See if this sounds familiar.
In June, the city of Columbia added three miles of bike lanes to Farrow Road, a relatively busy thoroughfare north of downtown.
But so many residents complained that the city is removing those bike lanes this week. They never even finished putting up the new signs.
Columbia cycling advocates correctly noted this doesn’t bode well for the future of bike paths anywhere.
So, what happened? Well, Farrow was a four-lane road (with a center turn lane), and Columbia shut down two of them to make room for bikes.
Basically, 13,000 commuters each day had to merge into one lane in each direction. And while they were sitting in this newly created congestion, they had time to notice the Tour de France wasn’t exactly buzzing by in those new bike lanes.
Columbia City Hall got slammed with calls.
That's not so different from Charleston's attempt to shut down a lane of the Ashley River bridge for a bike lane in 2016. Luckily, the county tested the lane closure before doing any permanent work — because the same thing happened here.
Congestion and consternation.
There's a lesson in both episodes for people trying to build more bike lanes in Charleston, and for public officials.
For years, Charleston has wanted to make it easier to get around on bikes.
There have been some successes — the West Ashley Greenway, in particular — but the community still hasn’t found a way to get bikers from the suburbs to the peninsula.
The problem, of course, is all this water. Which is our biggest impediment to traffic flow, automotive and otherwise. It's impossible to bike from the western burbs to downtown without risking your life. And that's ridiculous.
Charleston City Council supported the idea of shutting down a lane of the T. Allen Legare Bridge for a bike/pedestrian path two years ago, and the county seemed amenable.
After all, hundreds of people showed up at their meetings advocating for this change and council members got just as many emails and phone calls. Public officials believed there was widespread support.
“They are called activists for a reason,” County Councilman Brantley Moody says. “As elected officials, it is our job to sort through the often skewed data and figure out what the often-silent majority wants to have happen.”
City and county officials learned just how limited that constituency actually was — as Columbia did — when they shut down lanes of traffic to make way for bikes. You don’t mess with people’s cars, particularly in a town where traffic is out of control. Eventually, the people in charge are going to hear about it.
Bike path supporters, and elected officials, need to incorporate that inescapable fact into any plan they put forward.
In some ways, the failed attempt to put a bike lane on the Ashley River bridge set back the movement by years.
Right now, the community is trying to secure a $12 million federal grant to help build a cycling bridge across the Ashley. We’ve been turned down once already.
Some local officials point out that if we’d started with that plan during the previous administration, Charleston might be on its way to safe biking from The Battery to the beach. Which is a fair point.
What happened in Columbia sent the signal, cyclists said, that anyone who doesn’t like a bike lane can simply call and get it removed. There’s a lot of truth to that. It’s just math.
The number of cars is always going to vastly outnumber bikes. And it’s hard to argue, in this climate anyway, that bike lanes will lead to large numbers of people pedaling to work. Officials who want to hold on to their elective office are going to side with the majority in most cases.
The best way to get better bike paths (better than the substandard offering on St. Andrew's Boulevard) is to find ways to build that infrastructure without infringing on already-overburdened roads or antagonizing already-frustrated commuters.
As Columbia proved once again, sometimes the silent majority speaks pretty loudly.