Tragedies bring people together. Siblings who haven't spoken in years are left to puzzle over burial plans. Parents long divorced lean on each other as their soldier son returns home one last time. A shared loss puts everyday reactions into perspective and then renders them petty and useless — things like animosity, prejudice, and partisanship.
Charleston is on the cusp of a new era in how we get around town. This city is poised to transform downtown biking from a simple recreational activity into a legitimate form of transportation for residents. City Council has made bike parking a priority this summer, while community leaders, business owners, and bike activists have begun examining ways to improve neighborhood streets in an effort to encourage alternative transportation.
Motorists have been ditching their cars in surprising numbers. Some want a better environment. Others want a faster, easier ride to work. And some don't have a choice, like college students or downtown's impoverished residents.
In the past two years, the Charleston cycling movement has been slowly organizing. The nonprofit Charleston Moves has been a strong advocate for better bike routes throughout the Lowcountry. The Holy City Bike Co-op has been educating the downtown community, offering workshops on repairs and safety. Others have organized events like fashion-forward bike rides around the peninsula and a bike-friendly day on King Street in May, with the street blocked off from cars, leaving it to cyclists and pedestrians. Community members worked on many of these projects together, but they were rarely compelled to rise up.
But on July 21, the bike community lost an advocate when avid cyclist Edwin Gardner died after his bike collided with a Jeep on Montagu Street. The accident has made bicycling advocates more engaged than ever in the effort to put Charleston on two wheels.
Earlier this year, a Peninsula Task Force was created to address the concerns of neighborhood residents, business owners, and nonprofit leaders invested in things like preservation and alternative transportation. A similar effort in the '90s is best remembered for recommending a livability court to address everyday neighbor disputes, and its success has led the city to develop a Livability Department.
Weeks before his death, Edwin Gardner was serving as a member on the task force's transportation subcommittee, offering suggestions that presented a bold vision for a more bike-friendly peninsula.
As doctors were fighting to save Gardner's life on the morning of July 31, two days after the accident, the subcommittee presented its draft recommendations to the full task force. The group noted it would meet again to finalize the suggestions, but it was evident that Gardner's accident highlighted the need to create safer streets for cyclists. The goal of these changes is to address the more easily implemented solutions.
One of the first changes centers on the issue of bike parking. The committee called for bike parking along King Street and other shopping districts, but they also suggest changes to the city's zoning requirements. Property owners routinely have to account for the necessary vehicular parking spaces to accommodate employees or customers, but there is rarely a requirement for bike parking.
The committee also suggested transforming some neighborhood streets from shortcuts for passers-thru to bike boulevards. It wouldn't ban car traffic, still providing access for residents, but it would encourage bike and transit use by lowering speed limits and creating special lanes and signs that make it clear these are bike routes first and foremost.
The recommendations are about changing the mindset where bike users feel like they have to get out of the way of cars, says city Planning Director Tim Keane. It should be the motorists, instead, who are on alert and constantly aware of their surroundings.
"It's about making the cars uncomfortable," Keane says. "It would be clear from all the signals we're giving that you're going to encounter pedestrians and cyclists."
The Mazyck-Wraggsborough neighborhood could provide a good test route for the new bike-friendly streets because of its wide roadways, says Vangie Rainsford, the president of the neighborhood association and a member of the task force's transportation subcommittee. She sees the change as an opportunity to improve the quality of life for residents.
"The more people see something else going on besides vehicular traffic, it's going to change a mindset," she says.
Other recommendations include periodically closing downtown streets to motorists, similar to the May event on King Street. And the ideas go beyond bike access, too, including improvements to bus shuttles and the pedicab industry.
Mayor Joe Riley, a co-chair of the Task Force, called the suggestions "a tremendously positive and constructive piece of work."
Riley said he'll be responsible for taking the final recommendations from the board, expected later this summer, to city staff and Charleston City Council for consideration.
Peter Wilborn organized a bike ride last weekend honoring Gardner. Wilborn believes that Gardner's tragic death will help transform the city.
"Charleston will never be the same after Edwin's death," Wilborn says. "And it will be immeasurably better because of him."
Fixing a Flat
It's likely the first changes won't directly make the roadways safer for cyclists. Instead, they will make biking in the Holy City more convenient for commuters and residents.
Think about it like this: Cycling is about more than riding. Imagine driving to work and there's nowhere to put your car. Would you drive to work tomorrow? Probably not.
The same can be said for cycling. If you don't have anywhere but your back porch to put your bike, the only trips you'll make will be around the block. If the city provides cyclists with more places to park, it literally opens up a new form of transportation.
City Councilman Mike Seekings, a downtown resident and cyclist, has been ironing out "fixes" to the city's complicated, cumbersome bike ordinance. But it was news to the biking community when those recommendations included a ban on hitching bikes to anything but a bike rack. The problem? There are few racks downtown.
