South Carolina Bike Friendly stats

S.C.'s Bicycle Friendly rank (out of 50 states): 34

While cycling is growing in popularity along the Grand Strand, its communities and businesses haven't sought national recognition as being bicycle friendly.

Bicycle friendly communities: Hilton Head Island (silver), Charleston (bronze), Columbia (bronze), Greenville (bronze), Spartanburg (bronze), Rock Hill (bronze).

Bicycle friendly businesses: 11 (including the Bees Ferry Animal Hospital and the Charleston Civic Design Center)

Bicycle friendly universities: Clemson (bronze); University of South Carolina (bronze)

Source: League of American Bicyclists

MYRTLE BEACH - This city is yet another example of how South Carolina's urban areas are seeing growing numbers of cyclists - and a growing number of tragedies when get struck and killed on the city's streets.

Last July, Jimmy Ray Westmoreland, a retiree from Winston Salem, N.C., who also was a veteran cyclist well-known and liked in the city's cycling community, was struck and killed while cycling on a quiet stretch of Ocean Drive. The driver, whose license was suspended, ran a stop sign.

A few weeks later, a Ukranian student who was in town working was cycling on the sidewalk, entered an intersection and hit a bus making a right hand turn. The bus driver wasn't charged. Another cycling-related fatality took place within weeks.

That spate of tragedy led the city to launch a new push to improve bike infrastructure - and spread the word on safety - to prevent similar tragedies. City planner Kelly Mezzapelle, herself a recreational cyclist, is helping with the effort.

"The cyclists are so outnumbered, there isn't much of a fight," she said. "The cyclists are always on the defense around here."

'The most amazing'

This city reflects the danger of cycling in South Carolina, a danger underscored last week by a national report ranking South Carolina 47th among the 50 states in terms of bikers and pedestrian killed in traffic accidents. That the state improved from 49th a few years before was little consolation to cycling advocates.

But if the city reflects the danger of cycling -or the bad part, it also reflects some of the encouraging changes taking place, said Amy Johnson, executive director of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition.

"They have had one of the most amazing bike-pedestrian street transformations," she said, referring to recent changes to Ocean Drive, the city street closest to the beach.

Once a four-lane street with two lanes of traffic in each direction, about half of Ocean Drive has been changed to one lane of traffic in each direction, a center turn lane and two bike lanes on the outside. Johnson said the change has encouraged more biking there.

Mezzapelle said the street changes were driven not by the cycling community but by a desire to slow traffic so that hotel guests, who often park on one side of Ocean Drive and stay on the other, could cross the street more easily.

"We did it for pedestrian safety," she said. "It has slowed traffic down and made people more aware."

But some stretches still have no lanes, including the so-called Cabana section, the part of Ocean Drive where there are no buildings between the street and the beach. It was here that Westmoreland was hit and killed.

The committee will look at those gaps, or doughnut holes, in the city's main cycling routes and how they might be filled in. It also is trying to educate both cyclists and drivers about the rules of the road.

More bikers, kinds of bikers

Despite the dangers, the city has seen a steady growth of cycling during the past several years.

Fleet Odom, a designer who also works part-time at the Myrtle Beach Bike Shop, said he has lived here for 30 years, "and I'd say within the past 10, it has really accelerated in terms of making this a more pedestrian-bike friendly area. I just see it growing from here."

Currently, Myrtle Beach is not among the six bike-friendly communities listed by the League of American Bicyclists, but there's talk of changing that.

Mezzapelle said part of the challenge in planning for bicycles is that there are so many kinds of riders: serious road cyclists who pedal thousands of miles a year; commuters, who often are foreign exchange students; casual riders and mountain bikers.

Tom Vitt, a local cycling advocate, said the different cycling communities have begun to realize that what benefits one will benefit all, either directly or indirectly.

"We've got a better working relationship than we've had in the past," he said.

Last year's spike in bicycle fatalities also led the community to found Respect Ride last September, a slow ride of a few miles to memorialize bicyclists lost and raise awareness of bike laws and safety. Another is set for this fall.

Reaching tourists

Wade Davis, an insurance agent, recently was adjusting his bike to tackle a 6.5-mile-long mountain bike trail known locally as the "Hulk," one of two relatively new courses.

"There's a lot more elevation here, which makes it a lot more fun and a lot more challenging," he said of the Hulk, which was laid out on mounds of spoil from dredging the nearby Intracoastal Waterway.

Davis said he took up cycling for fitness about seven years ago and prefers the mountain biking to riding on local streets.

"You can get hurt out here," he said, gesturing toward the trail, "but you can get killed out there."

Vitt agreed, noting that most of his local rides begin around 7:30 a.m. "so we can get done before things get crazy."

"The biggest problem with riding in Myrtle Beach is distracted driving, whether you classify that as wanting to get to the restaurant in time for an early bird or you're looking at your GPS or you're texting while driving or, candidly, you have a buzz on early in the afternoon," he added. "All of those things make for a bit of a challenge in prime tourist season."

Mezzapelle estimated that the vast majority of cyclists on the road either live or work in Myrtle Beach, a figure others did not dispute.

"I think there are still people who travel with bikes, but they just don't bring them here because they don't think Myrtle Beach has any place to ride," she said.

Completing more cycling paths and adding more bike lanes could change that perception, and if biking were to become a potential draw for tourists, then the city's streets could become safer still.

Odom said his fantasy would be to have tourists park west of the Intracoastal Waterway and take a train to their hotel.

"We'd be like Amsterdam," he said. "You'd just ride your bike and walk around and have a great time, but that will never happen in my lifetime, unless we run out of petroleum products."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.