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A look at the future of Charleston's transportation system

Switching lanes

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From the long stretches of highways that run out of town to the scenic bridges and narrow lanes that crisscross the city, streets are meant to connect us. But in recent years, as the Charleston area has swelled and the roadways have become more and more choked, the question of combating congestion has become divisive. Cyclists dart frantically in between encroaching traffic. Drivers stare in frustration at the seemingly unending row of brake lights ahead. Buses lurch along in a constant circuit, yet never make it to some parts of town. This is the current state of transportation in Charleston. But it doesn't have to be our future.

All across the Lowcountry, efforts are underway to plan for how best to meet tomorrow's transportation needs. The Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (COG) is in the process of updating the tricounty's Long-Range Transportation Plan. Updated every five years to meet federal standards and refresh any old ideas, the plan serves as a list of priorities when it comes to directing transportation spending and ultimately shaping how the next generation will get around the area.

Providing an idea of what the area's transportation network could look like in 2040, the Long-Range Transportation Plan goes hand in hand with the COG's regional Walk and Bike Plan. After almost a year of looking at the areas where public demand for bike and pedestrian connectivity was greatest but infrastructure was most lacking, those behind the project have devised a five-phase master plan that could be implemented over the next 30-40 years. Considering the timelines of these two projects, it's important to consider what other major changes might come to Charleston in the next four decades.

A new bus rapid transit (BRT) line is in the works to connect Summerville to the heart of the Charleston peninsula. It could start construction as soon as 2023. Possibly serving as a major transit hub for the BRT line is the Low Line park. Currently, a determined nonprofit is working against the clock to make the 1.6-mile greenway along the spine of the peninsula a reality. If the Low Line were to happen, it would provide another layer of connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists traveling between Woolfe Street to Mt. Pleasant Street and perhaps beyond if the project is allowed to fully develop. But while the Low Line would improve connectivity and bring a steady stream of customers to the doorsteps of nearby businesses, the dramatic change to the area that runs along the decommissioned rail line would likely serve to increase property values and spur more gentrification in the area. This possibility has not gone unnoticed by those leading the project, but it's impossible to truly consider the city's future without acknowledging the harsh reality that we face, be it gentrification or the inevitable threat of sea-level rise spilling over into the streets of Charleston. The important thing is that those who call Charleston home plan for tomorrow and manage these problems as best as possible. Ultimately, it's all just a matter of learning to share the road.

The Path of Least Resistance

Humans are a notoriously fickle and self-involved species — especially when it comes to their morning commute. This is perhaps best highlighted by the Downs-Thomson Paradox, which is something to keep in mind next time you hear someone suggest that simply adding another lane of traffic will solve everyone's problems.

Named for transportation economists Anthony Downs and John Michael Thomson, the Downs-Thomson Paradox presents the argument that as two systems of transportation — private automobiles and public transit — become slowed, the easiest option is to add an additional lane of traffic, rather than overhaul the mass-transit system. The problem with this solution is that once people start to notice the speedier roadways, they jump ship from public transportation and get behind the wheel. This serves to increase traffic and drive down ridership on the public system, which inevitably leads to a reduction in service. So ultimately, the addition of a lane of traffic leaves everyone worse off than they were before. It's this sort of human behavior that Matt Biggar of the California-based consulting firm Connected to Place considers.

Biggar - PROVIDED
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  • Biggar

Following 17 years working in the public school system, Biggar received his PhD at Stanford, where he studied the relationship between transportation and human behavior. His time as an educator left Biggar with a desire to focus on how to shift society in ways that can be helpful to future generations. What he's found while trying to understand the transportation choices that a person makes is that self-interest plays a major role.

"No one's going to sacrifice just for the larger good and have a miserable transportation experience or have it take twice as long as it would if they were to drive their own car. I just didn't find anybody like that, no matter how they felt about the impact of transportation," says Biggar, who points to motivating factors that keep people behind the wheel. "Comfort and safety play a big role. There's a lot of association with being in an auto and feeling safe — maybe the bigger the car, the safer you feel. But of course that applies to other choices. How can being on a bus or being on a train or a subway or taking your bike also address people's very strong needs for comfort and safety? When you design systems, when you design new bike lanes and you design new transit, that's where you really want to engage potential users."

