At less than half a mile long, it only takes about eight minutes to walk across the Legare Bridge. Yet, even though it's small in size, the bridge that connects West Ashley to downtown has become ground zero for one of the biggest debates in Charleston's recent history.
On one side, you have those who say shutting down one of the bridge's four lanes of traffic and turning it into a dedicated path for cyclists and pedestrians is a key step in transforming mobility in Charleston. On the other side, you have the argument that losing a lane for automobiles is only going to worsen traffic congestion and that the new bike path is merely a half measure to appease a vocal minority. These were the cases laid out before Charleston City Council last week when officials were tasked with deciding whether or not to reaffirm the city's agreement with Charleston County and the South Carolina Department of Transportation. Stretching late into the evening, it was a hard-fought vote that split council.
"There's a better solution out there. I agree. I want a bike path across the Ashley River. I'd like to have it tonight. But I don't think the answer is closing one of the busiest lanes on one of our busiest bridges in this great city," said Councilman Dean Riegel, who joined council members Gary White, Marvin Wagner, Keith Waring, William Moody, and Kathleen Wilson in opposing the proposed bike path. Councilman Moody reiterated statements from previous council meetings, arguing that the current bike lane plan is just another example of West Ashley residents being offered a less-than-satisfactory answer to the community's problems.
"We've been handed, West Ashley, a sorry excuse of a solution, and we've been told, 'Take it. You don't deserve a new bridge. You don't deserve fixing the James Island Connector. You don't deserve anything.' If we're going to sit here and take that," Moody said, "then it's what we deserve."
Finally, Mayor John Tecklenburg, who was criticized for his willingness to consider the bike lane during his run for office, was given the final vote on the matter. After years of debate, traffic studies, and what seems like countless hours of public comments, it all came down to the mayor.
"Over the next few years, as we add these additional facilities and capabilities for bike and pedestrian mobility in our city, the missing link will end up still being this passage over the Ashley River, so I'm going to be in favor of the bike lane," he said to the relief of many still in the audience. Now, the issue of the bike lane is set to go before Charleston County Council, who have budgeted $2 million for the project. There's still no start date for construction, according to county spokesman Shawn Smetana, but he says the project will likely take 12-18 months for full permitting, design, and to complete construction.
So moving forward, what is the next step for those working to increase the level of bike mobility in Charleston? For two years, Kurt Cavanaugh has served as executive director of Charleston Moves, a local advocacy group for cyclists and pedestrians. Since stepping aboard, much of Cavanaugh's focus has been on making sure the city follows through with completing a dedicated bike lane over the Ashley River. With that battle seemingly in its final stages, Cavanaugh says Charleston Moves' immediate concerns include seeing that the city adopts a downtown bike plan and establishing a working bike-share system for Charleston.
Charleston's Planning Department hopes to release a comprehensive study this fall that will provide city officials with a road map of cycling patterns on the peninsula. After examining public input, the study will look at what bike routes work best to help the city plan future biking infrastructure. The West Ashley bike lane is a key piece of infrastructure that will dictate a good portion of what is put forth in the study.
As far as bike sharing is concerned, Charleston-based The Gotcha Group is working to finalize a contract with the city to establish a viable sharing network. Founder and CEO Sean Flood says Gotcha Bike intends to launch in Charleston later this year with 250 bikes at 20 locations around the city. According to Flood, the West Ashley bike lane is a pivotal piece of the puzzle when it comes to realizing a working bike-share program in the city. Now that a bike-share system can effectively tie into Mt. Pleasant and West Ashley, Flood says that a comprehensive sharing network is possible. In addition to efforts from Gotcha Bike, downtown bike shop Affordabike, which has been offering bike rentals for some time now, has also announced plans to roll out a bike-sharing system this year.
For Charleston Moves, the support the group has received from Charleston's biking community is humbling, Cavanaugh says. Now, as the final designs for the West Ashley bike lane are buttoned up, Cavanaugh is able to look beyond the West Ashley bike lane and see how every part of the city can connect. In the long term, Charleston Moves will continue to push for proposed bike routes to connect riders to nearby beaches and support the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission's "People 2 Parks" plan, which would include a bike and pedestrian facility connecting Charleston and North Charleston on the Cosgrove bridge. But in the meantime, Cavanaugh's still taking some time to consider what the West Ashley bike lane means for his organization and those who support its efforts.
"We're always trying to improve the walkability and bikeability and overall mobility of Charleston City and Charleston County," he says. "This is our major advocacy push for the time being, but this lane, this connection directly ties into the Downtown Bike Plan, which the city is working to finalize. It nicely complements Charleston bike share, which is supposed to launch this fall, and with the vote to connect West Ashley and downtown with this protected facility, bike share is not just peninsular now. It can go to Windermere. It can go to Avondale. It can go to different parts of the city, whereas before bike share was just a peninsular idea because of the lack of safe connection across the river."