My neighbor is retiring from a long and successful career. And he’s leaving town, too, moving to a Tennessee community. His reason: He and his wife enjoy bicycling and he considers Greater Charleston a biking “unfriendly” region.
“Unfriendly” seems an understatement.
“Dangerous” is a more appropriate characterization. And we ought to be paying more attention to the trends of injury and death.
The world, it seems, is promoting biking as a healthful exercise and an alternative to the time-sucking congestion of cars and trucks for workplace commuting.
In Greater Charleston, we are emerging slowly from the wilderness of stubborn ignorance about transit with the planned bus rapid transit system. Link biking operations to this sort of elemental transit system and over time we’ll see a difference.
South Carolina generally and Greater Charleston specifically are at once dubious and resistant; distracted, really, with the work needed to correct the 30 years of neglect of the state’s highways and bridges. Biking, like transit, is a runt option in state and regional transportation system planning.
South Carolina ranks among the 10 worst states for biking, according to the American League of Bicyclists. Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia rank better than we do as a biking friendly state. That will surely register as a “so what, who cares” ranking for most state motorists who generally resist safe biking accommodations on “their” roads. But when we consider accidents and injuries and fatalities, the reality of the biking trends matter — to all of us.
Charleston County Council and the city of Charleston knocked heads over dedicating a lane of vehicle traffic to bicycles and pedestrians on the downtown Ashley River bridge. It was a manifestation of the stern objections of motorists who just don’t want bikers hogging their lanes and increasing their peninsula-West Ashley drive times.
In Columbia, a recent Farrow Road repaving and improvement project thoughtfully included a $500,000 bike lanes feature. And, oops, as soon as the improved road opened, motorists objected – to a full lane designation for biking, and the 10 mph slower speed limit.
Now, that bike lane is being removed and the original speed limits restored. Motorists won; bikers lost. We’re in a hurry, it seems, to go backward.
Charleston City Councilman Bill Moody was not a fan of the Ashley River bridge lane dedication, but he believes biking should be accommodated. “We should do what we can to make this safer, but we have to be smart about it. This can’t be an implied preference for bikers over commuters who prefer to use their vehicles.”
Over time biking surely will be more than a trend, and Moody’s point about being “smart” is important.
In fact, there is a sobering public policy challenge for every governmental body — public safety. As an editorial last week on these pages noted, “… one pedestrian and two bicyclists were killed, a second pedestrian suffered life-threatening injuries ... on roads with inadequate or nonexistent accommodations for people not using personal vehicles.”
That message frames a policy trap: promoting biking while lamenting unsafe conditions.
For example, the leadership of a local biking group appeared before North Charleston City Council. Their message was clear and timely: North Charleston should work to make more roads safe for biking. That’s a goal and a strategy the city fully embraces. But the narrative quickly turned to the patterns of accidents, injuries and fatalities. The disconnect was compelling.
Yes, biking is that trend begging for public policy accommodation. But promoting biking now on roads that are patently unsafe is idiocy.
In fact, bikers ought to be warned explicitly that pedaling just about anywhere in Greater Charleston is inherently unsafe.
The biking proposition might ignite some constructive regionalism. We can take a step back and study models for biking accommodations in other communities — Seattle, or Bogota, Colombia, or Amsterdam or scores of other progressive communities. That could be the threshold for creating policies and systems that will translate the current dangerous trends of biking on our streets into modern and safe systems.
In the meanwhile, bikers beware. Danger lurks.
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, is a North Charleston city councilman. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.