Pedestrians and cyclists are more likely to die in the Charleston region than anywhere else in South Carolina, especially if they’re people of color, and the long-standing problem doesn't seem to be improving.
Sometimes, their deaths make headlines, such as when Benjamin Fricke, 31, was struck and killed on Charleston’s Septima Clark Parkway in April, a death that led to new signs and signals along that busy artery.
But mostly, the victims don’t make news, and their deaths lead to little, if any, constructive change.
At a time when the region is rapidly growing and demand for new roads is soaring, bike lanes and pedestrian crossings haven’t been treated as the difference between life and death, but rather as optional add-ons to streets designed for cars.
That puts the state and the Charleston region far behind other places. And while South Carolina and many of its local governments have embraced the concept of “complete streets,” a term for streets friendly to pedestrians, cyclists and transit, not just cars, most streets here remain far from complete.
“It’s an afterthought until there’s an emergency,” said Keith Benjamin, director of Charleston’s Traffic and Transportation Department.
That’s often because most roads are owned and maintained by the S.C. Department of Transportation, so every new project hinges on what the department’s district offices will approve. Local officials like Benjamin don’t have the authority to lower speed limits, to add new traffic lights or crosswalks.
“It’s like, ‘Is SCDOT going to approve this? No, so we’re not going to ask that,’” he said.
To accomplish the drastic culture shift some feel this area needs, the handful of local officials working on the issue say it’ll only happen if more politicians and transportation planners confront it as a matter of public safety rather than simply a matter of quality of life.
The grim reality
The Palmetto Cycling Coalition in Columbia wanted to get a better grip on just how dangerous it is for people trying to get around South Carolina on bikes and on foot. They commissioned a new study by Equitable Cities LLC this year to analyze traffic incidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists from 2009-17.
It found that:
- Across the state, 1,112 pedestrians died and 146 people died riding bikes.
- More than a third of bicyclist crashes and more than 20 percent of pedestrian crashes were in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, representing the highest tallies in the state.
- One in four bicycle crashes happened in Charleston County alone.
But the statistics might not be as powerful as the frustration and anger that has built up among those who have been hit — or know someone who has been.
Sarah and Tony Gill of James Island sometimes host cyclists visiting the area via the website, warmshowers.org. Of the eight cyclists they’ve had in town, two have been hit on state roads.
"It's embarrassing," he said.
"My husband and I are avid cyclists. He's given up cycling here," she said. "We've been run off the road. We've been hit. This city is not looking at alternative transportation. It's all about cars."
The report also broke down demographic data, and revealed that bicyclists and pedestrians are more likely to be injured or killed if they aren’t white.
About half of pedestrians and 40 percent of bicyclists involved in incidents were African-American, even though the state’s population is only 25 percent African-American.
The Federal Highway Administration has reported that minorities travel by bicycle, on foot or on public transit more often than white people, but the infrastructure in minority communities is often less safe.
Throughout the Charleston region, high-speed freeways have been paved through mostly black communities without infrastructure for residents to continue safely moving around their neighborhoods.
The Septima Clark Parkway, built in the 1960s, is the most prominent example. It not only bisected the historically black Cannonborough-Elliottborough neighborhood, the federal six-lane highway became one of the most deadly roads to cross.
Dorchester Road, which is state owned, is also a dangerous thoroughfare for pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s surrounded by neighborhoods with mostly black residents, yet there are no dedicated bike lanes, and crosswalks are few and far between.
Katie Zimmerman, director of Charleston Moves, has been trying to draw attention to these problem spots, such as Dorchester Road, which she said is “incredibly unsafe” and in need of a major overhaul.
‘That can’t be the answer’
The state Department of Transportation and local governments have had complete street policies and plans for more bike lanes, sidewalks and multimodal paths for years.
And in public hearings for those plans, residents have repeated time and time again that they want their communities to be more walkable and bicycle-friendly.
Federal guidelines have also been updated in recent years to make it easier for transportation departments to carry out those visions.
Yet the region’s streets remain largely the same. So have the incident rates.
There are a number of things holding up the progress.
For one thing, DOT’s main goal in planning Charleston area streets has been to move cars as quickly and efficiently as possible. Accommodating bikes and pedestrians is often at odds with that goal, because it requires traffic to slow down and share the right of way.
Changing that dynamic is difficult, politically and otherwise, especially as the local population is swelling and commutes are growing longer.
What mobility advocates have been arguing is that the different modes of transportation don’t necessarily have to be at odds in every case, and shouldn’t be. Some streets can afford to slow down, and most have room to share.
But even the minor stuff can be difficult to push through the permitting system, often because the state design standards don’t consider them a priority.
The city of Charleston had hoped to put four-way stops or a traffic signal at Meeting and Brigade streets, as Brigade emerges as a key east-west link between a growing number of apartments on the peninsula’s upper East Side and the Lowcountry Lowline, a major new bike-ped path.
However, DOT declined those options, so Benjamin said the city instead will extend the curbs to shorten the crosswalks and install flashing yellow lights to warn motorists.
The intersection highlights the reality that when it comes to bike-ped improvements, the city’s progressive inclinations often are stymied by the reality that the state owns most all of the roads, even smaller roads downtown.
“So the question is, ‘What will SCDOT approve?’” Benjamin said. “Not what’s the safest choice, not what’s the most complete design accommodating all modes, not what’s contextually fitting to this area, not what will best fit all modes, but what will SCDOT approve?”
“The answer just can’t be, ‘Local municipalities buy back all your roads. That can’t be the answer.”