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For example, the addition of protected, separated bike lanes is a way Biggar says people can be offered the feeling of comfort and safety needed to encourage more riders and pedestrians. This is evidenced by the fact that the local Walk and Bike Plan presented by the COG includes 546 miles of shared-use paths and more than 800 miles of dedicated bike lanes — 47 miles of which would be separated or buffered from lanes of automobile traffic.

Other motivating factors that Biggar says can help foster the shift to alternative means of transportation include giving people the ability to be productive during their morning bus ride to work, recognizing the mental and physical benefits of biking, and offering up opportunities for real, human connection. The latter is a rarity in the tricounty area as more than 80 percent of people drive alone to work each day.

"A lot of this is subconscious, so you have to really probe to find these things, but there is a well-being associated with just being outside. If there's nature on your commute in some form, there's plenty of research that supports how important that is to your mental well-being, just to be aware of nature and connect with it. There are also the social connections," says Biggar. "Feeling like a part of your community when you're on your bike or you're on the bus, you have these different connections that can happen and can be very rewarding to people over time. It depends on the person. Some people love taking the subway because there are a few people they always see and they form a nice, friendly group. Other people say I'm just completely plugged into my phone or whatever it is and working on something, but they both find a way to make that a valuable experience."

What Biggar points out is that changing people's habitual method of transportation is difficult. It's not all about adding new lanes or adding more buses. It's a collective enterprise that requires looking at all that influences a person's transportation choices, including the cultural and social conditions. This involves educating more people in how to use public transportation, how to navigate their city on a bike, and providing the social motivation needed to push someone over the tipping point.

"There's nothing more valuable than for someone to have a positive alternative transportation experience that is socially supported. Just imagine hearing, whether it is a neighbor or a big employer who has enough people, we're going to show you how to bike to work. We're going to talk about equipment. We're going to talk about how you prepare. We're going to talk about what you do in different situations. That firsthand experience can make a huge difference," says Biggar.

Acknowledging that people can't rethink their lives every day, especially when it comes to getting back and forth from work, Biggar believes there is an importance in strategically picking the opportunities when someone might be more open to shifting transportation behaviors. New employees are already in the midst of a dramatic change in their daily lives and would be ideal candidates for a company program promoting alternate transportation. Other opportunities to re-evaluate your transportation choices can come with a move, the addition of new transit infrastructure, or finding that you no longer have to drive your needy teenagers around town.

Returning to the idea of cooperation and understanding, Biggar realizes that the debate over transportation options can get heated. He just hopes that people realize they have fewer differences than they think.

"There's been plenty of contention over changes, and it continues. The status quo is hard to change, but let's talk about quality of life. Let's talk about livable cities and talk about less traffic, less air pollution," he says. "Don't just make it bikers versus drivers. To me, in reality, there aren't bikers and drivers. There are people who choose to drive more often and people who choose to bike more often. And all of that can change."

Moving Charleston

With the importance of both social motivation and infrastructure changes in mind, one local group has come to the forefront of the political debate over persuading the people of Charleston to get out from behind the wheel. As executive director of Charleston Moves, Katie Zimmerman believes the most important, and most difficult step is convincing elected officials that combatting traffic congestion will only be successful if commuters have a diversity of reliable, safe alternatives for getting around.

"The Charleston region needs mobility choices in order to allow constituents the options to choose how to get from A to B. For example, if we have 100 people who drive every day on a specific street, and an investment is made to provide safe and connected bike paths and sidewalks or even a multi-use path on that specific street, how many of those 100 people might choose on certain days to walk instead, or bike, or continue driving, depending on their desires and their destinations?" asks Zimmerman. "What if 50 people decide the new infrastructure means they don't need to drive on that street? I suspect the other 50 drivers, now contending with less motorized traffic, will be pretty happy."

