It may seem like excessive quibbling to write about bike parking, but the bicycle parking issue is representative of a major problem: an ongoing battle that we, as bicyclists and pedestrians, have been forced to perpetuate based on policies that time and time again place our needs at the bottom of the priority list.
Bicycling and walking are not only viable forms of transportation, they’re frankly more responsible and sustainable in every sense of the words. Compared to projects dedicated solely to automobiles, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure is cheaper to install per mile and creates more jobs. Bicyclists and pedestrians consume fewer resources than drivers, both environmentally and fiscally, especially when you consider infrastructure and health impacts. They should be a part of everyday life, particularly as Charleston faces serious increases in population.
The Holy City has a glaring lack of any connected or even safe infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians. The city does not have a written bicycle and pedestrian master plan that many other places across the country use to achieve the goal of increased bike and pedestrian access and connectivity (both Aiken and Mt. Pleasant have these). Because Charleston lacks a cohesive plan, our officials seem to get stuck on the small details instead of addressing deadly problems or investing in proactive solutions.
The latest example is the pilot program that makes it illegal to park bicycles on King Street from Spring to Calhoun streets unless the bicycle is attached to a bike rack or corral. The city has placed some racks and corrals in the pilot area. The purported justification for this program is pedestrian safety, because bikes sometimes block sidewalks when they’re chained to signs and parking meters. The initiative has been in place for almost a year and included a warning period before actual enforcement began. Once enforcement started, however, it meant that bicycles would be confiscated and the owner of each bicycle must go to the police station and pay a $45 fine to retrieve his or her bike.
So far, 207 bicycles have been confiscated. Just for comparison, only six drivers have been caught texting and driving in the Charleston area, an arguably greater threat to pedestrians (and other users of our sidewalks and roadways). The cost of a texting-and-driving ticket is only $25.
Already it is clear that the number of racks and corrals is insufficient in the current enforcement area. Groups such as the Coastal Conservation League have offered to assist in data collection and analysis to determine how many more bike parking spaces must be provided for our growing number of bicyclists to have the opportunity to follow the law. Instead of performing this kind of needs assessment, the city has already passed the first reading of an extension of the bike parking program. Additional racks and corrals are being placed, but it is still clearly not enough.
The last thing we need right now is yet another deterrent to bicycling in Charleston. The police department, the planning department, city council, and advocacy groups like the Conservation League need to work together to determine how many parking spots still must be provided on King Street to accommodate riders. No enforcement should occur until the appropriate number of parking spots is in place. And right now, the appropriate number is nowhere near in place.
But the bicycle parking ordinance should also not be anywhere near the top of the bicycle and pedestrian list. I challenge our decision-makers to achieve a solution to a much bigger issue first: safe and legal crossing of the Ashley River.
The first portion of the Ashley River Memorial Bridge opened in 1926, followed by the second portion in the 1960s. In the early 1980s, Mayor Riley convened a committee that recommended retrofitting the bridge to better accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians. By the time Charleston County performed its first feasibility study of an Ashley River Bridge retrofit in 2007, bicycling and walking Charlestonians and visitors had been relegated to unsafe passage across the Ashley for more than 70 years.
By 2012, the Ashley River Bridge had been studied three times, and the City of Charleston decided in the face of a fatality that it was time to officially ban bikes and runners from the James Island Connector. In June of 2012, the Conservation League and our partners went to the state legislature. Quickly and resoundingly, our state’s elected officials voted in favor of changing the law in order to give the City of Charleston the option to reopen the James Island Connector to at least bicyclists. But rather than take realatively simple action, the city still hasn’t done anything. Instead, the City of Charleston spent $75,000 to hire an engineering firm to study whether it was possible to get bikes back on the Connector. And more than two years after state law paved the way for the city to put bikes back on the Connector, they are still sitting on that feasibility study. While they could have easily lowered the speed limit and placed signage and rumble strips to notify drivers of bicyclists, they are instead poised to tell us that altering the Connector will be an expensive undertaking, mostly due to their recommendation to raise the height of the Connector’s wall, rather than protect bicyclists from errant or speeding cars.
While many of us want to be optimistic that we will finally be biking, walking, and running legally and safely across the Ashley River Bridge soon, it is important to recognize that no timeline for completion of this project exists. Also, the current plan does not include the safe crossing of Folly Road on the West Ashley side of the route.
Here is what needs to happen: 1. Those of us who bike or walk need to be even more vocal about our needs; 2. Those of us who do not currently, but want to, bike or walk need to add voices to our chorus; 3. The Conservation League and the city need to work together to develop a better plan for bicycle parking before any enforcement occurs; 4. All of us should attend the next city council meeting to oppose the bicycle parking ordinance; 5. Complacent decision-makers need to establish a specific timeline for the Ashley River Bridge and the James Island Connector projects by the end of 2014; 6. The City of Charleston, with help from the Conservation League and others, needs to develop a master bicycle and pedestrian plan before the end of 2015.
It’s a start, and I look forward to being involved with each and every one of you to make these goals happen.
Katie Zimmerman is the Coastal Conservation League’s director of the Air, Water, and Public Health Program. She does not own a car and transits primarily by bicycle.