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We Are Traffic

Can you share the road with us?


Critical mass bike rides draw increasing numbers of participants in charleston - JOSH ZOODSMA
  • Josh Zoodsma
  • Critical mass bike rides draw increasing numbers of participants in charleston

You're late for work. The kids were hell this morning, you had to jump your car battery, and now you're stuck going 18 miles per hour on Folly Road behind some dude on a bicycle pumping along in the dead middle of the lane.

Even other bicyclists know the frustration of being held up behind a slow or discourteous rider, but like it or not, it's their road too. Last month, Gov. Sanford signed bill H.3006, known as the Bicycle Safety Act, into law. The bill details the rights of bicyclists and makes it a crime to harass or endanger them on the road.

For thousands of bicycle commuters in Charleston, it's high time such a law was enacted. Taking to the streets on a two-wheeler has become increasingly appealing in these trying economic times, and for some, it's a necessity.

Fortunately, both Charleston's city and county governments are showing interest in becoming more bicycle friendly. The Ravenel Bridge's bicycle and pedestrian lane has been hugely successful, and the city recently finished an extension along East Bay Street. Bike lanes are becoming the norm for new road projects, and heated debates arise when they're not considered. We're poised to invest millions in new road projects dedicated solely to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Just as the government looks to improve infrastructure, a new bike culture is quickly emerging on the peninsula. Since forming in February, the Charleston Bicycle Co-op has already held two repair workshops free of charge and is seeking a permanent location where they can teach safety courses and provide parts and labor. Critical Mass, an informal gathering of bicyclists to "take back the streets," draws larger numbers of participants each month.

But even with all the progress, ditching the keys for pedals and a helmet can be a daunting task, both on the body and the mind. Sure, you'll get in better shape, but is it worth the risk? Just because the government is making an effort doesn't mean that every two-lane shoulder-less road is suddenly safe, or that the stressed-out morning commuter isn't going to run you over as they text-in-late-to-work. Still, as the benefits slowly start to outweigh the hold-ups, there are more and more bikes demanding that we all 'share the road.'

Lance Armstrong Wannabes?

"Bikers are still 10 points, right?" asked an online reader in the comments of the Post and Courier's report on the passing of H.3006 last month.

"Ten points if they are barefoot with dreadlocks downtown. Twenty-five points if they are fully dressed in their spandex ... and helmets," responded another, adding that "Lance Armstrong wannabes" need to "quit acting like they are training for the Olympics with all of their queer regalia."

The 131 comments on the story (some of which were removed last week by the paper) include discussions of how to get a bicyclist out of the way (BB gun), helmets ("you're an idiot if you think a helmet is going to save your life when I barrel over you in my Suburban ... doing 40 mph"), and the general sentiment from a majority of posters that bicycles are for entertainment and not meant to be on roads designed for automobiles.

Bicyclists are indeed a minority. The days of children riding off to school on their Huffys have faded into a world of high-speed thoroughfares that parents wouldn't dream of letting their offspring traverse on two wheels. Those people that do choose to propel themselves around do so at a measurable risk.

Of the 539 bicycle/traffic collisions in South Carolina in 2007, 51 were designated 'incapacitating.' Twenty-two were fatal, including three in the tri-county area.

In a year of gubernatorial vetoes, Gov. Sanford saw S.C.'s designation as the seventh most dangerous state for bicyclists as enough incentive to sign H.3006 into law. Advocated and lobbied heavily for by the Palmetto Cycling Coalition (think 'Share the Road' license plates), the bill specifically defines bicyclists' right to use the state's roadways, making it a crime to "harrass, taunt, or maliciously throw an object at or in the direction of any person riding a bicycle." It also addresses 'buzzing,' requiring drivers to "maintain a safe operating distance" between themselves and bicyclists.

"'Buzzing' is the gateway drug of bad drivers," says Peter Wilborn, a Charleston lawyer and bicyclist advocate. "Whether they do it intentionally or not, if they can get away with it, it leads to even worse things. The report may say we're the seventh most dangerous state, but the reality is we're the worst, if you divide how many people actually ride by the number of fatalities."