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  • Zimmerman

The bottom line for Zimmerman and Charleston Moves is finding elected officials who are willing to take the lead on the issue of transportation and begin implementing small changes. She says the funding is out there — the speed bump is gaining approval across the board from those in office.

One new undertaking that has earned the support of Charleston Moves is the city-backed bikeshare program, Holy Spokes, that was recently implemented. According to a Holy Spokes spokesperson, since the program launched in late May, there have been more than 800 rides using the system. As mentioned by Biggar, proactive efforts by employers and local organizations can play a major role in shifting a community's transportation habits. The bikeshare's title partner, MUSC, has set a goal for local riders to burn 1 million calories in the first year of the program. The number of calories burned has currently passed 157,000.

"The bikeshare program is already very successful, which I'm pleased about. It just goes to show that people want to ride bikes here, no matter what naysayers may try to claim," says Zimmerman. "The gaps or room for improvement would be the actual implementation of some safe and connected infrastructure and street design. While it's imperative that riders follow the rules of the road in order to protect themselves, the best way we will have safe and happy people on bikes is when our streets are designed and striped so everyone can use them."

Considering the addition of better places for riders to take their bikes, it's difficult to ignore how the Low Line park would factor into this — that is, if the plan ever gets off the ground.

A Line in the Sand

Winslow Hastie, president of the Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line board of directors and chief preservation officer of the Historic Charleston Foundation, has spent a lot of time walking the stretch of land that would become the Low Line. And during that time he's seen the potential of what the area could one day become.

"The reality is that I've spent so much time down there in the last two or three years that it's really opened my eyes to how much it is actually used today. But it's not a very safe feeling. It's a little scary. It's dirty. There's needles and trash, and it's not lit. It's not the most pleasant experience, but nonetheless it's used by people daily," he says.

The Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line, a nonprofit group dedicated to the sole purpose of making the park a reality, obtained an offer to purchase the chunk of land from Norfolk Southern. Thanks in part to the efforts of Michael Messner of the Speedwell Foundation, the group negotiated the deal in 2015 and were given two years to secure the $17.5 million needed to buy the entire corridor. That offer expires in August, leaving the group with little time to finalize their plans.

"To be quite frank, it's difficult to raise money, to really tap the philanthropic community for acquisition. Acquisition is kind of the non-sexy part of the project. We just need to get control of this land. Then we can get into the more exciting planning efforts in the design phase and the outreach and community engagement phase, which does ring a lot of bells for donors and philanthropists," says Hastie.

The Low Line park project would create a greenway along an unused rail line on the peninsula - PROVIDED
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  • The Low Line park project would create a greenway along an unused rail line on the peninsula

While the recent efforts to create the Low Line have been going on since 2012, the idea of the expanded greenway has been around for decades. The park would revitalize the 1.6 miles of land that runs along an unused rail line down the peninsula. Hastie hopes that the park would one day stretch past Woolfe Street and get as close to Marion Square as possible. That plan would require the participation of private landowners keen on giving up a portion of their property to be a part of the project. But before there can be any talk of expansion, first the Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line must finalize the purchase of the original parcel of land — before their deal expires and the Low Line turns into something entirely different.

"If we don't raise the money and figure out how to buy this thing under these terms, Norfolk Southern is going to walk. They're going to reappraise, and with all the development going on since then, I think we got a pretty low number to begin with," says Hastie. "If they get this thing reappraised, who knows what it comes back as. I think, ultimately, Norfolk Southern is kind of tired of dealing with the politics and the bureaucracy, so I'm fairly certain, and I don't want to sound threatening, but they would just start carving off pieces and selling them to individual developers because there's immense interest in that."

So in an effort to reach their goal of $17.5 million, the Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line have negotiated the sale of two parcels of land on Line Street that were included in the deal with Norfolk Southern. The sale of these properties would bring in roughly two-thirds of the money that is needed to secure the Low Line. With time running out for city agencies to commit the rest of the money needed, the Low Line group is currently meeting with private developers and property owners to see who might be willing to underwrite the final $5-7 million required.

