Let data drive bike lane decision

Three bicycles make their way over the Ashley River Bridge using the temporary bike/pedestrian lane early in April. (Brad Nettles/Staff)

West Ashley’s population surpassed the peninsula’s years ago. It topped 72,000 in 2014 and is continuing to grow.

A lot of those residents work, shop and attend school on the peninsula. And as the city’s revitalization efforts take shape, it’s reasonable to think peninsula residents will have more reasons to travel to West Ashley.

So it’s befuddling that some of the loudest opposition to a bike lane on the T. Allen Legare Jr. Bridge over the Ashley River comes from west of the Ashley.

It’s as if those residents don’t really want their neighbors to be able to bike and walk safely to work. It’s as if they consider the businesses and amenities west of the Ashley there for them alone.

Charleston City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to reaffirm its commitment to the bike lane on the bridge. In preparation for that vote, city staff prepared a data-based report on how the bike lane would benefit West Ashley and other parts of the city.

The findings make it even more ironic that some of the councilmen who have said the city should renege on that commitment represent West Ashley neighborhoods — even those located conveniently on the popular Greenway bike path that would connect to the bike lane.

According to research by the city’s Planning, Preservation and Sustainability Department, 13,294 people in West Ashley live within 20 minutes of the bike path. And 73,636 jobs on the peninsula are within a 20-minute bike ride of where the bike path ends, near the Ashley River. Those job numbers will grow when WestEdge develops near the old Ashley River Bridge with an expected 4,280 new jobs.

If Charleston’s experience echoes what has happened in numerous other cities that have added bicycle accessibility, property values will increase, retail visibility will widen and retail sales will grow.

So those councilmen who have promised to focus on West Ashley should expand their perspective beyond automobiles. Bicycling is a key element in providing that shot in the arm.

Residents appear to be enthusiastic about having an aquatic center to boost the West Ashley economy and enhance the health of people throughout the region. You’d think they would recognize that a safe bike lane across the Ashley could do the same things.

It was reasonable early on for people to be concerned lest a bike lane should heighten traffic problems. But engineering studies showed otherwise, and a recent trial period showed commutes would take only a minute or so longer during peak traffic.

Further, it makes sense that the more people there are who travel back and forth across the bridge by bicycle or on foot, the fewer there are who travel by car.

Charleston, like most U.S. cities, has been auto-centric. But younger people are driving less, and more people than ever are traveling to work by bike. Nationwide, those biking commuters grew about 60 percent between 2000 and 2014, according to the city’s research.

Charleston has begun a shift to include more alternate modes of transportation. Bicycling and walking are already popular on the peninsula, where parking is at a premium and employers like the Medical University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston understand the health and environmental benefits of bicycling. And where people in the hospitality industry understand its cost benefits.

If Charleston — all parts of it, including West Ashley, James Island, Johns Island and the peninsula — wants its economy and lifestyle to continue improving, the bike lane is an essential and timely part of the equation.

It’s a healthy, environmentally sensitive, financially doable — and data-driven — way to serve Charleston on both sides of the Ashley.