South Carolina is one of the only Southern states without a Complete Streets law, which focuses on a holistic approach for streets to ensure they’re safe for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists.
Advocacy groups say the state is falling behind safety standards because a Complete Streets law isn’t on the books. Officials with the S.C. Department of Transportation, however, say a Complete Streets approach is too costly, given its budget constraints.
The conflict is the most recent flashpoint in a years-long debate over how best to implement changes to South Carolina roadways, which a new national study recently named the 10th most dangerous for pedestrians.
South Carolina technically has a resolution on the books from 2003 that encourages streets to be built from a Complete Streets frame of mind. But in reality, many state roads have remained notoriously dangerous, and advocates say the resolution is basically worthless.
In the past six years, crashes on South Carolina’s roads and highways have claimed the lives of more than 900 pedestrians and bicyclists, and, in 2016, the Palmetto State had the highest traffic fatality rate in the continental United States.
Implementing a Complete Streets law would help lower those statistics, said Amy Johnson Ely, executive director of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition. Ely is a part of the S.C. Livable Communities Alliance, which has been lobbying local and state officials to fix the Palmetto State’s dangerous roadways.
“This is something South Carolina needs to do,” she said.
‘Dangerous by Design’
The yearly “Dangerous by Design” study from the National Complete Streets Coalition not only found South Carolina's roads to be the 10th most dangerous in the country for pedestrians, but it also singled out several towns across the state that have especially troubling statistics.
Charleston and Greenville had Pedestrian Danger Indexes twice the national average. The index is calculated based on the number of people struck and killed by drivers while walking, and it factors in both the number of people who live in the state and the number of people who walk to work.
While Charleston and Greenville are more-urban areas, more striking from the survey was Florence’s PDI, which is six times the national average, even though that city is not as densely populated.
This, according to the study, is due in part to roadways in rural America that are designed and oriented for cars. Many don’t have sidewalks or marked crosswalks. This not only makes it more dangerous to walk on rural streets, but it takes exponentially longer for emergency response teams to reach victims.
Between 2008 and 2017, motorists struck and killed 1,144 people walking in South Carolina, and the study found that both nationally and in the state, older adults, people of color and those walking in low-income communities were killed at disproportionately higher rates.
“Protecting the safety of all people who use the street, especially the people most vulnerable to being struck and killed, needs to be a higher priority for policymakers,” the study concluded. “This priority must be reflected in the decisions we make about how to fund, design, operate, maintain, and measure the success of our roads.”
A push for advocacy
Three years ago, the Palmetto Cycling Coalition found an ally in South Carolina’s branch of AARP and began drafting a Complete Streets policy. The efforts seemed positive, Ely said, especially after the group identified how the roads were getting worse, as well as the growing support to make improvements.
“But DOT kept saying no,” Ely said.
Then, the Alliance took things a step further, looping in metropolitan planning organizations, city planners and designers from local governments to create a thorough policy that covered all bases.
“We drafted this policy and then started to float it by DOT," Ely said. "In 2016-17, we went and we got a 'no' both times."
The answer to what the Alliance is looking for, at least from a DOT perspective, comes in those they brought in to make their policy stronger.
“You just have to look at how far you have to go with the Complete Streets initiative," said Rob Perry, DOT director of Traffic Engineering. "What we have told advocates is that there are metropolitan planning organizations and council governments in each region that include legislators, council members and mayors. They have federal funds they can dedicate to projects, and we would like to see Complete Streets plans approved by those organizations."
But for advocates, that isn’t quite enough. Solutions need to be proposed on a situation-by-situation basis rather than painting with a broad brush, they say. The changes need to fit the street, and not every crosswalk, sidewalk or bike lane accommodation is the same.
What’s more, whether the area is rural or urban also should be taken into greater consideration, they said. It’s what they call a “multi-modal approach,” and it’s one they say has been successful in the 32 states with Complete Streets laws.
Politics behind Safer Streets
After striking out with pitching Complete Streets to DOT officials, the Alliance gathered support from 23 mayors across the Palmetto State who attached their names to a one-page letter outlining support for the policy.
Now, Ely said, there’s an agreement to float that letter to nine DOT commissioners and within the DOT staff. Locally, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey signed their names.
That had some success, Ely said, but it wasn’t quite enough. The group realized they weren’t talking to people high enough. So they took their efforts to Columbia.
House Bill 3656 was introduced in January and sponsored by seven representatives, but it didn’t advance out of the Committee on Education and Public Works during the first year of the two-year legislative session.
Though the bill had some bipartisan support, it was only given a committee hearing a mere two weeks before legislation had to be passed for the April 10 crossover deadline. There also was not a fiscal impact study completed due to the relative lack of traction the bill received.
The bill would have simply added a sentence to the role of the DOT, which "shall implement a 'complete streets' policy with the goal of improving publicly funded highways in urban areas to provide safe and efficient accommodation for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders."
Even though the bill is still sitting in committee, Ely said the Alliance is cautiously optimistic DOT officials will make some of the suggested changes.
“We have high hopes that they are going to pass those policies within the SC DOT commission before the 2020 legislative session,” she said.
While that remains to be seen, Perry said whatever changes are made regarding Complete Streets efforts can’t come from DOT funds alone. The department already, for the first time this fiscal year, set aside $5 million of the $50 million it gets in federal funds to address non-motorized safety projects aimed at reducing crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians.
“It has to be everyone putting means together to reduce these types of accidents,” he said. “There are four Es (engineering, enforcement, education and emergency response) to traffic safety. Engineering is just one of them.”
Tecklenburg said the goal of all interested parties is to find cost-effective solutions that bring down the ominous statistics in Charleston and across the state.
"It’s like taking bites of the elephant. There are lots of improvements that can be done collectively between the city, county and DOT," he said. "We’re definitely working on it."
Initiatives to improve roadways are already underway, Tecklenburg said, including two-way conversions, adding sidewalks and improving bikeways. The city is in the process of working with DOT on future improvements.
"There’s no question that funding has been limited and that’s why it’s important that all levels and dollars wherever possible can be brought to bear," he said. "It's what you do with the money you have that makes the most connections and makes the most sense."
Finally, Tecklenburg said, another important conversation needs to come in educating drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists. No one person owns the road, and education materials may reduce some of the conditions that make the state and city roadways so dangerous.
“We have been beating the drum about drivers who drive under the influence and create havoc and accidents on our highways and other violations,” he said. “We are even trying to train folks about safety while riding bikes in the city. It’s really a joint responsibility of everyone watching out for each other and driving and riding a bike defensively.”
Whatever the solutions end up being, Ely said it's important South Carolina takes steps toward improving road safety for all users. It’s especially important DOT is the impetus behind changes, she said, considering DOT owns and operates over 41,000 of the 60,000 miles of public roadway in the state.
"It’s a fundamental right to navigate your hometown safely, and also with dignity," Ely said. "We don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to expect DOT to make some basic changes toward that goal."