Charleston’s roadways are choked with traffic, littered with trash, pocked with potholes, and generally fodder for dents, discontent, and discord for all involved. But really, that’s a tired and unpleasant story — same old, same old. Kind of like I-526 — a rode-hard, put-up-wet old dog that just won’t die. Meanwhile, and ironically though, plenty of people, particularly travelers on foot and on bike, are dying.
Charleston may still be a No. 1 wedding and tourist destination, but South Carolina is the nation’s sixth-most-deadly place to be a pedestrian, according to recent data from the Governors Highway Safety Association, with the Charleston region leading the way in bicycle and pedestrian mortality. Funny, I haven’t seen the CVB asterisk that statistic on their glossy full-page magazine ads and billboards, though I do anticipate bright orange vests becoming the next bridal fashion trend, now that walking down the aisle in Charleston is as frequent as walking across the street.
But here’s what I am seeing: progress. Slow but steady progress. We’re seeing inroads with local public officials who are beginning to understand that Complete Streets — roads that are safe and accessible for all users — help relieve traffic issues and are part of the mobility solution. Inexcusably, the SCDOT actively lobbied against Rep. Marvin Pendarvis’ bill for an explicit Complete Streets policy (with more sticking power than the DOT’s current and routinely ignored resolution), but state legislators were behind it, with the House subcommittee unanimously passing it.
We’re seeing City of Charleston and Charleston County transportation officials responding to requests from citizens and the advocacy group Charleston Moves to make urgent safety upgrades on dangerous corridors like Maybank Highway, with narrower travel lanes potentially coming soon. A small win, but one that will encourage lower speeds and prepare the corridor for new medians and pedestrian crossings that have been proposed. We’re seeing new sharrows on Line and Brigade streets and elsewhere, and slow but sure implementation of the People Pedal Plan.
Granted, none of this is flashy or radically game changing — ain’t no Danish-inspired protected bikeways on the immediate horizon — but citizens are speaking up and officials are listening. We’ve made headway, against significant headwinds, from when the so-called “bike lobby” was maligned as a fringe, Lycra-clad group of rogue cyclists, and talk of “transit” was as eye rolling as talking taxes.
For proof, witness the nearly 2,000 people gathered in North Charleston last Monday for the Charleston Area Justice Ministry’s Nehemiah Action.
These were folks from all corners of the Charleston region, from all walks and rides of life, from all faith traditions, and not one bike helmet in sight, all speaking in one loud and clear voice to say that transportation is a justice issue. That mobility is more than DOT’s perceived mandate to move cars along our roads as quickly as possible — it’s about access to jobs, to school, to healthy food, to healthcare, even for those who can’t afford a car or choose not to drive one. In essence, the message of the CAJM throngs was that upward mobility for the 11,000+ Charleston residents dependent on public transportation is hindered without safe, fair and accessible mobility options — be that reliable and affordable transit options, safe bike lanes, sidewalks, and crosswalks.
When I bike to the grocery or to an appointment rather than drive, I do so knowing it’ll be slower going. And I know too, after being in the bike/ped advocacy game for a decade now, that this work is slow, sweaty going. But it is going. We’re still actively working on a safe way to get across the Ashley River or the North Bridge, but there is progress to celebrate this May, officially Mobility Month here in Charleston (our more inclusive iteration of National Bike Month). A shift in transportation habits and policies only follows a shift in mindsets. As CAJM proved and as we’re seeing even in the legislature, minds are beginning to shift.
The conversation is moving past “gimme space” turf wars between bike riders and pedestrians who would like simply not to die and drivers who demand “their way and the highway” toward a more inclusive understanding that safe, accessible mobility is a win, and a right, for the whole community. I’ll ride to that.
Stephanie Hunt, a local writer, sits on the board of directors for Charleston Moves.