Multiple jurisdictions can also make things complicated. On James Island, all the local governments and DOT agreed on a plan to make Folly Road a complete street, a commitment formalized in the Rethink Folly Road plan. Almost a year after the steering committee formed, the group has finally settled on a plan to add a bike-pedestrian lane along Folly from Ellis Creek, near the Lowe's home improvement store, to Prescott Street, just north of the Walmart.
“We want to extend it further,” James Island Mayor Bill Woolsey said, “but this is a first step.”
Zimmerman, who serves on the committee, elaborated on just how difficult the process was. It’s a balance of municipalities’ priorities, state standards, business interests, neighborhood interests, and so on.
“You try to accommodate all of those thing while you try to get the best bang for your buck,” she said. “We’ve now been working on this one segment trying to sort of these different interests for almost a year.”
Still, Zimmerman said she remains cautiously optimistic.
“With all of the varying layers of government to go through for safer streets, the big question is always: 'Is this bike lane or sidewalk or crossing in a plan?' We can mostly say yes at this point,” she said.
“So we've jumped two hurdles. The big question next is: Will our government officials honor their duty — frankly, their ethical obligation — to protect the public by providing safe space for all?”
Fixing the problem
The state realizes the safety problem for pedestrians and cyclists and is acting to address it.
Its recent gas tax increase, which took effect last year, has helped set some changes in motion.
LeLand Colvin, DOT's deputy secretary for engineering, said it’s absolutely a concern that the state is looking at the highest fatality rate in the nation “by far, by a big number.“
Colvin said the state is upgrading rural roads, which will mostly address cars and trucks but also should help cyclists and pedestrians through wider shoulders. Such projects include S.C. Highway 61 in West Ashley and U.S. Highway 17 between Awendaw and McClellanville.
But the department also has allotted $5 million to specifically address non-motorized projects, mostly in urban areas. They were prioritized by bike and pedestrian incidents per mile. The Charleston region has five of the 10 projects, including sections of Meeting, King, Calhoun and St. Philips streets downtown and Ashley Phosphate Avenue in North Charleston.
Meanwhile, Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant and Center Street on Folly Beach have been put on road diets, which involve some combination of narrowing lane widths or even eliminating lanes to make them safer for people on foot or on a bike.
“I think we’re hitting it from all angles,” Colvin said.
In the Charleston region, the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments has formed a new transportation group to focus on safety.
“We‘ll also be looking more holistically about how to create a culture of safety in our region which we definitely need to push,” COG planner Sarah Cox said. Again, no projects have been done, but several recent plans will provide ideas and guidance.
The problem is, plans can’t be carried out without buy-in from the owner of those roads, DOT, and even local residents, who might not be aware of some plans.
In Columbia, Farrow Road was converted from a four-lane road, with a center turn lane, to a two lane road to install new bike lanes from Columbia College to East Campanella Drive earlier this year.
The work had been in a plan, but nearby residents weren’t aware of it. And they revolted.
The city removed the bike lanes at its own expense a short time later.
Politics also blocked a plan to convert one of four lanes on the T. Allen Legare bridge over the Ashley River, and local governments instead opted to pursue a federal grant for a standalone bridge that might never come through.
Meanwhile, it would help if the DOT released its repaving list two years ahead of time — instead of only a year in advance — to give more communities a chance to consider changes, said Amy Johnson Ely of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition.
Colvin said the state eventually may consider publishing that list two years out, but there’s a trade-off, because that would decrease flexibility to address road damage from storms and the like.
John Carr was born in Ashleyville and remembers when trains ran along what’s now the West Ashley Bikeway.
More recently, he remembers trying to use the bikeway to accompany his young son to summer camp on Playground Road. Crossing the five lanes of St. Andrews Boulevard was problematic.
He opted not to cross directly but instead detour about 900 feet down to Sycamore Avenue, where there was a traffic light.
Even that crossing was problematic, he said, because of cars turning when the walk signal was on. He taught his son to wave at motorists so he was sure they saw him.
“This is a very dangerous set-up they’ve got there,” Carr said. “It’s a wonder nobody has gotten hit at that light.”
Zimmerman said she has seen a man in a motorized wheelchair crossing the highway in mid-block instead. Fortunately, he made it safely across.
The city’s Planning Department came up with design that called for a so-called HAWK pedestrian crossing where the bikeway crosses St. Andrews. It would involve a new crosswalk with a new traffic signal activated by pedestrians or cyclists wanting to cross.
The city’s first HAWK crossings appeared about 10 years ago on East Bay Street, near the start of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge bike-ped lane. Another has been installed downtown at Meeting and Johnson streets.
Benjamin said Charleston County has agreed to spend $20,000 to begin design work, but when he sent a letter to DOT’s district office for feedback, the response back wasn’t encouraging.
“There’s not even a conversation about context,” he said. “We just got an initial response of ‘no.’”
The issue isn’t settled, and Colvin said DOT is still considering what would work best there. The answer might be a bridge or a tunnel, he added.
One fear is some motorists might ignore the new signal and run into someone.
“It would take heavy enforcement by the city to make sure we’ve got good compliance,” Colvin said. ”The last thing you want to do as a bicyclist or pedestrian is to hit that button, think they’ve got a red light, and a motorist is not in compliance with the HAWK signal.”
Carr said he is frustrated because the danger is clear, much like the danger on the nearby Northbridge, where he lost a close family friend who was walking there years ago. In both cases, little seems to be getting done.
In the long run, Colvin noted progress is inevitable, if only because it’s getting increasingly impossible to address congestion by widening urban streets.
The state currently is looking at widening some interstates, including Interstate 526 from Citadel Mall to Mount Pleasant, but these projects might be the last of their kind.
“We’re on the cusp where alternative modes of transportation is going to have to be part of the solution,” he said.