Opinion: Refuse to give up on Ashley River bike lane

Three bicycles make their way over the Ashley River Bridge using the temporary bike/pedestrian lane in April 2016. (Brad Nettles/Staff) 

BY STEVE BAILEY

Someone on a bicycle is going to get killed crossing the Ashley River — and Charleston County Council is going to have to answer for it in the court of public opinion and, quite likely, a court of law.

It has already happened, of course. Five years ago Dr. Mitchell Hollon, a beloved husband, father and anesthesiologist, was killed when a van hit him on the James Island Connector, knocking him over the bridge and into the marsh 40 feet below. Last summer, 22-year-old Devario Reid Deterville underwent four surgeries in a week to save his leg after he was struck by a car while bicycling across the T. Allen Legare Bridge.

It is going to happen again. County Council has the power to kill the reviled bike lane, but it does not have the power to stop those of us on bikes who need to go to work, who need to go to school or who just have this crazy idea that we too have a right to get to the other side of the river with or without a car. People ride those bridges every day, and no vote is going to stop that.

Governments across the country are embracing cycling and walking as a way to ease congestion, improve the quality of life and be more competitive. But not in Charleston. We are proudly Bicycle magazine’s reigning “Worst City for Bicycling” in America. We are No. 1.

The Ashley River bike lane is the flag we defiantly refuse to lower: For 90 minutes a day, five days a week, the inbound traffic on the Legare Bridge can be difficult. And for this cyclists are denied safe passage in or out of the city 24 hours a day, seven days a week. How is this fair?

It is not even good business. A long list of companies and groups, including the Medical University of South Carolina, the second-largest employer in the Charleston area, BoomTown and the South Windermere Center Merchants Association support the bike lane.

Elliott Summey, then chairman of County Council, put it well in a June letter to Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg: “The Ashley River Bridge Bicycle and Pedestrian Path Project (the “Project”) is not a County of Charleston project, but a City of Charleston project…. The county awaits direction from the city on how to proceed.”

The City Council then voted for a second time in 2 ½ years in favor of the bike lane. A state transportation study found the bike lane would cause about a one-minute delay for rush-hour commuters. And yet the County Council, by all accounts, is about to pull the plug on the bike lane to placate its “no surrender” constituents behind the wheel.

Summey had it right in his letter: The county should butt out. The bike lane is a city project not a county project. The half-cent sales tax (now the one-cent sales tax) that would fund the $2 million cost is paid by people who ride bikes as well as people who drive cars.

The bike lane is a symbol of what needs to happen if Charleston is to get beyond its caropia and get serious about solving its transportation problem. Robert Moses, the great builder of New York, kept ramming through more and grander bridges and highways to solve the city’s growing traffic. It didn’t work. Ever more highways begat ever more cars. And so it is everywhere.

We don’t need just a bike lane across the Legare Bridge, but a bike lane across the James Island Connector, too. Call it the Dr. Mitchell Hollon bike lane. We need bike lanes all over the city and the tri-county area. If we are going to improve the West Ashley Greenway, it should go somewhere — to Folly Beach to the south and across the Ashley, through the city, over the Ravenel Bridge to Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms to the east. Imagine!

We should do it because it is the right thing to do. And the prudent thing to do.

Last month, the New York State Court of Appeals upheld a jury decision that New York City was partly liable for a crash in which a 12-year-old boy on a bicycle was severely injured by a speeding car. The court found the city failed to adequately study and mitigate the road conditions that contributed to the speeding, saying “an unjustifiable delay in implementing a remedial plan constitutes a breach of municipality’s duty to the public.”

It was the latest in a series of similar rulings around the country. Peter Wilborn, an attorney who specializes in bike law in Charleston, predicts such cases will soon be coming to a court near you.

“Since our policy makers have failed for decades to provide for safe biking and walking, and because our area has astronomical rates of injury and death for bikers and walkers, the provision of safe places will be forced by litigation,” he says. “We believe these legal verdicts — and the ones to come — will require Charleston city and county to finally take this cause seriously. “

Making Charleston more friendly for bikers and pedestrians will save lives and make Charleston an even better place. The day County Council takes up the bike lane again, Mayor Tecklenburg needs to be in the front row and explain in no uncertain terms that this is “a City of Charleston project,” as Summey said, and we want our bike lane.

Leaders are remembered not for making a good effort but for making things happen.

Steve Bailey writes regularly for the Commentary page. He can be reached at sjbailey1060@yahoo.com.