Upcoming bike events

Today, May 16, is National Bike to Work day. Charleston Moves will host a Bike from Work Happy Hour from 5-6:30 p.m. at the Bay Street Biergarten.

On Wednesday, May 21, the Ride of Silence will begin at 7 p.m. at Hampton Park. The silent, police-escorted ride around town honors those who have lost their lives while cycling.

On Sunday, May 25, the 3rd Annual Blessing of the Bikes will take place in Marion Square at 10 a.m. This short, non-denominational service will ask for "safe journeying and joyful riding" for all local cyclists. The event is free and open to the public.

After the first car appeared on Charleston's streets in 1899, city government quickly banned it as a public nuisance.

Obviously, when it comes to getting around downtown, much has changed over time.

A group of business, government and nonprofit leaders got together this week to discuss how Charleston's mobility could - and should - change in future years.

Many ideas tossed out were dramatic and different, such as:

Demolishing Interstate 26 south of Cosgrove Avenue and replacing it with a more attractive boulevard into the city.

Having downtown businesses give employees a parking allowance - rather than a parking space - to encourage them to walk, bike or take a bus to work.

Redesigning some city streets to make more room for trolleys or buses or bikes.

Installing parking meters that raise their rates to adapt in real time to ensure that 15 percent of all spaces remain vacant - and motorists could monitor the changing rates on their smart phones.

The Historic Charleston Foundation, Charleston Moves, the city and the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority put together the visioning session because the city is enjoying a development boom - but its network of 18th and 19th century streets is not expanding at the same rate.

"If you consider any major livability issue, transportation is at the heart of it all," said William Cogswell, chair of the city's Peninsula Advisory Commission. He said this week's forum will mark the start of an effort among government, business and nonprofits to envision how the next generation of city residents will get around town.

"There is no silver bullet," he added. "It's not going to be an easy process. There's going to be a lot of trial and error, but the important part of all this process is to try something."

If the peninsula city is going to grow as fast as the Charleston metro area, its population will have to balloon from about 35,000 to 60,000 within the next 15 years, said Tim Keane, the city's director of planning, preservation and sustainability.

But Charleston's narrow, historic streets can't easily handle 71 percent more cars, and even if they could, it would take an area the size of 70 football fields to park them all.

Keane showed a 1949 photograph of King Street that showed it much more congested than it often is today.

"If we go into this saying, 'Our goal is to reduce congestion,' we will get frustrated and accomplish nothing," he said. "If it's not about reducing congestion, what is it about? What we need to concentrate on is how we want to live on the peninsula. It's about giving you options."

Terry Shook, a Charlotte architect who helped establish that city's blue line trolley, said Charleston is a resilient city that will continue to change. He recommended the change respect the city's urban character and should get emotional buy-in from residents.

He also suggested removing the easternmost few miles of Interstate 26 and replacing it with a boulevard. "Charleston needs a front door," he said. "You don't need to be one exit off a freeway on the way to Mount Pleasant."

Another outside expert, Rick Williams, executive director of Go Lloyd, detailed how business, government and nonprofit leaders reshuffled transportation in the Lloyd District, a 275-acre area that is one of Portland, Ore.'s five business districts.

To promote denser development, the Lloyd plan called for reducing the percentage of employees who drive to work alone from 72 percent in 1997 to 33 percent in 2025. It currently stands at 41 percent. Meanwhile, only 10 percent of the district's employees took transit to their jobs in 1997, but 38 percent do today. The goal is for 42 percent in 11 years.

"Define the problem, and hang some numbers on it," he said.

Some changes already are underway. The city is expected to start up a bike-share program downtown later this year, and one lane of the northbound U.S. Highway 17 drawbridge over the Ashley River is expected to be converted into a bike and pedestrian lane next year.

But more could be done, especially as Horizon Village, Union Pier, Magnolia, Courier Square and other large development take shape and potentially add many thousands of new residents and jobs.

Bicycle advocate Don Sparks suggested that King Street below Calhoun be converted into a pedestrian only zone, given the popularity of "Second Sunday," a monthly event where the street is closed to car traffic.

Others suggested banning the largest tour buses and designating some on-street parking spaces for residents only.

Many said CARTA does a good job given the level of its local subsidy - and the relatively low density of the larger Charleston metro area - but could become much more.

"We don't have a regional plan for public transportation, and we really have to have that," Keane said.

While CARTA has a bus, trolley and van network that reaches from North Charleston to downtown to East Cooper to West Ashley and James Island, its annual ridership is only about one third of the number of people who took the city's electric streetcars in the 1920s.

The area could try to increase that, CARTA director Christine Wilkinson said, but "we need to hear from the community what they want, what they need and what they'll be able to support."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.