While a consulting firm has estimated that the conversion of this land into a linear park would yield $90 million in additional tourism spending alone, it is the additional connectivity provided by the Low Line that should interest locals. In addition to creating an accessible and inviting spine down the peninsula, those behind the park are also in discussions about the implementation of additional paths stemming from the park. This includes proposed bike and pedestrian routes to the Ravenel Bridge, Hampton Park, MUSC, and the new Sk8 Park.

"It works as a connection point, obviously, from north to south for bicyclists and pedestrians, which is key. The idea is that it potentially could tie into North Charleston. There's all this talk regarding the COG going through with a new larger regional bike and pedestrian plan, so you could have a network from North Charleston, where if you didn't have a car and you work in a hotel in downtown Charleston, you could actually have a viable means of getting to work on a bicycle," says Hastie. "It also can serve as a key connector from the east-west standpoint because when I-26 came in and just totally ripped apart those neighborhoods and then the Crosstown continued that, it's like a scar in the landscape. So the desire is to stitch the streets back together, just not with cars, per se."

In spite of the promise that Hastie sees in the Low Line, he is also willing to acknowledge the effects that a revitalized linear park could have on the neighboring communities. He says there are two other parcels of land that came with the deal with Norfolk Southern. One property, in a wooded plot off upper King Street, is being considered as an ideal spot for the creation of dense affordable housing, something that has become increasingly scarce in Charleston.

"We can't kid ourselves. The Low Line is going to enhance the value of the property around it. It's going to be the same in North Central. It runs right along there where all those streets dead end and then all of a sudden you've got this fabulous linear park that's got great lighting and amenities and public art, and it becomes this linkage to practically Marion Square, up to the skate park. I mean, it just becomes a whole other thing," says Hastie. "So we can't kid ourselves that this isn't going to be a gentrifying element. I mean, there's no question. So you've got to go into it eyes wide open and try to figure out other ways to engage the community and give them opportunities to take advantage of this in a way that hopefully doesn't fully displace them. The idea of creating some housing as a part of it is super important."

Get on the Bus

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There is a fourth and final parcel of land that the Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line have to consider when moving forward with the project. North of Mt. Pleasant Street near Courtland Avenue is a piece of land that could one day become a major terminal for the bus rapid transit line that will run from Summerville to downtown, parallel to I-26. According to Hastie, city staff are contemplating turning this land into a high-density, transit-oriented development, with affordable housing above the BRT terminal. With construction on the BRT line predicted to begin in 2023-2025, it's now time to consider how exactly the project will fit into the city.

The timeline for the project begins with the update of the Long-Range Transportation Plan, which will allow for the BRT to be adopted into that plan by 2018. Then comes the formal request to enter into the Federal Transit Authority's Capital Investment Grant Program, followed by an environmental review and project design.

"The Capital Investment Grant Program is a very competitive process. For every $1 in federal funding available, the program gets $20 in funding requests. Having a strong program and financial plan as well as community support will be critical to the project's success," say Principal Planner Sharon Hollis and Planning Director Kathryn Basha with the COG.

"Our geography and development patterns can make planning transit routes very challenging, particularly when it comes to avoiding waterways or traveling through the historic district. Often it is not possible to avoid heavy congestion areas, and a bus can be caught in the same congestion as everyone else. Just turning a bus around at the end of a route can require deviations that may not be efficient," they add. "Additionally, population growth and development patterns have expanded beyond the capacity of the existing transit system. While there may be a demand for commuter transit services to these areas, identifying locations for permanent park-and-ride facilities and designing transit services that can provide a faster ride than the automobile can be challenging and expensive."

The initial construction cost for the BRT system is estimated at around $360 million with an expected annual operating cost of $5.8 million. Under the current plan, the BRT line would run for approximately 23 miles, starting in Summerville with a series of park-and-ride locations and traveling through North Charleston to a transit hub on the peninsula at Meeting and Line streets. The bus system would operate like a conventional rail line, with 18 stations spaced up to 2 miles apart with a focus on fast travel with limited stops. The plan would require the creation of semi-exclusive bus lanes along almost the entire route, but the system is predicted to generate 3,800 new trips per day and 1.9 million trips per year.

