Who out there loves traffic? Got any friends who use the Waze app as if it were Pokémon Go — to seek out the most stifled, most congested roadways so they can go see what all the commotion is about? Doubt it. Not even the possibility of capturing a Pikachu or upping your combat power — which you'll definitely need — would drive us to want more traffic.
If there's one thing that we can all agree on in our increasingly polarized world, it's that there's nothing remotely edifying about being stalled on asphalt, bottled up in a box of steel, breathing exhaust fumes, burning unrenewable fossil fuels, and going nowhere. Traffic jams are a soul-sucking, time-and-money wasting headache, and the recurring migraine of an inefficient transportation system. In fact, the only thing more excruciating and maddening than sitting in traffic might be sitting through a five and a half hour City Council meeting with elected officials blowing their own horns nonstop.
And here's a news flash for those who endured that marathon July City Council meeting and more or less blamed the "Bike Lobby" for making traffic worse: cyclists, and even two-wheeled lobbyists (if there were such a thing locally — news flash No. 2: there's not) don't like traffic. They don't wish it on anyone — well, except maybe Councilman Waring who argued against converting a lane by claiming "bicyclists will have to die." But what they do understand is that traffic, to echo transportation guru Gabe Klein, is not the problem itself but a symptom of a larger disease.
Undeniably, there's too much traffic in greater Charleston, and it's only getting worse. Absolutely there are serious congestion issues in West Ashley, as there are in Mt. Pleasant and Summerville and yes, even on idyllic Sullivan's Island. Is this traffic caused by, or made worse by, bike lanes? Not to date, though admittedly our region has a shamefully small sample pool. But in cities near and far that have more extensive bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, traffic has not been exacerbated; in fact, flow tends to be improved. That's because traffic congestion is fundamentally a result of too many cars rather than a lack of pavement. And Charleston's underlying disease, if you will, is a gridlocked mindset that is reluctant to consider viable, easy, and affordable alternatives to our car-dependent, convenience-addicted culture. Because, you know, we might get sweaty.
When Dwayne Green (July 27 guest column) asks "Will traffic into and off of the peninsula suffer as a result of the new bike lane?" he's asking the wrong question. It's the same wrong question and shortsighted equation that those who voted against the bike/ped lane used to justify their vote. Overlooking the minor point that traffic doesn't suffer (those stuck in it do), Green & Co. fall short by suggesting that the success or failure of the lane conversion can be assessed by measuring one factor: automotive congestion. What he ignores is the fact that, given our current growth, traffic throughout our region, including Folly Road, Maybank Highway, and Savannah Highway, is only going to get worse, even if there were no lane conversion. Traffic is a given and it's multiplying; it's a false equation.
Studies worldwide show that constructing more roads and more car lanes only encourages more cars, and eventually more congestion. And studies, such as one recently conducted by the University of Virginia, also show that the best way to effectively increase bike ridership to a level that gives some palpable relief to congestion is to add legitimate, and ideally, protected, bike lanes. If and when your average everyday bike rider feels safe, he or she will ride. And conversely the study found that drivers become more accepting of cyclists when it's clear who belongs where on our roadways (and, I would add — hint, hint to my fellow riders — when cyclists behave).
I view the recent and controversial Legare Bridge lane conversion test and traffic study, and how we interpret the data, less as a test of traffic flow than a test of will, a vision test, a study in who we are as a community. We've spent years now arguing and advocating, voting, re-voting, and voting yet again, about less than half-a-mile of roadway and a few minutes of possible driver delay. Talk about gridlock. But finally, thanks to Mayor Tecklenburg's wisdom and deciding vote, we've passed a more critical road test. One that affirms that our community serves and protects all people, not just people in cars. One that declares that the road forward and across this divide is the way of inclusivity, a bridge to a future that embraces alternative modes of transportation and connects disjointed neighborhoods. Let's merge now beyond bitching and moaning about inevitable traffic to a more important destination — a healthier, safer, more connected community.