Photos by Ruta Smith

After the ‘Bike Boom’

Charleston bike shops couldn’t keep up with demand in 2020, as new riders hit local streets last year, along with runners, walkers and people letting their dogs work off some energy. Advocates say the thousands of added bikes on local roads could spell trouble, but it also means more voices to insist local bike facilities keep pace with demand.

Building Bikes

Ride Bikes in West Ashley started closing on Mondays during the pandemic just so its mechanics could build enough bikes to stock the small shop on Saint Andrews Boulevard. Some weeks, they would all be gone by Tuesday.

“We definitely had a record year last year, as far as the amount of bikes we sold,” said service tech Myles Lietzke, as he wired up new brake cable for a bike in for repair. And when they weren’t selling, people were bringing in old bikes for a COVID-season cleaning.

Customers came in saying, “I haven’t ridden a bike in 10 years, I want to ride a bike again.”

“Well, it’s like riding a bike,” he’d remind them, with a traumatized chuckle. “That was my [joke] to keep my sanity.”

“And it wasn’t just us. Every bike shop in the area has just been bonkers,” he said.

Two rivers away, Trek Bikes of Mount Pleasant was also rolling through its stock.

“We had our biggest year ever. Significant increase over previous years,” owner Ben Gruber said.

Nationwide bike sales spiked after the pandemic began in March 2020, up 57% a year later, according to NPD Group industry trackers.

Gruber | Provided

But by June of last year, Gruber said he’d sold through his inventory and couldn’t get any more. Ride Bikes faced a similar dilemma. Both were feeling the impacts of the global pandemic-induced supply chain squeeze. There were no more bikes to be had. “We need inventory to repeat previous year sales,” Gruber said.

Some analysts expect delays to persist into 2022 — bad news for local bike sellers, who hope to continue sending more bikes out the door.

Seeing what it’s like

Almost immediately after the 2020 pandemic shutdowns, Charleston Moves executive director Katie Zimmerman said she heard from new and old cyclists who were seeing the state of local bike infrastructure for the first time.

Zimmerman

“They finally understood what the problem is, because they were finally experiencing their communities by bike or by foot, and they just hadn’t been before,” Zimmerman said. “We heard from some really shocked people who were like, ‘Why is it like this? What is this?’ ”

That feedback mirrors input residents give to local leaders responsible for implementing bike and pedestrian solutions. A full 70% of respondents in the 2018 Plan West Ashley report said there were short trips they would rather bike or walk if they could do it safely.

“Over and over again, people are saying they want to be able to walk and bike safely. The region just needs to provide it,” she said.

Peter Wilborn, an attorney who founded Charleston-based Bike Law, which connects lawyers with cyclists injured in crashes, said his group’s 22-state network can “barely keep up” as post-COVID traffic returns to normal.

“The COVID bike boom is the COVID bike-crash boom,” he said, rattling off grisly details of cases where cyclists were struck by vehicles in Nevada, Maryland and elsewhere.

But, he said, more people on the road riding bikes is still the best way to ensure safety: “Ride share, which is the percentage of trips taken by bike, and ridership, the number of people riding, are the greatest predictors of bike safety.”

Less than 1% of Charleston residents used bikes to commute to work in 2019, according to the Census Bureau, but nearly half of the local workforce lives within 10 miles of work — the Bureau’s threshold for a feasible bike commute. As the area racks up tourism accolades, it was named America’s worst city for cyclists in 2016 by Bicycling magazine.

Pedaling Empowerment

Getting more people access to bikes is what North Charleston nonprofit Second Chance Bikes is all about. And for people who need bikes to get where they need to go, Second Chance has donated more than 200 adult bikes to local folks this year alone — plus another 225 for kids.

Executive director Sylvie Baele spends her days making sure the group is constantly refurbishing its next round of donation bikes — “tools of social justice,” she calls them.

Sylvie Baele’s groups Second Chance Bikes, gives away hundreds of bikes each year in addition to selling some to help make ends meet

“They are things that empower people to meet their own needs,” she told the City Paper.

Many of Second Chance’s customers are low-income or are affected by homelessness or mental health challenges. The group also sells some refurbished bikes, using the proceeds to sustain its operations and get more people on the road.

Working with people who rely on bikes for transportation and those who ride recreationally, Baele said for both groups, it comes down to the ability to do it safely.

“It doesn’t take a genius to look at other cities like Davis, California, or Denver or Portland and see that if that infrastructure is built, people will bike,” she said.

Getting In Gear

Zimmerman has been preaching about better bike facilities for years, and she said the anecdotes from 2020 speak for themselves: People wanted to bike.

“Clearly what we saw during COVID is, people put their money where their mouths were,” she said. “They were out there trying to get around.”

And there will soon be even more opportunities to get on the bike.

In addition to the Ashley River bike and pedestrian bridge currently in the works, the Lowcountry Rapid Transit project will make alternative transportation even more accessible from the Ladson area to downtown. Major projects from Mount Pleasant to west of the Ashley will help connect suburban communities with job centers.

“In about five years, we’re going to see a really connected West Ashley,” Zimmerman said, pointing to projects on Highway 17, Glenn McConnell Parkway and the ongoing goal of safe bike and pedestrian passage across the Northbridge between North Charleston and West Ashley.

As people see results of the work that’s been underway for years by groups like Charleston Moves and other local advocates, Zimmerman said she hopes more people make their voices heard, saying they want to see more.

“What’s really important is having that critical mass of people who are saying to their elected officials and to local planners and to state engineers, ‘We want to see better. We want to stay safe. We want to stay connected.’ ”