S.C. bike/ped deaths high, spending low Study rates cyclist, pedestrian safety against investment in projects

Pedestrians cross on sidewalks at the intersection of Hasell Street and Meeting Street Wednesday April 16, 2014. South Carolina ranks near the bottom for spending money on bike lanes and sidewalks and it ranks near the top for pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.

South Carolina continues to rank at the bottom for spending on bike lanes and sidewalks - and it ranks near the top for pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.

In the city of Charleston, almost one-third of all traffic fatalities are pedestrians, while 8 percent are people on bikes.

That's according to a new benchmarking study from the Alliance for Biking and Walking released Wednesday.

Nationally, only 1 percent of all trips in the United States are taken by bicycle, and 10.4 percent are made on foot. Only 2.8 percent of commuters across the country get to work by walking, however.

"Those these numbers are low, they represent a continuing gradual increase in bicycling and walking in the United States," the report said.

For the first time, the report compared Charleston with four other mid-size cities.

In Charleston, about 2.5 percent commute by bike, while 4.6 percent commute on foot, the study said. Almost 32 percent of all traffic fatalities in Charleston involve pedestrians, while another 7.9 percent involve cyclists.

But those percentages are almost exactly the same as in Eugene, Ore., where the level of biking and walking commuters is twice as high.

The Palmetto State's news isn't all bad. The state's 47th rank in terms of pedestrian and cycling fatalities actually is up from its previous 49th rank. And the state is in the middle of the pack (29th) when it comes to getting recommended physical exercise, and its schools also are more likely to participate in a Safe Routes to Schools program. Only seven states have a higher percentage.

The nearly 300-page report is intended to provide useful facts for cycling and pedestrian advocates and transportation policymakers.

Amy Johnson, director of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition, said she is not surprised by the results and noted cycling remains on the rise here despite the state's 47th safety rank.

"Our risk is really high yet there is still this emerging, rising demand for bicycling," she said. "It reveals that there's a demand for it, even though people realize it's unsafe."

South Carolina is among the majority of states that considers bicycles as vehicles, allows bicyclists to ride two abreast, and that does not require helmets for even young cyclists. Slightly less than 1 percent of its spending on large transportation projects goes toward bike and pedestrian facilities, and only North Dakota and West Virginia spend a smaller percent.

However, Johnson was less concerned about that low rank because such spending can be difficult to measure. She said the rank might not reflect the state's true level of spending but its lack of effort to identify such spending.

Johnson said she had not reviewed the study in detail, but she noted her organization has had an increased presence at the Statehouse, particularly following a bill earlier this year that would have required cyclists to buy liability insurance. The bill, introduced by Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, was quickly withdrawn.

"There's definitely a need for us to have more conversations with those folks (lawmakers) because there's an emerging interest in this topic," she said.

Previous reports were released in 2007, 2010 and 2012. They were funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AARP, and the American Public Transportation Association.

For the first time, the study compared the city of Charleston with four other cities with populations between 100,000 and 200,000.

The city of Charleston has a published goal to increase walking and bicycling, to increase bike lanes and sidewalks, to increase physical activity and decrease bike and pedestrian fatalities.

Stephanie Hunt, chairwoman of Charleston Moves, said she found the rate of pedestrian deaths "startling" and said the new report will help the advocacy group push for changes.

"What these things always do is show how much room for improvement we have," she said. "We have a lot of work to do."

Charleston reported dedicating $3.1 million in its city budget to bicycling and walking - a larger amount than any other medium-size city surveyed - but it lags way behind the other cities in terms of miles of bike lanes. Charleston has only 16 miles - far less than Chattanooga (35), Eugene (150) Fort Collins, Colo. (171), and Salt Lake City (190).

Tim Keane, director of Charleston's Planning, Preservation and Sustainability, said the city recently went through a hugely important decision to add a bike and pedestrian lane on the U.S. Highway 17 bridge over the Ashley River, and it has several bike trails planned in West Ashley.

"Charleston is a unique city when it comes to most issues, including walking and cycling, because the physical form of the city is different from other places," Keane said, adding its tight grid of narrow streets and sidewalks were laid out a century or two before those other cities.

It also was the only one of those cities that offered no bicycle or pedestrian education courses for youth or adults.

Still, the Palmetto Cycling Coalition released a statement saying, "Charleston and Greenville are taking the lead in our cities making investments in biking and walking and reaping the economic benefits," including attracting new employers and promoting healthier employees.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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