Open minds on closing lanes

Traffic, including a moped and a bicycle, streams across the Ashley River Bridge from West Ashley toward downtown late Wednesday afternoon, November 19, 2014. Wade Spees/Staff

Downtown Charleston is uniquely walkable and bikeable. West Ashley features miles of high quality bike lanes and paths. But crossing between those two parts of town on foot or two wheels can be a truly harrowing experience.

That shouldn’t be the case.

Charleston County and city of Charleston officials have been researching and planning a bike and pedestrian path over the Ashley River for years. And the first phase of a project to convert one lane of the T. Allen Legare Bridge for non-car access started on Friday.

For now, construction doesn’t actually have much to do with bicycles or walkers. Rather it involves building a dedicated off ramp from the bridge to Bee Street downtown.

When completed, the new lane should help reduce bottlenecks as cars empty onto downtown streets. And it will allow one lane of the bridge to be converted for bicycles and pedestrians without limiting vehicle access to Bee Street.

That, of course, is the more critical phase. But first, the city and county will block off one of the vehicle lanes on the Legare Bridge for a temporary test to gauge the actual impact a bike lane might have on traffic.

Multiple studies have suggested that losing a lane on the bridge would increase travel times by only a few seconds, even at peak hours. But some commuters and local officials find that claim hard to believe.

The trial run should help allay fears that it would be a disastrous loss of capacity on an already congested route. Or not.

In either case, the city and county will have gained some valuable insights. And that’s important moving forward.

A safe and efficient bicycle and pedestrian route between downtown and West Ashley is an essential piece of a larger regional effort to get more people around town and out of their cars. Even if the Legare Bridge bike lane proves an impractical option, it can’t be the end of the discussion.

But experts think it will work. And even the most skeptical commuters should be willing to give it a shot and keep an open mind.

Traffic will probably get worse for a while as the Bee Street off ramp is built. It will probably be worse for a while as people get used to the test bike lane and figure out how to adjust their routes.

That’s no reason to give up on the project.

Just over 7 percent of Charleston residents bike or walk for their daily commutes. That may seem like a small percentage, but it adds up to more than 9,000 fewer cars on the road each day.

And it stands to reason that even more people would leave the car in the driveway if bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure was safer, more attractive and more convenient. The Ashley River bike lane would be a crucial step in that direction.

Testing the impact of trading a car lane for non-car access will require some sacrifice from car commuters, and it won’t be without headaches — at least at the beginning.

But a more bikeable and walkable Charleston would benefit everyone who lives in, works in or visits the city. That is more than enough justification.