Those top elected officials were also working without input from the Charleston Civic Design Center, a city office that looks for innovative solutions to urban planning problems like, say, finding a convenient, safe place to park bikes — something the design center has been analyzing for months.
Most of the changes to the ordinance are expected to receive overwhelming final approval this month. The modified ordinance clearly lays out a few rules, prohibiting bikes on downtown sidewalks while letting cyclists and motorists know they need to share the roadway wherever the speed limit is below 35 mph. The new ordinance also stresses that cyclists must obey the rules of the road or risk being ticketed. The city would also make bike registrations optional and eliminate a $1 fee, at least temporarily.
But the new bike parking requirements were sent back to the drawing board after cyclists came out in opposition. The Civic Design Center has been tasked with finding a solution to the parking problem over the next two months. Currently, downtown pedestrians are liable to find bikes chained to parking meters, palmetto trees, road signs, or lamp posts. For some riders, it's about convenience — after all, why would you chain your bike to a rack three blocks away when you can chain it to a tree in front of the bar where you're meeting friends. Cyclists told City Council to give them more racks before banning parking everywhere else.
"You're putting the cart before the horse," says Dan Kelly, a Holy City Bike Co-op organizer.
Mt. Pleasant resident William Hamilton says his son bikes across the Cooper River to get to his downtown office and there are no bike racks to lock his bike to. Hamilton suggests the debate is whether historic Charleston is willing to be user-friendly.
"This is not a movie set," he says. "This is a real city."
The outcry from cyclists and the responsiveness of City Council may be the catalyst for this revolution, says Tom Bradford, acting director of Charleston Moves.
"The city is awakening to the idea of bikes as transportation, not just leisure," he says.
The offices and small exhibition hall at the Civic Design Center are peppered with maps, models, and examples of successful bike initiatives in bike-friendly cities around the world.
Director Michael Maher says the Civic Design Center will likely address two issues at once: the complaints of cyclists about a lack of parking and the aesthetic concerns that likely prompted the proposed parking ban in the first place.
The city recognized the need for bike parking three years ago, putting a handful of racks along the busy King Street district. But the demand for bike parking has far outpaced the space on the small racks, which will hold up to four bikes under the best of circumstances — although we have yet to see the best of circumstances.
Parking concerns center on the King Street district and areas around the College of Charleston, but Maher hopes the city can look at other bike routes that need better parking, including the recently revitalized Spring and Cannon corridor.
"We want to think about where other places might be," he says.
And there will likely be different answers for different districts, just as car parking comes in different forms across the peninsula, including private lots, parallel parking, spaces for residents, and garages.
"It's not as simple as just adding bike racks," Maher says. "Do you need room for two, four, 10, 20? Where do you put them?"
There are short-term needs for cyclists running into the corner store and long-term needs for day-trippers exploring the city and commuters heading to work.
The folks at the Design Center know something about commuting to work on their bikes. An office full of cyclists, the Design Center developed its own parking fix with the help of Clemson architecture students. New bike lockers for city staff are under construction beside the Calhoun Street building, with a few uncovered spaces for anyone's use.
For the King Street district, one possible solution may be bike corrals. The first space off of King Street at each intersection would be replaced with a parking corral capable of holding 15-20 bikes. Maher says it would address the bike parking needs without endangering cyclists on King Street, and it would keep them out of the way of pedestrians on the crowded sidewalks.
And the city may not be the one putting up racks. Business owners have approached the city about pitching in financially to address what they see as an important part of their customer base.
Recently advocating for improved bike parking in front of City Council, Randall Goldman, managing partner of King Street firm Patrick Properties, said, "I'd love the opportunity to defray this cost."
Some cyclists will also have to adjust their behavior. There's a perception that they can park their ride in front of their destination rather than a half block down the street.
The first step in changing that mentality is providing a wealth of opportunities, Maher says.
"If we don't make it convenient, they're not going to use it," he says.
Initial recommendations from the Peninsula Task Force committee studying downtown transportation solutions include:
• An overhaul of the Downtown Area Shuttle service, improving the routes and frequency of trips, as well as providing smaller busses with internet access and bag storage.
• City permitting should emphasize alternative transportation and require direct support for transit, bike, and pedestrian improvements, similar to existing on-site parking mandates.
• Foster the pedicab industry by encouraging business owners who are responsive to concerns and provide a high-quality experience for users.
• Periodically or permanently close downtown streets to vehicle traffic when appropriate, including closings of the King Street strip once a month, as long as it doesn't negatively impact shop owners.
• Close the unused portion of the Norfolk Southern rail line from Line Street to Mount Pleasant Street, both for use by the neck community and for future access to the county park planned at Huger Street.
• Provide "ample" bike parking in the King Street shopping district, including bike corrals on every block.
• Establish a system of bike-friendly neighborhood streets that give priority to alternative transportation over vehicles.
• Include the tourism industry in the discussion of bike and pedestrian improvements.
Source: Peninsula Task Force Transportation Subcommittee