Charleston is the most dangerous place in South Carolina for people traveling on foot or bicycle.
That's the reality in the S.C. Department of Public Safety's annual Highway Safety Plan, which put Charleston at the top of the list of cities with the highest number of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths and serious injuries from 2011 to 2015.
More specifically, Charleston had the highest number of pedestrian deaths (26) in that time frame, followed by Columbia (23) and North Charleston (11).
Bicyclist deaths accounted for the smallest number of statewide traffic fatalities, about 15 per year, so it wasn't broken down by city.
In response, the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments has formed a committee of law enforcement officers, nonprofit leaders and elected officials to explore the problem from a regional perspective and to figure out what to do about it. The group met for the first time July 10.
Like many Southern cities, the Charleston area has long been a car-dominant place, without adequate infrastructure for other modes of transportation that are common in metropolitan cities across the country.
That seems to be slowly shifting as affluent areas such as Mount Pleasant and Charleston have started prioritizing the creation of sidewalks and bike lanes as a way to improve resident quality of life.
But with so many lives at stake, COG recognized more needed to be done on a region-wide scale, especially in more suburban and rural areas.
"We do need a culture shift," said Sarah Cox, the COG planner coordinating the new committee's efforts.
Keith Benjamin, the city of Charleston's transportation director, said the problem stems from the way the S.C. Department of Transportation has designed roads with the singular goal of moving vehicles as quickly as possible from one point to another.
"That gives no accommodation for any other mode of transportation," he said.
For instance, he said slower speed limits make drivers more aware of pedestrians and bicyclists around them, but it's often difficult to do those types of traffic-calming measures under the state design standards.
The people left out of that model are those who don't have cars, he said. They have to walk and bike to their jobs or bus stops, which is life-threatening on high-speed streets that don't have sidewalks or dedicated bike lanes.
"We have people dying in the streets and we have to address that," he said.
That's part of the reason the city is applying for a federal grant to create a new pedestrian bridge over the Ashley River. Past efforts to give bicyclists a dedicated path to West Ashley and James Island have repeatedly failed.
The new committee, called the CHATS Safety Improvement Committee, is tasked with helping the state DOT meet the federally mandated performance metrics to reduce traffic deaths.
Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings, who chairs the committee, said the most encouraging thing about it is that it includes law enforcement officials.
"There’s no better group to bring in than the people on the street who see it every day," he said.
Katie Zimmerman, executive director of the mobility nonprofit Charleston Moves, also serves on the committee. She hopes the group focuses on making roads safer, rather than on what bicyclists and pedestrians should do differently.
"One of the really important things that comes out of the committee is that we focus on the solutions and not putting blame on people who are walking or biking," she said.
The COG's 2017 Walk and Bike Plan already established specific infrastructure improvements the region should make, including 55 miles of new bike lanes and 117 miles of new sidewalks.
The city of Charleston has set its own goals in the People Pedal Plan and the West Ashley Master Plan. Benjamin said residents made it clear what they wanted during public input sessions for all those planning efforts.
"People have been saying over and over again, ‘I want to have a walkable community. I want to feel safe,'" he said.
Committee members include police, planners and other staffers from the local DOT office, the three counties, as well as Goose Creek, Mount Pleasant, Folly Beach, Isle of Palms, Summerville and North Charleston.
The next public meeting hasn't been scheduled yet but will be advertised on the COG's calendar of events at bcdcog.com.