A bridge to biking’s potential

In this file photo, pedestrians and bicyclists cross the Arthur Ravenel Bridge.(Brad Nettles/Staff)

Even Don Sparks was more than a little surprised by how many pedestrians he saw on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge when it opened 10 years ago.

They were there at all times of day and in all kinds of weather.

Mr. Sparks, an advocate for bicycling, was one of the key people who pushed for more than a year to include a bike/pedestrian lane in plans for the bridge. Certainly it was not part of the S.C. Department of Transportation’s vision.

And it took a while even for, first, Mount Pleasant Mayor Cheryll Woods-Flowers and then Charleston Mayor Joe Riley to get on board. Both mayors ended up strong advocates of the bike/pedestrian lane, and their combined political muscle helped push it through.

Just as the bridge is notable for its stunning design, its impressive engineering and indeed its very existence, it is notable for changing the attitudes and expectations of the local community.

When Mr. Sparks and other members of the Charleston Bicycle Advocacy Group (now CharlestonMoves) and the Coastal Conservation League, Earthforce, and more started the conversation, the concept was foreign to most people. State officials said it would be a waste of taxpayer money because no one would use it. A legislator from Greenville likened its value to a special lane for horse-drawn buggies.

Instead, it was a soaring success — and it helped shape a new policy for DOT: Plan for bikes in all new road and bridge construction. It also awakened the community to the health, environmental and economic benefits of being bike-friendly.

So it’s particularly frustrating that there is still no bike lane over the Ashley River, despite years of promises and a workable plan to convert one lane of vehicular traffic for bikes and pedestrians.

If people flock to cross the Cooper River by foot or on bike, imagine how many would use the Ashley River bike lane to commute to work or for recreation. For one thing, it’s not nearly as long or steep as the Ravenel. It also would take cyclists very close to the hospital complex, the College of Charleston and The Citadel where they work or attend classes.

Further, it is the only way — albeit an unsafe way at the present — to bicycle between West Ashley and the peninsula.

Of course the Ravenel bridge made it possible for vehicles to travel between Charleston and Mount Pleasant more quickly and safely. But the bike lane added a dimension to the way people think about transportation.

Across Europe, safe bike access is a routine part of planning.

It needs to be the same here. And as the Lowcountry population, and its accompanying traffic, continue to grow, it will be ever more important to be bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

Like the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.