In bicycling advocacy circles, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge is a battlefield where the good guys won.
So it was with a sense of triumph that Portland, Ore.-based bicycling and infrastructure guru Mia Birk traversed the Cooper River bridge’s bike lane with a horde of about 30 bicyclists on Wednesday afternoon. She had come to town to meet with city planners and give some pointers to people pushing for a bike-friendly Charleston, but first of all, she wanted to set her own tires on the graceful arc of Wonders Way.
It is hard to imagine the bridge today without the 12-foot-wide bike and pedestrian lane, named after Garrett Wonders, a Navy nuclear engineer who died in 2004 when a pickup truck struck his bike on Highway 52 south of Moncks Corner. For Charleston athletes, it is the only significant hill on which to train, and for pedestrians and bicyclists, it is one of the few safe water crossings in a river-bound area. But that path was not an original part of the plan. The state Department of Transportation initially balked at the idea of spending $25 million (it actually ended up costing $15 million) on something so fanciful, and opponents of the bike-ped lane argued that it would be underused or, worse, that it would encourage suicide jumps. (For the record, there have been at least four bridge suicides since it opened in 2005.)
Today, Charleston bike boosters’ cause célèbre is creating a bike lane over the Ashley River, specifically by shutting down a lane of car traffic on the bridge from West Ashley to the peninsula. But, as Birk reminded a crowd of over 60 people at a lecture and Q&A session Wednesday night on the College of Charleston campus, there is more to creating a bikeable city than painting stripes on asphalt.
Here are a few pointers from Birk’s visit:
1. Remember Occam’s razor. That is to say, the best solution is often the simplest one. When Birk was working as bicycle coordinator for the City of Portland, she got a lot of complaints from bicyclists who were getting flat tires from road debris while crossing a certain bridge. So she rode out to the bridge in a street sweeper and noticed that the driver was missing the bike lane. She pointed this out to him, he adjusted his route, and people stopped getting their tires popped by bits of glass. “They didn’t need to add more crews. They didn’t need to spend more money,” Birk said. “They just needed to make some tweaks in scheduling.”
2. Focus on women. In bike-friendly European countries, Birk said, women ride in higher proportions than men. In America, this is not the case — partly because of safety concerns and partly because of fashion. She remembers attending a party with Oregonian fashion writer Vivian McInerny, whose husband was a prominent bicycling advocate. In conversation, she realized that McInerny had never gone on one of her husband’s community bike rides around Portland. The reason? She wouldn’t be caught dead in padded bike shorts. So Birk suggested that she do a photo spread on bicycling fashion, and McInerny ran with it. The photo shoot was a success, and the New York Times stole the idea soon afterward. “Bike in what you wear every day,” Birk said.
3. Look into bicycle boulevards. You’d be hard-pressed to fit a bike lane on every one of downtown Charleston’s narrow, antiquated streets, so one solution could be to focus on just a few major bike throughfares. Birk suggested closing down a lane of King Street, where traffic already moves slowly, and putting in a two-way bike lane. This could be a tough political sell, but headway could be made by promoting the idea to King Street businesses as a way to drive more traffic into their stores. After all, you’re more likely to stop and check out that cute dress in the window if you don’t have to spend 15 minutes searching for a parking spot.
4. Highlight the bargains. As road projects go, bike lanes are a steal. The Ravenel Bridge, for instance, cost $677 million to build, of which Wonders Way represented only $15 million. In Portland, which now has 314 miles of bikeways and 18 percent of residents using a bike as a primary or secondary vehicle, state government only allots 0.7 percent of its annual budget to bicycle projects. That amount of money would buy you about a mile of urban freeway per year, she said.
5. Take it to the state government. As gung-ho as Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. has been in recent months about making Charleston bike-friendly, all his efforts won’t amount to squat if he doesn’t get the state Department of Transporation in his corner. Tom Bradford, executive director of local advocacy group Charleston Moves, pointed out to Birk that 80 percent of the public roads in South Carolina are governed by the SCDOT. One advantage that Oregon bike advocates have is a state law requiring all new road projects to include bike lanes. South Carolina passed a similar resolution in 2002, but it is not a law and has no means of enforcement.
6. Evangelize. In Portland, Birk mailed out surveys asking people if they would like to have personalized bike route maps and coupons for helmets. If they checked yes, a volunteer would arrive at their door the next day — on bicycle, of course — and hand them a totebag full of cycling goodies. She also shut down the Burnside Bridge, where she was pushing for bike lanes, and hosted a 10,000-person Bikefest party with a live band. And when she went to speak to city planners and maintenance crews, she often had a box of donuts strapped to her bike. You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, as the evangelicals say.
7. Remember the poor. Charleston cops are pretty vigilant when it comes to pulling over homeless people riding their bikes at night without lights or reflectors, but prevention is always preferable to enforcement. Birk praised efforts like the one Cait Costello, communication director at Palmetto Cycling Coalition, described while riding Wonders Way: get a grant from the Department of Health and Environmental Control, buy a messload of reflectors and bike-mount lights, stand in front of a homeless shelter, and start handing them out.
8. Frame it as a health issue. Let’s face it: You’re not going to get much traction in South Carolina by claiming that bike lanes will save the planet. Birk told the story of Tommy, her stepfather in Dallas, who was none too impressed with her tree-hugging way of life until Dallas got its own three-mile bike path. He bought a bike, started riding regularly, and, at 72 years old, found himself in the best shape of his life. The next time Birk went home to visit her parents, her mother hugged her and said, “Now I know what you mean about bicycling being good for the world. If it’s good for Tommy, then that’s good for me.” Also, a useful fact: College of Charleston professor Deborah McCarthy polled users of Wonders Way in 2007 and found out that 67 percent of people who use the path have become more physically active since its construction. That percentage was 85 percent for African Americans.
9. Make a pledge. Birk concluded her talk with a pair of pledges for drivers and bicyclists. For drivers: “When I’m driving, I will put down the phone. I will stop at red lights. And I’m going to yield actively to pedestrians, and I’m going to be very patient behind cyclists.” For bicyclists: “When I’m biking, I will stop and remain stopped at red lights. I am always going to use my blinky lights at night. And whenever any motorist shows me the slightest shred of courtesy, I am going to smile and wave.”
Correction: The article previously stated that the advocacy group Bikes Belong conducted a poll of people using Wonders Way. The poll was conducted by College of Charleston professor Deborah McCarthy in partnership with the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments.
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