In a sense, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths are completely preventable. If people stopped walking or biking, they would never have to worry about dying on roads that, with too few exceptions, are designed mainly for cars.
That’s obviously not an ideal or realistic solution, however.
There are personal and societal benefits to moving around without a car. Biking and walking improve physical and mental health and cut down on the pollution produced by motor vehicles. When enough people leave cars at home, it helps alleviate traffic congestion.
Economic studies have shown close links between the number of pedestrians and bicyclists on city streets and the sales performance of nearby businesses.
And for a variety of reasons some people can’t or don’t want to use a car.
So it’s important that people be able to safely use Charleston-area roads on foot or on two wheels. Right now, safety is a problem.
Last year, 169 bicyclists and pedestrians lost their lives on South Carolina roads — the sixth-deadliest state for pedestrians per capita in 2018 — including 35 here in the tri-county area.
As of May, the toll this year in the Charleston area stood at 11.
The causes of these deaths are not mysterious. For the most part, fatal crashes happen on roads with fast-moving cars and little or no bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Most happen at night and the majority occur outside of crosswalks.
But that latter point, in particular, can be misleading because marked crosswalks — not to mention bike lanes, sidewalks, good street lighting and other safety features — are so few and far between.
On Rivers Avenue in North Charleston, which is a particularly dangerous road for walkers and bikers, marked crosswalks are spaced more than a mile apart in some cases.
On Maybank Highway on James Island, where a pedestrian was killed in January, there are only two marked crosswalks, which are separated by more than a half mile.
On Sam Rittenberg Boulevard in West Ashley, crosswalks are more than 3,000 feet apart, and long stretches of the road lack sidewalks.
None of those busy roads has bike lanes.
Faced with the choice between walking 20-30 minutes out of the way or sprinting through a few lanes of traffic, it’s not surprising that pedestrians often cross roads outside of crosswalks, sometimes with tragic results.
So it’s doubtful that a well-intentioned education and enforcement campaign planned by the North Charleston Police Department will make a big difference in keeping bicyclists and pedestrians safe.
Presumably, most people already know it’s dangerous and illegal to cross a busy street outside of a crosswalk, but there might not be any reasonable alternative.
Building and upgrading those alternatives isn’t especially complicated, and it’s often relatively inexpensive compared to new roads. But the state Department of Transportation allocates only $5 million annually out of a more than $2.4 billion budget for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
That’s 0.2 percent of the budget, when about 3 percent of South Carolina commuters walk or bike to work, according to the Alliance for Biking and Walking. The percentage is significantly higher in Charleston.
A 3 percent share of the DOT budget would be about $72 million per year.
Legislation proposed this year by state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, asked the DOT to make bicyclists’ and pedestrians’ needs more of a priority when planning new roads and overhauling existing ones.
But even that minimal, sensible effort stalled when DOT officials balked at what they estimated could be $40 million in new costs, again, out of a more than $2.4 billion annual budget.
Charleston County’s transportation sales tax allocates about $1 million per year for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, which is also a shockingly small portion of a multibillion-dollar roads and Greenbelt program.
City governments do what they can with their own limited resources.
The safety of bicyclists and pedestrians has not been a top concern for too many South Carolina officials over too many years. Safety education and ticketing campaigns won’t do much to reverse that longstanding neglect.
The only way to get truly safe roads is to build them that way.