Charleston. And then, at the end of a work day, he makes the trip back, winding along back roads while armed with flashing lights to make his presence known. He wears a helmet, and he pulls off onto sidewalks when traffic gets hairy. It's not that Tenny doesn't trust him. She just doesn't feel safe with him out on the road anymore.
"It makes me more mad than anything else," says Tenny. "He loves riding his bike. He should be able to do that."
If Merritt is in a hurry, he pushes to beat his usual commute of 40 minutes. If not, he takes his sweet time, watches the sun rise and set, and counts the sailboats in the Cooper River. Some days, Merritt straps his bicycle to a rack on the family's only car — a Volkswagen Passat equipped to run on biodiesel — and rides partway to work while his wife drives their children, Kai and Aiden, to school. With a second car, he will be forfeiting a commute he has come to cherish, not to mention adding another car insurance payment to the family budget.
When Merritt started taking bicycling seriously last year, he paid $800 for a candy-orange Trek Cobia with heavy-duty front shocks, anticipating potholes and road debris along Spruill Avenue. And while he says Spruill can be "kind of exciting," with rocks and scrap metal scattered across the roadway, the scariest part of the route is Mt. Pleasant on the roads around Highway 17. Drivers on Spruill are used to seeing bicyclists and pedestrians, he says, but not so in Mt. Pleasant. His closest calls have all been on the stretch between his home and the Ravenel Bridge's ample bike lanes.
Drivers have purposely edged him right up to the curb. Once, a driver leaned out the window to yell, "Fuck you, biker, get the fuck off the road." He says he has never attempted crossing the James Island Connector on his bike because "you need eyes in the back of your head" to get safely across the bridge's exit ramps. He shakes his head when he talks about Hollon's death on the connector.
"I hope he didn't see anything coming," he says. "I hope it came quickly."
When Whitney Powers goes out to ride bicycles with her daughter, Olive, she picks her route carefully. She eschews the whizzing traffic on streets like East Bay, and she trusts her instincts when something seems unsafe.
"It was important for me to push this with Olive so that it wasn't something she didn't want to do," Powers says. "I don't think Olive's father would want us to stop."
Olive's father and Powers' husband, Edwin Gardner, died nearly a year ago from injuries he sustained in a bicycling accident. Gardner had just turned off of Lockwood Boulevard onto Montagu Street when a driver in a Jeep Grand Cherokee attempted to pass him. The Jeep hit Gardner on its front passenger side and dragged him for about 15 feet. He was taken to Medical University Hospital, where he died two days later.
It had been common to see Gardner and his family out riding in the Harleston Village neighborhood, and Gardner had served on the transportation committee of the Downtown Task Force. Powers still keeps in contact with bicycling advocates like Wilborn, who is helping to organize a bike ride to commemorate Gardner's life. Powers says the ride, scheduled to begin the morning of July 30 at Cannon Park, is "more celebratory than a dirge." Last year, a similar ride attracted a crowd of hundreds.
In Powers' mind, a safe bicycle route across the Ashley River would be an important "connective tissue" between West Ashley and the peninsula. Some in the cycling community have called for a bike route from the Battery to Folly Beach, but to her, that's still pie in the sky.
Olive got a new bicycle for her 12th birthday in March, and she and her mother ride to church, to the library, and to run errands on King Street. Sometimes they find themselves on Montagu, the street where Gardner's fatal accident occurred.
"In our minds, we always have to think of it as a fluke," Powers says.
In some ways, a bicycle rickshaw is an altogether different beast from a standard bicycle. With three wheels, there is no need to balance, but it takes about a month to get used to the mechanics of towing up to 700 pounds of human cargo.
At the end of a work day, Charleston Rickshaw Co. employee Drew Warren uses the sweat from his forearm to moisten and seal an envelope full of fares and tips and then steps across King Street from the company's storage depot to grab a drink from a corner store. He was warned about the city's narrow streets when he started nine months ago, but since then he has picked up a few pointers from experience: keep an eye out for pedestrians in the market; they dart out in traffic like it's a mall walkway. Watch out for drunk drivers when you work the 5 p.m.-to-2 a.m. shift. And keep your eyes peeled when a driver who wants to go straight is stuck behind someone turning left.
