Charleston City Paper illustration

Safer cycling ahead

Every time you see a white-painted bike on the side of the road, you might want to take a moment to remember the person who died there.

There are too many of those white remembrances, representing how South Carolina is the second riskiest state in which to ride a bike, according to a 2021 study by Streetlight Data. In 2020, South Carolina had the second-highest pedestrian fatality rate per 100,000 people, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

As a relatively small city with year-round moderate weather, Charleston should be an ideal place for cyclists and pedestrians. But the reality is bleak.

“Charleston County is consistently the most dangerous in the state for bike/ped users, and the tri-county area tends to be towards the top,” said Katie Zimmerman, executive director of Charleston Moves, a nonprofit advocating for more mobility access.

The state Department of Public Safety collects figures from law enforcement agencies on bike and pedestrian collisions. The 2021 data show that of 433 bike collisions reported statewide, 171 happened in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties — representing nearly 40% of all collisions in the state.

“The main issue is our infrastructure is not designed in a way that is complete. Our streets and bridges … really prioritize vehicles and encourage speeding, frankly, over human beings,” Zimmerman said. “Because of that, we have a lot of interactions on a daily basis that are really dangerous because you’ve got these different types of users, some more vulnerable than others, who are using this infrastructure that does not work properly for multiple modes [of transport].”

A work in a progress

In recent years, Charleston Moves and other organizations have worked with the city of Charleston on proposals and projects aimed to combat dangerous conditions for cyclists and pedestrians. 

The city’s Complete Streets program, adopted in 2008, looks to revamp city streets to provide increased connectivity for individuals using multiple modes of transportation including walkers, bikers, people with disabilities and those using public transportation. The People Pedal Plan is also a city-focused initiative to create a more robust cycle system. 

“Anytime we’re presented with an opportunity to improve safety for bicyclists or pedestrians, we look at the focus on a complete street type mentality,” said Michael Mathis, deputy director of the city’s transportation department. “[The Complete Streets resolution] gives us the directive to consider all of those modes of transportation — automobiles, bikes, crosswalks, parking, transit, sidewalks — we’re looking at all of that when we’re engineering projects.”

Though cycling advocates say there is still more to be done, multiple projects are in the pipeline to improve infrastructure.

Katie Zimmerman of Charleston Moves said the organization’s goals is to increase bike equity and advocate for safer access. | Photo by Ruta Smith

“We have new bicycle facilities going in every geographical area in the city,” Mathis said. “So there’s an effort, there’s a push for that, and we’re trying to improve safety from our standpoint on the engineering side, by adding all of these bike lanes and multi-use paths.”

A project is underway to improve the Ashley River Crossing bridge, which cyclists point to as a dangerous area to ride though it’s an essential throughway for cyclists and pedestrians traveling between downtown and West Ashley.

Charleston County’s Glenn McConnell Parkway widening project will include a multi-use path to link neighborhoods in the area such as Carolina Bay. It will ultimately connect to an existing multi-use path at Bees Ferry Road. 

On James Island, Rethink Folly Road will include “improved bike lanes, widening sidewalks and more robust pedestrian crossings,” Zimmerman said.

At a state level, SCDOT produced in 2022 the state’s first Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Action Plan. Over the last several years, SCDOT has also conducted road safety audits, which Mathis said have resulted in recommendations for improvements, including a possible two-way cycle track downtown on St. Philip Street from Calhoun to Beaufain streets.

Improvements beyond infrastructure

Though the city and state are making efforts to support multiple modes of transportation, many cyclists and advocates say comprehensive infrastructure is needed in addition to non-infrastructure improvements.

“I think one of the biggest failures of SCDOT and municipal governments here is that they don’t take care of the existing bike lanes, and people are using them,” said Sylvie Baele, executive director of Second Chance Bikes in North Charleston. “Probably more people would use them if they weren’t covered in debris and sand. … That’s something I would really like to see in tandem with more infrastructure.”

Sylvie Baele of Second Chance Bikes believes there are personal and community benefits to biking and wants to make it more accessible. | Photo by Ruta Smith

Other riders advocate for more widespread cycling education from sources including the Department of Motor Vehicles, city and county outreach, advocacy organizations and more.

“I think driver training and testing is a glaring omission,” said Phil Whirley, treasurer of Coastal Cycling club. “There is very little discussion of what to do with cyclists and pedestrians on the road. There’s a little bit, but not very much at all.”

Baele echoed these sentiments: “I think [cycling and pedestrian safety] needs more focus on the driving exam. … The DMV would be a good place to educate people.”

