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Charleston metro area 5th worst for pedestrian death rate in US, per report

West Ashley

Pedestrians cross St. Andrews Boulevard in West Ashley amid traffic. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Downtown Charleston has long been praised for being a walkable city. But the description belies an unfortunate truth that local and state officials have grappled with for years: the region ranks among the top communities for pedestrian fatalities.

The Charleston metro area ranked fifth worst in pedestrian deaths per capita among all metro areas in the U.S. between 2016 and 2020, according to a report published July 12 by Smart Growth America.

South Carolina fared even worse.

The state had the third-highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the nation during that same period, according to the report, which analyzes federal data on pedestrian deaths.

In the state, 811 people were killed while walking between 2016 and 2020. Seventeen percent of those pedestrians, a total of 140 people, died in the Charleston metro area, which comprises Charleston and North Charleston.

Smart Growth America is a national nonprofit that advocates for urban redevelopment — including redesigning roadways across the country to make them safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The organization's findings dovetail with data from S.C. Department of Transportation. The department’s inaugural pedestrian and bicycle safety action plan released in May found that pedestrian fatalities increased 80 percent in the state from 2009 to 2019, and bicycle fatalities have more than doubled over that same period. The agency did not calculate the pedestrian fatality rate for the 10-year period. 

The economy relies on vehicles to transport goods across the country and get people to and from work. But some local lawmakers and community activists are demanding a more holistic approach to transportation infrastructure — one that incorporates pedestrians and bicyclists into roadway design. They contend that designing roadways for pedestrians will save lives, invigorate communities and uplift marginalized groups.

'This epidemic'

In the Charleston metro area, Katie Zimmerman is at the forefront of that effort. Zimmerman is the executive director of Charleston Moves, the only local activist group dedicated to improving pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

In 2021, 10 people were killed by cars while bicycling or walking in Charleston, and eight more killed in North Charleston. A dozen people have been killed so far this year walking or biking in the county, authorities say.

Just last week, two people were killed in hit-and-run crashes.

Alexander "AJ" Jennings — a stand-in cast member on the Netflix series 'Outer Banks' — was walking July 5 on a major roadway on James Island when he was struck by two vehicles in succession. 

Later that day, bicyclist Joseph Jones Jr. was riding in North Charleston when he was clipped by a vehicle driving behind him. The 62-year-old North Charleston resident was then fatally struck by another vehicle going in the same direction. 

People justify auto-pedestrian fatalities by blaming the pedestrian’s behavior, according to Zimmerman.

“There is a tremendous amount of victim blaming so that it’s easy to dismiss this epidemic,” she said.

Though a share of pedestrian fatalities in downtown Charleston are the result of drunk pedestrians, victim blaming can obfuscate the issues of equity and welfare that are tied to infrastructure design.

‘Disjointed’ communities

State Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, said some neighborhoods in his district do not have sidewalks, causing them to feel “disjointed.”

“The communities that lack the proper infrastructure are the ones that are in low-income, minority communities,” he said. “If you go into middle-class, upper-class, well-to-do neighbors, you’re going to see sidewalks on both sides of the road.”

The disparity has its roots in federal planning in the 1950s to develop an interstate highway system connecting cities to the growing suburbs. African American neighborhoods were bulldozed to make room for the new roadways.

“We’re looking to reknit those communities,” Pendarvis said.

One way to do so is building roadways with sidewalks that encourage walking.

“People want to have their neighborhoods open up in a way that allows the people there to interact and to feel close knit — this idea of human capital spreading,” he said.

A ‘complete streets’ philosophy

Pendarvis introduced a bill in the House in 2019 that would require DOT to implement a “complete streets” policy, which seeks to provide safe and accessible roadways to not only vehicles but pedestrians and bicyclists.

The bill died in committee, but its complete streets philosophy is reflected in DOT's first pedestrian and bicycle safety action plan.

The plan uses a data-driven approach to identify high-risk roadways for pedestrians and bicyclists and implement countermeasures, which include walkways, bicycle lanes and lane narrowing.

The department identified 77 high-priority locations, 19 of which are in Charleston County, and approved development on 17 locations during the next year including segments of Ashley River Road, Dorchester Road and Remount Road, the report states.

The department intends to update its safety action plan for pedestrians and bicyclists every three to four years, according to DOT Director of Traffic Engineering Rob Perry.

Perry added that the agency has dedicated $5 million annually in federal funding to pedestrian and bicycle safety projects since 2018. With the passage of the federal infrastructure bill, DOT has doubled that funding to $10 million annually.

Zimmerman, who advised DOT on its safety report, said roadway design is paramount to pedestrian safety.

“You cannot rely on people making good choices 100 percent of the time to solve this,” she said. “You’ve got to design the space to be the best it possibly can.”

Charleston Councilman Mike Seekings called the state’s plan “fantastic.”

Seekings chairs the Traffic and Transportation committee and is vice-chair of the Public Safety committee. Outside of City Hall, he jogs on the streets of downtown Charleston.

“It just shows you how if you’re screaming out about it long enough people will start to pay attention and take it seriously,” he said. “Citizens want pedestrian (and) bike safety, they want to make that a part of the planning and thought process of people in charge of roads and sidewalks.”

Those citizens include James Island resident Pamela Ferguson.

Compelled by global warming to drive less, the 60-year-old epidemiologist bikes several miles after work to run errands at her local Walgreens or Harris Teeter. She wears a helmet and sometimes a flashing red light to protect herself from cars zooming 40 miles per hour down Folly Road.

The power imbalance on the roads between motorists and bicyclists or pedestrians makes Ferguson “angry.”

“There’s so much speeding and aggressive driving — and the texting,” she said. “If someone’s not paying attention they could hit me and that would be it.”

Despite the risks, Ferguson has morally committed herself to biking — plus she likes it.

“It is enjoyable even under the difficult circumstances,” she said. “I look forward to it.”

Reach Ema Schumer at eschumer@postandcourier.com. Follow her on Twitter @emaschumer.