Sarah Savoie would really like to be able to ride her bike over the James Island Connector, in part, because it would save the 21-year-old College of Charleston junior about $800 in college parking fees alone in the coming school year.
“I’m moving to James Island in July and would totally bike over it (the connector) to school and back if it were legal,” says Savoie, who is studying business and exercise science. “So I really hope officials will open it soon.”
Savoie was among more than 50 cyclists — from Spandex-wearing athletes to more casually attired commuters and recreational riders — who joined the “Access the Ashley Bike Ride” Saturday to show support for re-opening the James Island Connector to Bikes.
Yet for nearly 18 years after the connector opened in September of 1993, it wasn’t an issue. Bicyclists and pedestrians routinely used the hard shoulders of the connector bridge, technically a freeway restricted to motorized vehicles, between Charleston and James Island without incident.
However, shortly after Dr. Mitch Hollon was struck and killed by a distracted driver on July 5, 2011, transportation officials put up signs specifically banning bicyclists and pedestrians from the bridge.
Local bicycling advocacy groups such as Charleston Moves, BikeLaw.com, Palmetto Cycling Coalition and the Coastal Conservation League got to work and helped convince the General Assembly to pass an amendment to existing highway prohibitions enabling local municipalities to grant exemptions to bicyclists and pedestrians.
In late May, the city of Charleston voted to fund a $75,000 study with Stantec Consulting. The study will review crash histories on the bridge, including for vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians, as well investigate lane widths, speeds, age restrictions for cyclists and pedestrians, safety equipment and adding more signs.
Councilman Mike Seekings, who has a record of supporting bike and pedestrian access, says the amendment requires a study and that it took awhile for the city to find money for it.
“It’s past time for this to happen ... The ball is squarely in our court,” said Seekings, who was not at Saturday’s ride.
“It (opening the connector and making it safe) can be done, but it’s not going to be perfect. Ultimately, the people need to let their elected officials (on Charleston city council) know it’s the only way to get across the Ashley River to James Island by bike.”
But Katie Zimmerman, program director at the Conservation League and organizer of Saturday’s ride, said that the study is unnecessary for the city to re-open the connector and that the city is needlessly spending $75,000.
As far as making it safer, Zimmerman and other bicycling advocates say the solutions are simple: lower the speed limit to 35 or 40 miles per hour and enforce it; designate the connector shoulder as a bike and pedestrian lane and put up “Share the Road” signs; and install rumble strips along the dividing line between car traffic and bicycling and pedestrian lanes.
“Rumble strips are not ideal for most areas with bikes,” says Zimmerman, noting the lack of room for them on most urban, suburban and rural roadways.
“But in this case, the lanes are so wide that rumble strips would be OK. This is the one ideal spot for rumble strips ... When it comes to the (James Island) Connector, the solutions to making it safer is simple.”