COLUMBIA — The most dangerous stretch of roadway in the state for bicyclists and pedestrians looks inviting, not menacing.
It's the half-mile stretch of Harden Street running through the heart of Columbia's Five Points neighborhood. According to a recent study by the S.C. Department of Transportation, the area ranks as the most dangerous for pedestrians and bike riders despite its wide sidewalks.
To fix the problem, $4 million in federal funding has been allocated to redesign street features in Five Points and improve safety. That will cover much, but not all, of what planners say is needed.
Five Points is one of South Carolina's iconic neighborhoods, said Rep. Seth Rose, D-Columbia, who has worked to get safety improvements for the streets in his district. It's unacceptable that such an area would be so risky for those riding bikes or walking, Rose said.
"Five Points is a special place," he said. "This is our historic village."
A variety of options are on the table to help address the safety challenges of Five Points, according to Lauren Roeder, spokeswoman for the state DOT. Such features could include back plates on traffic signals, making them more visible to drivers or new concrete medians to keep cars in lanes.
Another option is to narrow Harden Street from four to two lanes on the long block between Blossom and Devine streets.
The idea is to create a two-lane streetscape that naturally encourages drivers to slow down while making more room for other users such as bikers and pedestrians. Rose expects this to be a key topic of conversation during public input sessions early in 2021.
Rose sees the need for such a change when drivers accelerate down Harden Street's hill as they come into the shopping and restaurant district.
"It feels like there is a four-lane interstate running through there," Rose said.
The traffic study conducted by DOT includes data that adds to that viewpoint.
The stretch of Harden Street through the heart of the neighborhood had 17 reported bike or pedestrian accidents between 2013 and 2018, according the research, and 14 accidents involving pedestrians. No one was killed in those accidents, but more than half included injuries of some severity.
The stretch of Blossom and Devine streets that winds through the neighborhood and into Shandon also ranked among the 10 most dangerous corridors in the DOT study.
Using a reduction in lanes to calm the flow of traffic would result in slower travel but not cause the area's streets to become overly gridlocked, according to the SCDOT review.
Steve Cook, who owns Saluda's Restaurant in Five Points and is board chairman for the neighborhood merchants association, said these changes, including the reduction in lanes, could give the area a more pedestrian-friendly feel.
Cities worldwide are looking at making areas more safe and comfortable for pedestrians and bikes rather than having everything set up for automobiles, and Five Points would be right in line with this trend, he said.
"It just makes perfect sense for what the vibe of our neighborhood is," Cook said.
One thing that might put more walkers on the streets of Five Points would be better parking. Even with the city having added a lot at a former gas station site at Harden and Saluda streets, there still is a need for more, according to local merchants.
Cook and others are looking at the imminent sale of the Wells Fargo bank branch on Saluda as a possibility to add public parking, even possibly a building with a parking garage, Cook said.
Wells Fargo intends to close the branch in February, leaving ATMs in place.
Cook sees an opportunity there akin to one of the largest redevelopments in downtown Charleston.
"This could be the Charleston Place of Five Points," Cook said.
The total cost of all that the transportation study endorsed to improve safety in the neighborhood was $4.85 million.
With $4 million in federal dollars allocated, Rose said he already is talking to budget leaders in the S.C. House about the need, and local governments could be asked to chip in. Rose said he understands how tight things will be for cities and counties because of the coronavirus, however.
Public hearings in January and February will lay out the details of the changes and give locals a chance to have their say.