On a daily basis, we hear pleas for complete streets. Neighborhood residents are tired of motorists speeding through areas where children play; parents wish they could send their students to school on foot or bikes instead of adding to traffic congestion; and hospitality staffers are tired of the high cost of driving to work in the face of unsafe biking routes and inefficient transit options. Thankfully, the South Carolina Legislature is considering a “complete streets” bill.
The bill (H. 3656) requires the South Carolina Department of Transportation to establish a policy that, at the very least, acknowledges the need for safe travel for all, and promotes a coordinated planning approach between the state and local authorities for our roadways. The bill gives DOT control to establish a policy that the agency believes it can reasonably accomplish. It is vital that DOT consider all roadway users in its decisions, since the agency owns most of our roads.
Over the years, and despite municipal and grassroots support, many bicycle and pedestrian improvement projects have been rejected by DOT. A safe crossing over St. Andrews Boulevard for people using the West Ashley Bikeway was developed at the grassroots level two years ago, copying a design approved in Bluffton. A multi-use path along Maybank Highway on Johns Island was part of the widening design five years ago, agreed upon by the municipalities and advocacy groups. Bike lanes on Maybank Highway on James Island were requested a decade ago by advocacy groups with municipal support. These proposals have been rejected by DOT.
Therefore, it was surprising to hear an agency representative testify last week to a state House subcommittee that there is no need for a state law requiring a complete streets policy. Despite our staggering rates of injuries and fatalities for people on bikes and foot. Despite 33 other states having such a policy in place.
DOT’s expressed opposition to the bill is that they are already a proponent of complete streets using a data-driven, grassroots approach. During this same testimony, examples of the agency’s complete streets work were cited, but not a single example was given from the Lowcountry.
DOT expressed support for complete streets while bemoaning the estimated costs of considering safe spaces for all. The agency official provided a cost analysis for the installation of basic bike lanes and sidewalks across the state, ignoring the main tenet of complete streets, which is designing or retrofitting streets based on local context. It makes no sense to assume a bike lane and sidewalk is appropriate for every road, nor is that request outlined in the bill.
Further, there was no discussion by the agency about the benefits of complete streets. This was a strange omission, considering how supportive the agency claims to be of the concept. There was no mention of the associations between improved walkability and reduced public health costs; the correlation between multi-modal infrastructure and reduced crash rates, traffic congestion and long-term highway construction costs; or the link between improved streetscaping and increased spending in businesses. In the Lowcountry, we have seen restaurants close because they are having trouble hiring people, citing transportation barriers. Why would DOT not assess the benefit between the ability to safely bike to work and solid job retention rates?
The bottom line is that South Carolina should have adopted a formal complete streets policy years ago. Other states in the nation have had complete streets policies since the 1970s, and have progressed in implementing safe and connected multimodal infrastructure over the ensuing decades.
It is clear why South Carolina has such an alarming rate of bicycle and pedestrian fatalities: We have a transportation agency that has consistently prioritized the speed and flow of cars over the safety of human beings, and is now actively opposing a piece of legislation to request the agency do otherwise. Perhaps if we had this vital legislation in place by now, the lives of beloved members of our community could have been saved. This should deeply and personally concern every citizen in South Carolina.
Katie Zimmerman is executive director of Charleston Moves.