More education could help alleviate confusion drivers may feel about how to act near cyclists or pedestrians. Advocates say greater understanding and communication as well as more people riding could improve tension between cyclists and drivers.

A new study from a law firm ranked South Carolina as the state with the 6th worst relationship between riders and drivers

“I tell people … the most powerful thing they can do is ride a bike. If you want to make a difference, be the difference. Be out there on your bicycle,” Whirley said.

Baele added, “There’s really something about being in a metal box that makes it harder to view other people as human. It’s a lot harder to feel empathy for someone when you are in a vehicle and they are on a bike, despite the fact that you are in the position of power.”

Equitable access

Zimmerman said some people want to ride their bikes as a mode of transportation but the lack of connectivity and safe infrastructure can scare people away. 

Current improvements that are underway could encourage more people to ride safely to work, school and grocery stores. 

“There is a lot of work to do, but we’ve got basic spines in place. We just need to connect them,” Zimmerman said. “We’re really close to having a basic little system in place, at least for the city of Charleston.”

Connecting different areas of Charleston makes alternative modes of transportation more feasible and more equitable.

Bridges are the biggest areas for connectivity improvements, Zimmerman said. She pointed to hospitality employees who work downtown but can no longer afford to live downtown. Without safe, efficient ways to walk or ride over bridges, people must drive, which piles on additional costs of owning and maintaining a car and paying for parking. 

“The mission [of Charleston Moves] is equity,” Zimmerman said. 

Advocates also have long pushed for a safer way to cross the Northbridge, which connects West Ashley to North Charleston.

Founder and CEO of national organization Equitable Cities Charles Brown said it’s essential to include marginalized groups in discussions of new bike infrastructure. “Black and brown communities, low income communities historically are not actively engaged in those processes,” he said.

“Local governments can do a better job by way of outreach and engagement to those communities to mitigate fears around infrastructure.”

Brown also pointed out that in “before” and “after” renderings of proposed new infrastructure, Black people are often missing from the “after” renderings.

“What is happening, intentionally or not, engineers and planners are sending a signal to Black and brown communities that you will not be present once that infrastructure comes,” he said.

Recognition of and opposition to this kind of disenfranchisement is an essential part of creating more equitable bike infrastructure everyone can enjoy. But increasing bike equity involves not only access to infrastructure but also bikes and safety accessories.

Nonprofit bike shop and community outreach organization Second Chance Bikes works to increase accessibility by selling affordable refurbished bikes and low-cost parts, including lights (which are a legal requirement). It also offers programs including Free Bikes for Kids and Change a Tire, Change a Life as well as Earn a Bike, a new program Baele hopes to implement soon.

“The physical act of biking, in general, is intimidating for a lot of people,” Baele said, “but also going into bike shops, especially as a female or people who are low-income or marginalized in some way. The bicycle industry is very cis-white male dominated, and it can be really hard for anyone who doesn’t fit that mold to feel comfortable in a shop.”

Second Chance has previously offered a fix-a-flat class for women, trans and non-binary adults and teens to learn basic bike maintenance skills. Baele said she hopes the shop, which moved to a new location on Reynolds Avenue earlier this year, can restart classes like this and others soon. For now, anyone interested in learning bike maintenance can stop by during Open Shop hours from 4-7 p.m. every Thursday.

“We want to be a resource for people,” Baele said. “We want bikes to be accessible whether it’s for transportation or recreation because we really believe in the personal and community benefits of biking.”

Tips for safe cycling

  • Be consistent. “Do your best to be consistent in how you’re riding,” Katie Zimmerman said, “so that motorists can at least attempt to try to anticipate [what you’re doing].”
  • Get lights for your bike. Bike lights are required by state law and help cars see cyclists at night. Nice lights can be expensive, but local organizers can help. Second Chance offers bike lights for around $15, and Charleston Moves distributes free bike lights several times per year. “If it’s a legally required accessory, we don’t want cost to be a barrier for people,” Zimmerman said.
  • Check your ABCs, Sylvie Baele said, referring to air, brakes and chain. Check air in tires regularly.
  • Plan your route in advance and familiarize yourself with it. 
  • Lock your bike correctly with a secure locking device. Always lock your front wheel to the frame of the bike.
  • Be comfortable with safety equipment, including helmets, mirrors, lights and bells.
  • Be deferential. “Pedestrians are who everybody should defer to, whether you’re in a car or on a bike because pedestrians are the most vulnerable of all,” Zimmerman said.

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