Is the Charleston area bicycle friendly? We are asked that question a lot, and the answer is obvious: Of course not.
Can kids ride safely to school, to soccer practice, to a friend's house?
Can most folks get to work, the grocery store, or the movies by bike?
Can you ride a country road without getting buzzed and harassed by hostile drivers?
Is there a continuous network of bike lanes and paths throughout the city and county?
Are too many of our friends getting hurt and even killed just for riding a bike?
These questions are unfortunately rhetorical; the answer to each is indisputable.
In the past year, at least four bicyclists have been killed on Charleston area roads: Edwin Gardner, Ronny Gallardo, Yury Babenko, and Mitch Hollon. Similarly, four bicyclists were killed in the month of May statewide. Two of the deaths were allegedly the result of DUIs, and the other two were reportedly hit-and-runs. Each incident was entirely preventable. In our opinion, the bicyclists — bless them — were the victims of these crimes.
Naturally, each incident has sent waves of sadness, frustration, anger, and contempt into the community. In the days following each tragedy, the usual "us vs. them" rhetoric filled up the comment sections of online news sites, overwhelmed e-mail list-servs, and infiltrated dialogue on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere. Hurtful, cowardly, and over-exaggerated statements were exchanged, all of which serve to remind bicycle proponents like us just how much work remains in making our communities safer.
So, if Charleston and South Carolina are so unsafe for bicycling, why do we keep riding? Why do we keep demanding improved bicycling infrastructure, education, and enforcement from the government?
Charleston has every natural advantage to be a fantastic bicycling city. It is flat, the weather is great (most of the time), and distances are short enough to travel by bike. Most importantly, a large number of people want to ride. But how do we reconcile that potential with reality?
We keep on believing and we keep on riding. Whether we don our street clothes or our Lycra, we keep our bicycles nearby for the next opportunity to go by bike. Study after study shows that the more people that ride, the safer the conditions become. Indeed, it sounds counterintuitive, but as Portland, New York City, Minneapolis, and countless other cities have shown, the more people on their bikes, the better cars and bicycles coexist. This theory of "safety in numbers" is simple. Bike ridership increases, so cars become better accustomed to sharing the road with their two-wheeled counterparts; conversely, cyclists become more knowledgeable about their rights and responsibilities, and they become better stewards on the roads. Road conditions improve, and the number of bicycle-related fatalities and injuries plummets. It's a positive feedback loop for the greater good of the community.
How do we get more people to ride their bicycles? By offering more places to safely ride.
Over the last 10 years, the greater Charleston area has begun to invest in the foundation of a community-wide bicycle and pedestrian network, such as bike lanes in North Charleston and downtown connections to the Ravenel Bridge. The death of Dr. Mitch Hollon, however, is a piercing call to speed up the pace. We've ridden the James Island Connector hundreds of times, but it is clearly not the right route for all bicyclists, including kids, commuters, and casual cyclists. The community chorus around the Ashley River Crossing keeps building; a diverse group of Charlestonians — led by Charleston Moves — has demanded a safe way across. They have spoken, the politicians have begun to listen, and the time for action is immediate.
Not two days after Mitch's death, we found out terrible news from Washington: dedicated funding for bicycling projects will be eliminated if House and Senate transportation leaders have their way. Congressman John Mica of Florida, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, outlined his plans for the new transportation bill and called for the elimination of dedicated funding for biking and walking programs, which he suggested are "not in the national interest." His counterpart in the Senate, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said that one of his top three priorities for the next multiyear federal transportation bill is to eliminate "frivolous spending for bike trails."
In a state that largely relies on federal transportation dollars to fund dedicated bicycling projects, these proposals are a devastating blow. And for a community like Charleston, which is realizing its bicycle potential, these words uttered by Mica and Inhofe couldn't be further from the truth.
The future of a bicycle-friendly Charleston is in our hands, all of ours, and there are lots of ways to get involved. Charleston Moves, the Coastal Cyclists and other recreational groups, and the Palmetto Cycling Coalition are doing great work, as are our local government agencies. Our elected officials are coming onboard, but they need our feedback and support to move forward. So let's give it our all, let's work together, and most importantly, let's grab a bike and go for a ride.
Rachael Kefalos Bronson, the director of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition, and Peter Wilborn, founder of BikeLaw.com, are the producers of Safe Streets Save Lives, the first initiative of its kind that is working toward reducing the number of automobile/bicycle crashes and deaths on South Carolina roads.