Sometimes, growing impatient, a driver will "just decide he's been stuck long enough" and whip around into the right lane to go straight. Problem is, he might not see a rickshaw coming up in that right lane. "You can see an SUV approach you, but you're not always going to see me."
Warren has not been in an accident on the job, and he feels safer working in Charleston than he would in hilly Columbia, where bike rickshaws are only beginning to catch on and there are only a handful on the road. He credits the City of Charleston for allowing rickshaw companies to increase their numbers over the years, making the man-powered taxis a common sight that drivers know to look out for.
The only dedicated bicycle lane Warren encounters on his route is along John Street. Other than that, he is constantly out in traffic, racing the same red lights and navigating the same maze of one-way streets as car drivers do. He does not think he is holding anyone up, though.
"It's not like I'm slow or clunky out there," Warren says. "You can really book it on these things if you know what you're doing."
In the unfinished back room at Affordabike on King Street, Daniel Linas rolls up the left leg of his gray gym shorts to show off a tattoo. A series of three stick figures parade across his middle thigh, biking, swimming, and running. Directly above the bicyclist, another figure sits behind the wheel of a boxy van, eyes glowing red in an otherwise colorless image.
Two years out, Linas still speaks angrily about the accident in West Ashley that would have killed him had he not been wearing a helmet. While training for a Half Ironman in the bicycle lane on Highway 61, he went straight at a green light, and a woman driving in the opposite direction turned left. He had the right of way.
Linas could have predicted that he would wreck eventually, one way or another. He trains with a group of 30 cyclists once a week, and when someone shows up with a shiny new road bike, all too often it is a replacement for one that was crashed.
"If you ask any serious cyclist in Charleston that's been riding for two years or more, they've been hit," Linas says. No one tracks the number of car vs. bicycle incidents in South Carolina, but Linas has heard horror stories.
Linas, a full-time student at the Citadel, works three jobs and is a sponsored triathlete at Affordabike. Weighing in at over 200 pounds, he races in the Clydesdale division. When he crashed on Highway 61, he cracked three ribs, bruised his liver, and lost consciousness; the car that hit him was totaled. He says he does not know what it will take to make Charleston safer for bikes, but he has learned that, when it comes to riding with traffic, "it's definitely a defensive game."
Ordinarily, his training group goes on weekly rides around Folly Beach, but they called the ride off for the week after Hollon died crossing the James Island Connector. Half of the riders would have ordinarily crossed the connector on bikes to get there, and that week, they could not bring themselves to do it.
Linas knows he has the law on his side, but the law is little protection against blunt force trauma. Under South Carolina law, bicyclists are allowed to ride on the shoulder when there is no bike lane, but they are not required to do so.
"I could go out on 17 and take up a whole lane if I wanted to," he says. "But I'm not going to."
It is midday in the summer, asphalt is oozing like primordial sludge at the edge of crumbling roads, and Shamel Casiah is coasting down Line Street on a mountain bike that is just a little too short for his legs. It is his day off from work, but he needs to get to the Family Dollar, so he is out of the air conditioning and taking his time. A ball cap is tugged low on his brow to keep the sun out.
He needs a new padlock to replace the one that is attached to the chain coiled around his bike's frame. It has been sticking lately, and it bears a few scars as if someone has tried to cut it open. If someone has indeed taken a crack at his lock, it is not the first time; he has had 11 bicycles stolen in the seven years he has lived downtown. Once, inexplicably, someone stole just the front wheel. Now he removes it and takes it into work with him at Safeway Food & Supplies.
"I've had bad luck with bikes," Casiah says. Bikes keep him moving, though. Casiah does not own a car, so he depends on a $10 used bicycle to get to work, to the store, and anywhere else he needs to be. The knobby tires on a mountain bike are best for his purposes, especially on back streets that have not seen a repaving in many a melting summer.
He takes his fair share of heckling for riding in city traffic, but he knows the law is on his side.
"They say, 'Get out of the way, you're not supposed to be in the street,' but we're not supposed to be on the sidewalk," Casiah says. He remembers one time when a man rolled down his car window to give Casiah a piece of his mind, but when he glimpsed Casiah's face and recognized him as a co-worker, he bit his tongue. "Oh, OK, now it's fine," Casiah recalls thinking.
Casiah obeys traffic laws and plays it safe for the most part, but he has never worn a helmet. The state of South Carolina does not even require helmets for motorcyclists, he says, so why should he wear one on his bicycle?