Prior to the new law, a police officer would have to cite a motorist for "reckless driving" if they wanted to take action for harassing a bicyclist, but under H.3006, drivers can be fined up to $1,000 and serve 30 days in jail.

"I call it 'criminal prosecution for curses and cans,'" says Wilborn, who began representing injured bicyclists after his brother was struck and killed while riding in 1998. He says H.3006 has significant symbolic importance, but will also be extremely helpful when arguing the case of an injured rider. "The S.C. law is as good as any in the country," says Wilborn.

The law's biggest impact may be in shifting the perception of cycling from a fringe sport or lifestyle choice to a widely accepted mode of transportation. But as long as roads are too narrow to safely support fast-moving cars and bikes, the BB gun-carrying haters will persist.

Pedaling Uphill

From Sam Rittenberg to Johnnie Dodds and down to Folly Road, the major thoroughfares outside of the Charleston peninsula are anything but bicycle friendly. Four-lane highways with no shoulder are not a safe place to be traveling at 20 mph on two wheels. Nonetheless, hundreds of bicyclists ride on those roads every day. And 20 percent of statewide bicycle accidents in 2007 occurred in Charleston County alone.

But both the county and city of Charleston are making an effort to improve those conditions. With the ribbon-cutting of the East Bay pathway connecting downtown to the Ravenel Bridge on June 12, Mayor Joe Riley announced that he'd signed a resolution by the U.S. Conference of Mayors to commit to making Charleston more bike friendly. Later this year, the city plans to apply for the League of American Bicyclists' 'Bike Friendly Community' designation, an award currently held in S.C. only by Spartanburg.

"Bike friendliness" is determined by the 'five Es': engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation. The League awards bronze, silver, gold, and platinum designations. Spartanburg got the lowest, bronze, for their efforts in the engineering category.

In Charleston, the initiatives seem concentrated on evaluation, education, and engineering. The Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Government (BCDCOG) received a $200,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation in 2004 to develop a Regional Bike and Pedestrian Action Plan, completed the following year. In 2006, an additional $45,000 was awarded to help communities become bike and pedestrian friendly.

"You have to implement changes through town policies and programs such as bike parking ordinances and community initiatives," says Vonie Gilreath, a senior planner with the BCDCOG.

Adding bike lanes in new road and widening projects is increasingly the norm, but unfortunately, many of Charleston's major thoroughfares were designed without bikes in mind. Gilreath lists a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over Folly Road (linking the West Ashley Greenway) and re-striping for bike lanes on Sam Rittenberg and St. Andrews Boulevard in West Ashley as high priorities.

"It typically costs around $15,000 per mile to re-stripe a roadway, versus $100,000 plus (not including land purchase) to construct a 10-foot wide multi-use trail. The fastest way to get bikes along a route is to re-stripe," says Gilraeth, adding that on new projects like the proposed I-526 extension, public input is integral in securing funding for bike lanes.

Philip Overcash, a planner with the city of Charleston, says that in addition to those projects, the half-cent sales tax has already paid for a newly opened mile-and-a-half bike path along Ashley River Road, new bicycle racks along King and Market streets downtown, and a feasibility study on retrofitting a bike lane onto the Hwy. 17/Ashley River Bridge. With Charleston County RoadWise, they're also examining bike paths alongside Ft. Johnson Road on James Island, Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley, and Morrison Drive downtown.

Without walls ministries gave out 200 free bicycles and helmets last week - BEN WILLIAMS
  • Ben Williams
  • Without walls ministries gave out 200 free bicycles and helmets last week

"There's a lot of low hanging fruit that we can easily get facilities onto," says Overcash, emphasizing the value of converting downtown's "race track" streets like Rutledge and Ashley Avenues to two-way traffic.

