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Columbia aims to create safer bike commutes with upcoming road projects
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COLUMBIA — Zach Pippin has crafted his daily 11-mile bicycle commute to be a breeze, aided by a low-traffic route and a push from the electric motor on his cargo bike.

But the trip from his home in Columbia's Cottontown neighborhood to West Columbia isn't without perils.

The 33-year-old visual artist and former photographer for Gov. Henry McMaster's office crosses the river via the sidewalk alongside traffic zipping across the Gervais Street bridge. Even with a bright-orange bike frame, he navigates people walking, close calls with cars and he was hit March 22 by an SUV turning right as he moved through a crosswalk on Gervais Street, leaving him with cuts and bruises.

Pippin is among an area bicycle community that has advocated for safe travel and the infrastructure that encourages safe cycling, and the city is planning to move forward with projects with that aim.

The city of Columbia is preparing to begin a series of road projects aimed at encouraging safe cycling as part of Richland County's $80 million penny tax program.

A county committee moved forward an agreement with the city March 23 that would fund more than $800,000 of work to promote bicycle travel on low-traffic streets in the city, establish buffered bike lanes downtown, narrowing vehicle lanes in some areas, and painting markers notifying drivers they are sharing the road with bicyclists.

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The projects are among a larger series of bicycle and pedestrian improvements planned throughout the county as part of the penny tax money.

In the city, planned roadwork was patterned from a bike and pedestrian master plan adopted by the city in 2015 that imagines a decades-long process to create a network of safe and efficient streets for those who bike in the city, either by choice or necessity.

In all, the plan called for more than 350 miles of greenway, bike paths, bike lanes, markings and marked routes in the city.

"I'd say the two keys are connected and protected," said Pippin, a vocal biking supporter on social media. "It doesn't do much good if I'm protected if I'm in a protected lane where I don't need to be; and it doesn't do much good if the road that goes where I need to be doesn't have protection."

Among the city projects that would be funded with $824,000 from the county's current budget are three "bike boulevards," designated bike routes on low-traffic streets that comprise multiple blocks downtown thought to best safely connect travelers where they might want to go.

One route would begin at Oak Street and Elmwood Avenue, travel Oak to College Street, College to Laurens Street, Laurens to Greene Street and Greene to Pickens Street.

Another would begin at Blossom and Williams streets and travel a network that ends at Catawba and Sumter streets.

A third route would start at Edgefield Street and River Drive near Earlewood and end at Wayne and Hampton streets while including a connection to the Vista Greenway.

Work also would include "sharrow" lane markings — painted arrows and bicycles on the street to alert drivers of a bike route — along Calhoun Street from Wayne to Park, bike lanes and narrowed vehicle lanes on Calhoun Street from Park to Pickens, and lane markers on Calhoun from Pickens to Harden. The route runs parallel to Elmwood and would allow cyclists traveling from one side of town to the other to bypass busy thoroughfares. 

Other plans include a painted bike lane on Washington Street from Lincoln Street to Park Street and buffered bike lanes on Washington from Park to Pickens Street The route would connect riders from the Vista to the center of town. 

As part of the agreement still to be approved, the county penny tax money would fund the work, while the city will be responsible for maintaining the finished product. No timetable has been released.

The work toward a more bicycle-friendly city has been going on for years. Columbia has been designated a bronze-level Bike Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists in 2008.

The designation is shared by 345 communities throughout the country and recognizes certain benchmarks, including bicycle friendly policies and planning and events that promote cycling. The University of South Carolina is one of five campuses in the state designated as bicycle friendly by the organization.

April Jones, a bicycling advocate who lives in the Pinehurst community off Two Notch Road just northeast of downtown, said public money might be better spent on helping fund organizations and programs that promote the bicycling than on the infrastructure itself. 

From her home on School House Road, Jones can strap her 2-year-old son on the red Trek bicycle that once belonged to her mother and ride a short distance to Pinehurst Park where they enjoy the playground, recreational trail and bird watching.

She also bikes to the new Starbucks in the BullsStreet District, the post office, Drew Wellness Center and the Richland County Library branch near Oak Street and Elmwood Avenue, where one of the proposed bike routes would begin.

"It's nice to put in a bike lane; it makes people feel good," Jones said. "But I think if you don't have a culture of people really utilizing it, then it kind of dies off."

Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Pippin and a friend, Damian Smith, started an online petition for Columbia to experiment with temporary, demonstration bike lanes to encourage the sudden boom of people riding, as many were homebound.

They are in the process of forming an advocacy group called Midlands Moves, similar to a Charleston organization that has successfully lobbied for major projects like a bike and pedestrian crossing connecting West Ashley to downtown Charleston.

"We've got to get those lower-confidence people out there on bikes," Pippin said. "We know for a large segment of the population, that's not going to happen without separated infrastructure."

DJ Edwards. Kati Baldwin/Provided

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Battle over Columbia bars could trigger a statewide reckoning on liquor sales
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COLUMBIA — The debate over the bar culture of Columbia's Five Points could become a cloud in the drinks of bar owners and patrons statewide.

With his legislative proposal, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian said he is simply spelling out exactly what a 19th century state constitutional provision means about how much food a restaurant must serve to get and keep an alcohol license.

Bar owners, however, see a major challenge to their businesses in what he proposes, especially spots that sell higher-priced cocktails or wine and concert halls.

"People don't come to cocktail bars or music venues to eat a full meal," said Joe Clarke, who owns the Greenville cocktail bar Vault & Vator.

The South Carolina constitution defines a restaurant eligible for a liquor license as one that is “primarily and substantially” in the business of serving meals. But there is no specific threshold and, under state law, bars are lumped in with restaurants.

Under Harpootlian’s bill, that would be 51 percent of a business’ gross revenue coming from food and nonalcoholic beverage sales.

To him, the term "primarily" has an obvious interpretation: more than half of revenues. It's not just serving snacks and having a stove somewhere in the back of the business, he said. 

Harpootlian said he is open to arguments that the number should be somewhat less, but that discussion has not really started.

"I am willing to talk, but no one's talking to me," Harpootlian told The Post and Courier.

There would be no way to reach that 51 percent threshold in a place like his, Clarke said, even with a bolstered menu because consumers expect something different.

Clarke said his cocktail bar is a place people visit to hang out and socialize, then maybe have an appetizer to snack on with their mixed drinks. 

It's not a restaurant and should not be regulated as one, he said: "It's a different business."

The math of how a bar bills its customers for drinks could change under such rules, said Craig Nelson, owner of Charleston cocktail bar Proof.

In other states, bars have sometimes priced out the ingredients of a drink for tax or revenue reasons, Nelson said.

That means that the customer gets a bill charging them $4 for juice, $2 for ice and water and $4 for the liquor in a drink. That way, the alcohol does not make up the majority of the bill.

"I feel there could be a lot of revenue lost for the state," Nelson said.

The focus of Harpootlian's ire has been the bars catering to a college-aged crowd in Columbia's Five Points.

Soon, 11 of those bars are facing court hearings over getting their liquor licenses renewed, a tactic that Harpootlian and other neighbors have used to prompt change. The first hearing in those cases is scheduled for late April.

Neighbors say that drinking-related misbehavior has worsened in recent years, spilling over from the bars into their neighborhoods. In four of the protests, the University of South Carolina has joined with neighbors, saying that bars have been encouraging irresponsible drinking.

The college bars at the focus on the debate could never pass a 51 percent test because so much of their substantial profits comes from selling drinks.

"The Five Points bars won't exist if they have to serve food," Harpootlian said.

The state constitution's limit needs to be clarified in some way, he said, because it cannot simply be ignored. It was drafted to shut down the wild saloons that dotted the state during the post-Civil War years and still applies.

If people believe a new set of rules for bars is needed in South Carolina now, they need to amend the state constitution, the senator said.  

Harpootlian hopes his bill, which has had one committee hearing already, can move forward to the Senate floor soon, though he acknowledges that getting it passed and sent to the governor likely means a two-year process. 

Not everyone shares Harpootlian's view of what the constitution requires, however. 

Bakari Sellers, a Columbia attorney who has defended bars in court over alcohol license protests, argues that the law doesn't conform to Harpootlian's definition of what constitutes being primarily focused on serving food. 

Sellers points to wording in state statutes that says that anyplace with a liquor license needs only to be ready to prepare food and to have an available menu of items. In his view, there is no implied level of required food sales as Harpootlian argues.

Instead, Harpootlian is interpreting the law the way it can help him in his drive to change Five Points, he said.

"The law is pretty clear, it just doesn't say what he wants it to say."