This week’s column begins with a small disclaimer. Please don’t skip it, because if you do then your misinformed online comments will be laughed at and turned into billboards for the whole of the Lowcountry to see. I’m writing a disclaimer because my columns sometimes generate a bit of confusion as to how I feel about certain things, particularly because I think people can and should be nuanced in their support of an idea or project while also being able to criticize aspects of it.
With that in mind, let me say up front that I like bikes. Further, I believe bicycles need to be a larger part of the personal transportation scene everywhere, not just in Charleston. The number of bike lanes added to area streets is a start, but there are still problems with access that do need addressing. One of those is the long sought-after opening of a lane on the T. Allen Legare Bridge to pedestrians and bicycles.
As far as that idea goes, I’m in support of the project. Of course, my stance on this basically means zilch overall, because I don’t use that bridge on a daily basis and even when I do, it’s not at rush hour. I don’t gain or lose anything by taking a position, but in the general sense that too many people drive too many cars as it is, bike lanes are a great idea and should be encouraged wherever they are feasible. And it seems, based on preliminary data from the closure of a lane on the bridge this month, this one is indeed feasible. That’s great news for bike riders and advocates.
However, said advocates should probably stop acting like this is a civil rights struggle. This bike lane isn’t your Selma or your Stonewall. It isn’t a seat at the front of the bus. It isn’t reparations. It isn’t about fair and equal treatment under the law. It’s a bike lane.
While it’s always nice to see citizens come out of their homes and dispense with their electronics long enough to wave some signs and shout some slogans and listen to some speakers, the images from last week’s rally in front of City Hall showed an abundance of well-intentioned bad decisions. First, there’s this strange idea that bike lane supporters still have to hold a rally in support of this idea. You aren’t outsiders if you have support from sitting Charleston City Council members behind you and County Council is actively studying your proposal and not trying to dismiss you outright. You could call what happened last week a celebration of your successes, but calling it a rally seems, ahem, a bridge too far.
Celebration or rally or whatever, it looks strange when a large percentage of those present are photographed waving signs that were clearly mass-produced beforehand. Perhaps it was inevitable that the bizarre tendency for people to turn everything into a “brand” would eventually make it to public rallies sooner or later, but it still seems rather sterile and not-at-all grassroots.
Or maybe the organizers felt that handing out those signs would make the rally look like an organized front, and maybe even that’s OK. However, in doing that, the bicycle advocates inadvertently created another, even larger, problem: some of their talking points are just slightly heavy-handed and seemingly tone deaf in their attempts at placing this issue in the context of broader social movements. The ralliers’ “Are we there yet?” and “40 years and counting” signs served only to make the Ashley River bike lane seem more important than it really is.
In particular, the “40 years and counting” talking point put out by Charleston Moves is one that, frankly, just speaks to the level of Oblivious White Liberal Syndrome involved here. Again, this is a bike lane you’re talking about, not equal pay for equal work. Not the right to use the bathroom you are comfortable with. Not reparations for centuries of unpaid work which we still reap the benefits of today. A bike lane on a bridge. Is it important? Yes, absolutely. But it’s important in ways that could be better illustrated by keeping it in perspective.
Again, there are clearly battles to fight with getting people to accept that we can no longer afford to use personal vehicles as a primary mode of transportation. Bike advocates can make their arguments based on a number of ideas — fuel scarcity, waste, personal responsibility — but making arguments that call to mind more important social movements seems crass and tactless. I realize whoever came up with the “40 years” slogan probably didn’t intend it to be taken this way, but there it is.