The city is full of bikes. They are parked by the hundreds along main thoroughfares. They roll in orderly fashion up and down the streets, their riders attentive to the miniature traffic lights designed and installed at intersections just for them.
Car drivers react reflexively to the presence of all these bikes. They give way, as required. But it’s not often required, for the rules of the road account well for motorized traffic, too. Everyone takes turns. Everyone knows his place in the order of things.
The city, Copenhagen, is big and beautiful, but not sprawling, not overly suburbanized. It’s divided into neighborhoods — some at or near the historic center, some farther out — that accommodate a total of about 1.2 million residents. It’s all accessible by bike.
About 30 percent of all commutes in Copenhagen are made by bike, according to the World Economic Forum. More than 40 percent of work or school commutes are made by bike.
One evening, on a recent trip to Europe, my family and I cycled to dinner across the long and narrow Pebble Lake and into the Norrebro neighborhood, where we ate delicious Indian food at Kate’s Joint on Blagardsgade street. It took about 20 minutes to get there from our hotel near the Sydhavnen portion of the river.
We rode our bikes, rented from the hotel, everywhere: to the picturesque Nyhavn canal and the bronze Little Mermaid sculpture at Langelinie Park to the Christianshavn neighborhood and funky quasi-autonomous Christiana community across the river. We biked to the National Gallery and through the King’s Garden, a beautiful city park. We biked to the Meatpacking District and up to Balders Plads, nestled among apartment buildings, to hear a Copenhagen Jazz Festival concert featuring Charleston’s own Ranky Tanky. (The band was very well-received.)
We biked in chilly weather, wearing jackets and an extra layer of clothing. We cycled in drizzle (along with most of the rest of the city’s residents). We pedaled to Tivoli Gardens and to the beautiful Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek fine art museum. We biked to the Design Museum and fantastic harborfront Copenhagen Opera House, with its enormous overhanging roof and maritime aesthetic.
From our bikes, we admired the diversity of the city enriched by immigrants and dynamic architecture, which neatly combines old and new.
The city is pretty flat, thankfully, so all this time on the bike wasn’t very tiring. For the locals, cycling might occasionally become impractical because of heavy rain or very cold temperatures. The subway, light rail, buses and taxis are excellent alternatives. A train runs regularly between the city and the airport, a 15-minute ride.
All this got me thinking: Why doesn't Charleston do better to solve its traffic problems and address climate change challenges by limiting car traffic on the peninsula and encouraging sustainable transportation solutions such as biking, walking, public shuttles, better bus service and even light rail?
Shouldn’t we want a city that’s less congested and safer to navigate? Shouldn’t we want more bikes?
“It’s not for lack of planning,” said Jacob Lindsey, director of planning for the city of Charleston. “We have plenty of great plans on the books and they’re thorough and professional and really well done. You can’t change the infrastructure until you first do the study. Well, we’ve done the study. ... A network of safe-cycling streets can be built with zero impact to automobile traffic. We think it’s possible to move people around on bikes and in cars without creating additional congestion.”
Alternative transportation options, including bikes, are included in the city’s comprehensive land-use plan, the People Pedal Plan and other documents and presentations. These options have been devised and discussed by city officials, civic leaders and cycling advocates such as the local organization Charleston Moves, guest urban planners and others.
With Keith Benjamin at the helm of the city’s Department of Traffic and Transportation, some infrastructure changes are starting to get implemented, little by little, such as the conversion of Cannon and Spring streets from one-way to two-ways. That effort has slowed traffic, improved flow and made the corridor safer for cyclists, Lindsey and Benjamin said. Fewer accidents have been recorded by the city since the change.
The traffic and transportation department also has overseen resurfacing projects, and now it will upgrade Brigade Street, installing a protected bike lane and making safety improvements at the Meeting Street intersection.
It’s a small step in the right direction, said Benjamin who has been transforming his operation since he started in June 2017 from one focused only on maintenance to one that solves problems and implements solutions.
Those solutions need to be expansive, said Whitney Powers, a local architect whose husband Edwin Gardner, a cycling advocate, was killed downtown while riding his bike in 2010. They require financial support, government intervention and a different mindset, she said.
On the Charleston peninsula, biking and walking should become first choice, weather permitting, she said. Powers has taken note of a promising sign: more bikes, some of which are rentals, on the roads. But the city lags far behind many other places (like Copenhagen) that encourage cycling and also provide other reliable means of public transportation, she said. Charleston simply has not prioritized cycling. Here, the car is king.
“Having your own car is equated with having made it,” she said. “If you ride the bus, it’s because you have to ride the bus. It’s a last resort rather than a first choice.”
Cycling works best when reliable public transportation also is available, Powers noted. In some cities abroad, everything links up: bike systems, train systems, bus systems. It’s easy to move from one to another. And maintaining a car in these places is expensive, she added. Fuel costs and taxes are high, acting as a disincentive. Tax revenues, though, are used in part to build sustainable transportation alternatives.
But try telling a Charleston resident that he will need to pay a higher tax to fund the cost of bike lanes.
“The idea of efficiency is not in the vocabulary of Southerners,” Powers said.
Chicken and egg
Lindsey attributed the lack of adequate cycling infrastructure to three main barriers: the nature of our roadway network, which is bisected by waterways; control of the streets, which are mostly owned by the state; and the culture.
“Historically, we have been an auto-oriented culture in the post-World War II period,” Lindsey said. This has set up a chicken-and-egg scenario.
“Cultural change is something that will happen naturally if people have safe options for walking, biking, etc.," he said. "The cultural change will happen if the infrastructure change happens.” But the infrastructure change won’t happen without the embrace of a new way of thinking about public transportation, he said.
Where good cycling options exist, such as on Seabrook and Hilton Head islands, people don’t hesitate to use their bikes, even in warm weather, Lindsey said.
In order to implement what’s called a minimum-grid, the minimum infrastructure required to ensure safe walking and cycling throughout a designated portion of the city, Charleston administrators need control over the roads and new funding.
Benjamin is working on it.
He said he’s finding ways to spend S.C. Department of Transportation money designated for safety improvements on intersection upgrades (crosswalks, pedestrian signals, ADA ramps) and on the construction of some bike and pedestrian lanes. He’s also hoping to land a big grant that finally would help the city pay for a bike-friendly route that connects the peninsula to West Ashley.
He’s doing all this, and planning to do more, with equity in mind, he said.
“No person in our city should be unsafe getting from Point A to Point B,” Benjamin said. “In order for us to meet that mantra, we have to use right-of-way properly. We can’t favor some forms of transportation over others.”
But Powers wants some forms of transportation to be favored. Like bikes, and ferries, and comprehensive bus service.
“I’ve always argued that if you had a good ferry system, people would take a bus,” she said. “It would take a commitment, not just a couple of entrepreneurs who can’t get cooperation with CARTA or the city. ... It needs to be an integrated system.”
That’s what Copenhagen has, and the convenience is remarkable. It also makes urban travel affordable. And it encourages physical movement. One walks more in a subway city. And well-used bike lanes mean many residents get regular exercise.
In Charleston, cyclists and skateboarders sometimes get in the way of motorized traffic, and that can be irritating to a driver of a vehicle not meant to crawl along at 5 miles per hour.
Copenhagen, instead, leaves plenty of room for the bikes. And the drivers don’t mind it at all.