In the Elliotborough-Cannonborough area downtown, the neighborhood association is pushing hard to safely integrate bicycles if Spring and Cannon streets become two-way roads. Because of the narrow streets, they support 'sharrows': a picture of a bicyclist with a reminder to drivers to share the road.

"The most important thing the city can do is come up with a cohesive plan for the whole town," says Kelly McSweeney, the neighborhood's traffic and parking coordinator. "If they decide that integrated traffic is the best way, they ought to require some kind of pamphlet for drivers when they get their license or register a car to let them know they're required to yield to bikes as you would an automobile."

At the same time that progress is made on some roads, there are plenty of streets where it seems little can or will be done. Charles Fox used to ride on the Northbridge over the Ashley River to his job in North Charleston — until the county made the bridge off limits and installed dividers in the middle of the road. Bicyclists can now catch a free ride on CARTA, but Fox says that's not really a viable option.

"CARTA does a great service, but I'll be damned if I'm going to sit there in the sun and wait for the bus to come," says Fox. "When I bike to work now (on Montague Avenue), I go from my house (by South Windermere in West Ashley) to the James Island Connector, then through downtown and up Spruill Avenue through Park Circle. And a ton of people live in North Charleston and work in West Ashley, so to me that's the highest priority — getting a bike lane on that bridge."

According to S.C. Department of Transportation spokesman James Law, that's not likely. "That bridge has so much traffic and so many wrecks, that to take anything away from any of the lanes would make it horrendous," he says. "And it's just too costly to retrofit another lane."

Across the Cooper River, the town of Mt. Pleasant is currently evaluating whether or not bike lanes will be included when Coleman Boulevard's revitalization project begins. A lane exists now, but the city's initial master plan called for rerouting a portion of the bike route off of Coleman to allow for on-street parking. At last month's meeting of the planning commission, several citizens spoke in favor of allowing bikes on Coleman.

"I can't fathom the idea of starting a bike lane and then making it disappear and appear again," says Tom Bradford, director of bike advocacy group Charleston Moves. "The concern is that bicyclists will get 'doored' by drivers utilizing the on-street parking."

Mt. Pleasant town planner Christianne Farrell says that the planning commission's recommendation says "something to the effect of including bike lanes down the entire Coleman section," but it remains up to town council to make the final decision in the coming weeks.

Even as Charleston's various governments talk about making the city more bike-friendly, action on proposed ideas can often take years. Charleston city planner Overcash acknowledges that Folly Road "needs a lot of attention," but says the limitations in width and right-of-way make it a tough project to tackle. The city established a Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee last year and is planning a task force to conduct a community study on improving bicycling conditions, but no staff have been assigned or committee members yet designated.

Fortunately, free of government red tape, Charleston's independent bicycle movement is booming.

"We Are Traffic"

Maybe you've seen them before. You're heading home from work on a Friday, turning onto Calhoun Street, when a bicycle caravan of everyone from college students to white-haired ladies comes zooming by, blocking you for the duration of your green light.

"Whose streets?! Our streets!" the 75-some-odd bicyclists yell as the three-block long train turns onto King Street.

Critical Mass began in San Francisco in 1992 and has spread around the world, attracting thousands of participants in Europe, Australia, and throughout the U.S. The informal ride has occurred off and on in Charleston for about a decade, but has steadily grown in recent months.

"Half of these people I've never seen before, and half of the usual folks aren't here," says E.J., a College of Charleston student who helped spur the latest incarnation of the ride. "This is a celebration, not a parade. It's not meant to piss cars off — it's a positive thing to raise bicycle awareness."

As riders turn corners, motorists occasionally honk or yell at the bicyclists for blocking their way. "We just smile and say, 'Thank you for waiting,'" says one rider. "We're not blocking traffic. We are traffic."

Earlier this year, a handful of local bicyclists organized a central body to encourage a cooperative bicycle culture in the same way that Critical Mass unites the bicycle community. The group began meeting every Tuesday at Andolini's Pizza, and soon dubbed themselves the Charleston Bike Co-op. By early May they'd hosted their first community bike workshop in Marion Square.

