The Ups and Downs of Bike Commuting in Charleston

Bikes are popping up everywhere in Charleston, but the infrastructure hasn't been able to keep up with the demand.
Bikes are popping up everywhere in Charleston, but the infrastructure hasn't been able to keep up with the demand. Brooke McCallion
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Charleston is home to a massive community of bicycle commuters, from the students at CofC scooting to class to your neighbor down the street riding his or her beach cruiser to the grocery store. You won’t go far in Charleston without seeing a cyclist. For a city with such a staggering number of bicycle enthusiasts and pedestrians, there is surprisingly very little infrastructure to support them.

Granted, the lazy streets south of Calhoun do not need to be outfitted with state-of-the-art bike lanes, but commuting via downtown Charleston’s major thoroughfares means a constant fear of being mowed down by an angry/flustered tourist. Charleston’s infrastructure needs to grow at the same rate as our booming local economy. City planners must realize that a significant population of our city is bike commuting or walking to work.

Charleston Moves, a nonprofit focused on enhancing conditions for cyclists and pedestrians in Charleston, has worked for years on multiple fronts to improve conditions for non-motorized transportation in the city. Some of their current campaigns include:
#BridgeTheAshley: Advocating for the installation of a bike and pedestrian lane on the Legare Bridge for commuters and recreation.
People Pedal CHS: Collaborating with the city of Charleston to immediately install bike lanes and infrastructure for safer bicycling in our urban core.
Pedestrian Improvements : Pushing for “people-first” streets and intersections complete with high-visibility crosswalks and pedestrian signals with Lead Pedestrian Intervals (LPIs) and countdown clocks.
Battery2Beach:  The Lowcountry's opportunity for a world-class, 36-mile route connecting area beaches with the Charleston peninsula, West Ashley, James Island, and Mount Pleasant.
RootsRated had the opportunity to chew the fat with Kurt Cavanaugh, executive director at Charleston Moves, about the state of commuting and where it is headed in the future.

Charleston Moves is working to get more bike lanes installed around the city.
Charleston Moves is working to get more bike lanes installed around the city. Charleston's TheDigitel

Tell us a little about your background and organization.

We were formed in the mid-1990s as the Charleston Bicycle Advisory Group (CBAG) with a goal of bike and pedestrian accommodation on the new Cooper River Bridge. It is hard to imagine people being opposed to the bike/pedestrian lane on the Ravenel Bridge now, but there was heavy opposition leading up to the Bridge's opening in 2005. It's pretty safe to say critics of Wonders Way were 100 percent wrong. It is the best bike and pedestrian facility in the state of South Carolina and it’s Charleston's most democratic public space. Everyone uses it.

CBAG changed its name and adopted pedestrian advocacy into its mission after their successful "We Can’t Wait To Bike The Bridge" campaign and formed what is now Charleston Moves. Charleston Moves advocates and provides leadership to transform Charleston into a bike and pedestrian-friendly region. We are a nonprofit organization working toward safer, more convenient walking and biking in Charleston County. Our vision is Safe. Connected. Livable.

How have you seen bicycle commuting develop over the years you've lived here?

The number of people using a bicycle for everyday transportation is growing, though it will be limited until our streets are made safer with bike infrastructure and comprehensive traffic-calming measures. This spring, Charleston Moves and the city of Charleston’s Design Division asked where people ride and the answer was simple: everywhere. Every single street on the Charleston peninsula was represented on the PeoplePedalCharleston.com WiKiMapping system. This information will be used to produce the city’s downtown Bike Plan, which is slated for release later this fall.

There was some public opposition to the bike/pedestrian lane on the Ravenel Bridge, which has become incredibly popular.
There was some public opposition to the bike/pedestrian lane on the Ravenel Bridge, which has become incredibly popular. Sal Esposito

Are you optimistic for a more pedestrian friendly Charleston in the future? 

I am. We have an incredibly supportive city planning department, and we're excited about the release of their Downtown Bike Plan (People Pedal CHS). The plan will emphasize immediate opportunities to make our streets much, much safer with just paint and epoxy gravel. There are no capital projects, no moving curbs or storm-water drains, no major resurfacing projects. Striping bike lanes, reducing speed limits, and strategic turn restrictions (No Right on Red at people-heavy intersections like King & Calhoun, Market & East Bay, Calhoun & St. Philip would be ideal) makes sense and can be done today. No cost and low-cost improvements laid out by Gabe Klein such as “Yield to Pedestrian” sticks in crosswalks and “Lead Pedestrian Intervals” at signalized intersections must be installed if we’re serious about eliminating injuries and fatalities on our streets.

What is the best advice you'd give to a bicycle commuter moving to Charleston?

Live and work, if you can, on the peninsula. Crossing the Ashley River on foot or on your bike is unsafe. This crossing will only become a safe, enjoyable option once the long-awaited protected bike and pedestrian lane is installed on the Legare Bridge. It was approved in February 2014 and was to be completed within 18 months. There has been no groundbreaking, let alone a celebratory ribbon-cutting. About two-thirds of Charleston residents live off the peninsula, and they have no way to safely access the city by walking or riding a bike.

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