Last week, three people died and one was critically injured in large part because too many Charleston-area roads are unsafe for people on foot or on bicycles.
As is so often the case, these crashes — one pedestrian and two bicyclists were killed, a second pedestrian suffered life-threatening injuries — occurred on roads with inadequate or nonexistent accommodations for people not using personal vehicles.
A pedestrian killed while crossing Dorchester Road near Summerville, for example, would have had a nearly impossible time finding a safe crosswalk. They’re more than 4 miles apart along one stretch of that road.
A pedestrian critically injured on Folly Road near Battery Island Drive couldn’t have been using a sidewalk — there aren’t any for miles in either direction from that intersection — and would have had to walk 2 or more miles to the nearest crosswalk.
A bicyclist killed on Chuck Dawley Boulevard in Mount Pleasant at least had access to sidewalks and crosswalks spaced a somewhat more manageable half-mile apart, but there are no bike lanes along the road.
Another bicyclist was apparently riding on I-526 in North Charleston when he was struck by multiple cars and killed. It was the only accident in which the victim was on a road explicitly restricted to motor vehicle traffic.
To be sure, pedestrians and bicyclists must be responsible and look out for their own safety. Risky behavior is risky no matter how many bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks are available.
Drivers, too, must keep an eye out for more vulnerable road users. Two of the past week’s fatal crashes were hit-and-runs, adding another alarming layer to an already tragic series of events.
But the fact remains that far too many roads in the Charleston region are designed primarily or solely for use by cars. The concessions made to bicyclists and pedestrians are usually an afterthought, offered only when space and road-building budgets allow.
This hierarchy — particularly when speed is a top priority in road design — is deadly. It asks people who can’t or won’t drive a personal car to gamble with their lives while going about their daily routines. It even creates unnecessary risks for people in cars by turning commercial and residential roads into speedways.
State Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-Charleston, pushed for a sensible and modest change that would ask the state Department of Transportation to take pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users into account more often when upgrading or reworking roads.
That minimal, necessary shift in thinking sparked enough backlash from DOT officials that the so-called “complete streets” bill stalled this year.
Meanwhile, sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, bus shelters and other facilities for people getting around without personal vehicles remain a pitifully low priority for the DOT — $37 million in a $2.4 billion budget this year.
At the very least, the DOT should free up local governments to implement needed improvements on their own. State regulations often block or unnecessarily slow obvious fixes.
In a particularly egregious example, North Charleston has asked to “buy back” two major roads in order to add pedestrian and bicycle safety features that DOT hasn’t allowed. Charleston, similarly, has been blocked in some instances from painting crosswalks on downtown streets owned by the state.
No road will ever be completely safe. Most Charleston-area roads can be made much safer. But as long as the focus remains on moving cars as quickly as possible, the fatal crashes will continue.