"Our goal right now is to offer free bike maintenance, and to teach individuals how to work on their bikes to make them safer and more accessible," says Patricia Carson, a Charleston School of Law student and founding Co-op member. "Once we find a physical space, we'll offer regular classes on safety and maintenance, and set up a barter system where people can donate time in exchange for a bike or parts."

The group is seeking nonprofit status, and voted last month to incorporate under Charleston Moves. Last week, when local ministry Without Walls donated 200 bicycles to needy downtown residents, Co-op members showed up to help recipients tune and ready them for the road.

the charleston bike co-op has hosted three free bicycle workshops in marion square. they are seeking a permanent space - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • the charleston bike co-op has hosted three free bicycle workshops in marion square. they are seeking a permanent space

"Many people in the service industry don't make enough money to have a car and insure it, but a bicycle will allow them the mobility to get around for errands and work," says Pastor Gordon Cashwell of Without Walls, who organized the giveaway.

Frederick Simmons, who received a blue Roadmaster bicycle from Without Walls last week, lives on Line Street downtown but regularly works at a temp agency in Park Circle. By the time he catches the first CARTA bus in the morning, he's often too late to secure work for the day.

"This bike is going to allow me to get to work every day," says Simmons. "And I'll never have to walk from Durant Street (Park Circle) to downtown again."

Simmons is hardly a "Lance Armstrong wannabe," and he's precisely the type of bicyclist that the Co-op members hope will get involved.

Ditching the Training Wheels

When Charles Fox rode from Tampa to Jacksonville, Fla., last year, he never had to ride on a road. "We were on 'Rails-to-Trails' paths the whole way," he says. That's a long way off in South Carolina, but with the growth of bike paths and greenways, we're making progress. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Charleston riders take to the streets.

Through the BCDCOG's grant and volunteers like Fox, school groups and regular citizens have growing access to educational resources that teach them how to ride safely. Fox volunteers his time to teach courses on hand signals, sharing the road with cars, and exit maneuvers for when a bicyclist is in danger.

Attorney Peter Wilborn, who purchases and donates "red blinky lights" for cyclists to mount on their bikes, has launched an educational campaign around the state to inform police officers about the new laws and how to enforce them.

"I start my lectures by saying, 'This is not about a bunch of men in Lycra with shaved legs, or about an extreme recreational sport,'" explains Wilborn. "I ask, 'How many of you rode your bikes to school as kids, and how many of you would let your children do that today?' Bicycles are freedom, and how can you take that away from somebody?"

Wilborn views the passing of H.3006 as the "cresting of the wave" in popular opinion, and sees the challenges ahead to make Charleston's roads bike-friendly as a stepping stone toward a new way of life.

"Charleston has every natural advantage to be a cycling city, but we have very narrow roads. The drivers and cyclists are in a bad marriage, and the problem is that one of the spouses is wearing a wife-beater and holding a baseball bat," Wilborn says. "That's a symptom of the way we've built our towns and suburbs. But there will come a time when people will live and work and get around with their own mobility. We won't be depending on foreign oil, the air's going to be cleaner, and we're all going to be leaner. And man, those are all good things."

Where to ride


What the new Bicycle Safety Act means

  • Bicyclists officially have every right and duty applicable to motorists, on any road (except for interstates).
  • When a bike lane is present on a road, bicyclists are required to use it, except when passing or the road is safer. If a recreational bike path is adjacent but not on the road, bicyclists have the right to use the road.
  • Bicyclists must remain as close to the right side of the road as is practicable. They may use the shoulder if they choose.
  • Bicyclists cannot ride more than two abreast on a roadway.
  • Motorists must maintain a safe operating distance between themselves and bicyclists.
  • Harassing, taunting, or throwing an object at a bicyclist is now a misdemeanor, punishable with no less than $250 and no more than 30 days imprisonment.

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