Since the bus rapid transit framework will ultimately be tied into the COG's Long-Range Transportation Plan, there are additional considerations involved with how new changes are incorporated into the system. Constant advancements in technology outpace our ability to respond through infrastructure improvements, which means any plans must be adaptable and able to react to technological changes like the increased need for electric charging stations.

Over the years, those responsible for reshaping the region's Long-Range Transportation Plan have noticed that people want to spend less time in their cars and are more willing to seek alternatives. Mobility is more tied into maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which is aided by the constant electronic reminders so many of us receive to get up and move.

According to the COG, there has been an increased interest in connectivity across all modes as residents and industries feel more pressure from traffic congestion each year. Approximately 50,000 tricountry residents report spending more than 40 minutes just to reach work every morning. As the region begins to approach its 1 millionth person, the COG predicts that the transportation choices of residents will likely shift, particularly if investments are made to improve the speed of transit services and the safety of pedestrian and bicycle routes.

Sea Legs

No long-term look at the future of transportation in Charleston is complete without careful consideration of sea-level rise. Charleston experienced 50 days of tidal flooding in 2016 — up from 38 days the previous year. That number is predicted to reach as high as 180 days per year in the next three decades. This means more instances of traffic-clogged streets shutdown due to flooding and the growing need for residents to come to terms with the encroaching sea.

"The road issue crosses a lot of jurisdictions. Very little of the streets belong to the city. A few more belong to the county, and a majority belong to the state. However, we are going to have to preserve those roads because they are what link us all together," says Mark Wilbert, director of Emergency Management and Resilience with the city of Charleston. "Going forward, you're going to see a combination of strategies. The first thing we're going to do is identify what are those critical links, because those are what we're going to deal with first. For example, how do we get first-responder vehicles in and out of the city and where they need to go. That may not be the highest concern, but it's definitely one of the ones we're going to have to look at first."

Then, Wilbert says the goal will be to examine how to get people back and forth to work each day. After identifying what thoroughfares require the most urgent attention, the city will start advocating for improvement measures from the county, the COG, and ultimately from the state. At the same time, city staff must figure out where seawalls will need to be constructed. Ongoing repairs to the Battery are currently underway, but seawalls won't solve all the city's problems.

"Where are we going to use natural barriers to keep sea-level rise from overtopping the roads? And where are those places where we may just have to allow flooding to happen and maybe not use that road when it is that high. We haven't made those decisions yet, but those are the types of things we're going to have to look at," says Wilbert. "I think it's fair to say we're not going to be able to wall off the entire city and keep the ocean at bay. That's not going to happen. So we're going to have to have smart strategies for how we're going to approach it, and it's going to be a multi-faceted approach."

Bolstering the local natural barriers will involve dedicating and strengthening marsh areas to better manage floodwaters. Long-term drainage projects are currently underway in the basins along Calhoun and Beaufain streets, Forest Acres, Market Street, Septima Clark Parkway, Wagener Terrace, and the Dupont-Wapoo area. Wilbert says that once completed these drainage projects will greatly reduce flooding in those specific basins, but fixing a few drainage basins isn't going to solve problems across the entire city. Some of that responsibility will fall to residents.

"Being a city of bridges surrounded by water just about everywhere we go, how we learn to live with water is really the key to our future," says Wilbert. "How do we encourage people to collect more of the rain water that falls in their space, whether it's rain barrels, rain gardens, permeable surfaces in their yard? Anything we can do to keep more water from going into our storm drains and off the streets helps us a great deal. If we have streets where we can use permeable surfaces around them, on them, and in their vicinity, we win by every inch of water we keep off the street."

Ultimately, there is no version of Charleston's future that doesn't involve coming to grips with flooding. There is no holding back the sea. What this will involve is being able to alter your personal routine and being aware of what is happening that day before you plan your way around the city. Check the weather report. See when the high tides are expected to hit. Most of all, plan to adapt to a changing environment and learn to coexist with everyone else who is trying to do the same.

"We will have to learn to live with water, and as such, we will have to adapt on those days when water interferes with our normal course of business," says Wilbert. "How we do that in a smart way is really important for our future."


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