It's beyond time to revise and re-envision our streetscapes 

Getting to the Other Side

On bent knee, with chalk, paint brushes and rollers in hand, volunteers spent three days last week coloring both within the lines, and well outside them. Along Upper King they worked, transforming intersections into artwork, crosswalks into colorful canvases. Polka dotted butterflies; images of hands — black and white —reaching across and grasping each other; and a xylophone of cheery bold stripes. Thanks to the vision and collaboration of nonprofits Enough Pie and Charleston Moves, these works of creative placemaking now jive across streets named for the trees that once stood where asphalt now grows: Maple, Cypress, Poplar. And a tree itself is painted across the intersection on the most ironic of all Charleston street names: Sans Souci Street — French for "without worry."

As if neighbors and citizens could indeed walk or pedal along this or other Charleston's streets "without worry."

Two weeks ago, a fourth pedestrian was killed at the same deadly Coming Street intersection where three other pedestrians have lost their lives in the last six years, and yet still there have been no significant safety improvements. "Coming" street, where cars keep coming, fast and furious, and those crossing on foot or by bike do so decidedly not sans souci.

Charleston markets itself to travel media as a lovely walkable town, and it surely is if you're meandering through quiet residential streets gawking at gorgeous homes and gardens. But if you're a college student trying to get to class, or an F&B server hoofing it to work, or a doctor or nurse trying to walk or bike across Calhoun and Courtenay to get to work saving lives, you do so, often, by first risking your own.

Recently I had the opportunity to accompany one of the nation's foremost "built environment" experts on a street audit across the peninsula. Dan Burden co-founded Walkable Communities, Inc. after a career working for DOT, mostly in Florida, and realizing that road engineers rarely if ever went out and walked along the streets they designed. Named one of the "six most important civic innovators in the world" by Time magazine, Burden currently serves as director of Innovation and Inspiration for the Blue Zones Project, and his visit was part of the Blue Zone Project's readiness assessment of Charleston. He'd not been here in more than a decade and was startled to see how the city had changed and how much development was going on, and yet simultaneously how primitive our bicycle-pedestrian infrastructure still was.

When we came to the corner of St. Philip and Calhoun as college classes were changing, Burden's bushy white eyebrows went high and wide as he watched the mad tangle of students vying for a few inches of curb space and crosswalk as cars whizzed by. Needless to say, the (non-existent) pedestrian and bicycle conditions on Ashley River Bridge raised more than eyebrows.

As a writer, I know how valuable it is to look over work with fresh eyes. Our streetscape is the same way, and Burden helped us see clunky intersections in the fresh way an editor hones in on poor sentence structure. (Go for it, trolls, that's your cue...)

For many of us, a crosswalk is just a crosswalk; a busy intersection is just a busy intersection. We're complacent because this is the way things have always been; it's what we are used to. I'd lived in Charleston for maybe 15 years and driven the Crosstown a zillion times before I ever realized that, wait a minute, the roadway razored through what once was a lovely neighborhood. To me it was just the Crosstown — a given. Now I can't help but look at the homes braced against it and wonder what it was like when those residents could walk continuously down Ashley or Rutledge to visit neighbors whose homes stood where the highway now gashes through — an eight-lane scar. A busy thoroughfare, but fair only to drivers speeding through.

This is what I love about the radical playfulness of coloring between the lines along Upper King Street. The freshly painted crosswalks challenge my complacency. They invite me to see differently, with fresh eyes. These art installations, part of Enough Pie's upcoming Awakening VI: Motion, not only make the crossings more visible to drivers, they make visible how simple and joyful it can be to create positive change. It doesn't take rocket science, or even transportation engineering, to make streets a bit more welcoming and pedestrian friendly. It takes gumption. A few cans of paint.

There is no reason that a city as allegedly friendly and hospitable as Charleston should have such hostile and dangerous streets. There is zero excuse for more pedestrian carnage along the Crosstown or elsewhere. There is no reason other than political foot-dragging (to use an ironic figure of speech) that walkers and bicyclists have no safe way to cross the short span over the Ashley River. Blaming walkers and bicyclists, even when they don't obey the rules, is, and always has been, pathetically lame. Our current road and intersection designs favor cars, period, and do not adequately consider the needs and safety of other users. We can, and must, do better. Coloring inside and outside the lines is a creative and happy start.


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