Last week, Charleston City Council voted 7-6 to authorize the conversion of an existing lane of travel across the Ashley River Bridge into a dedicated bicycle lane. The vote was not without suspense as Mayor John Tecklenburg cast the deciding vote in favor of the new bicycle lane, breaking a 6-6 tie. Although the vote was celebrated by bicycle enthusiasts who had long advocated for the lane, there was also strong opposition. The fact that the vote was so close means that the outcome was far from predetermined, and that citizen participation in the process may well have helped sway council members who were on the fence.
As to the Ashley River bike lane debate, I can see both sides. On the one hand, the extremely narrow walkways that the current bridge has on either side are clearly a safety hazard for pedestrians and cyclists alike. We’ve seen tragedy occur before when cyclists ride on structures not designed to protect them. Such was the case a few years back when a promient physician was killed while riding his bike over the James Island Connector. A driver lost control of his van and ran up onto the sidewalk knocking the driver over the bridge railing, an example of the worst case scenario that can occur to cyclists when drivers are careless.
On the other hand, the Ashley River Bridge is one of the most heavily used arteries into and out of the city, especially during rush hour. Regardless of any traffic study, common sense says that when you reduce an already busy thoroughfare from four lanes to three, heavier traffic and longer driving times will result. Think about anytime you drive on a highway and see a sign that says “lane closed ahead.” That sign seldom leads to a one-minute delay in driving time. More often than not, traffic slows to a halt as cars bottleneck from a higher number of lanes to a lower number. For James Island and West Ashley residents who are already suffering from frustratingly long driving times into downtown during the morning and afternoon hours, the loss of an additional lane will surely exacerbate the problem.
It is laudable to aspire to become a more bike-friendly city, but permanently dedicating a traffic lane which was formally used for cars seems disproportionate to the actual number of cyclists who will use the lane. Thousands of vehicles cross the Ashley River Bridge on any given day. On a similarly busy biking day, would the bike lane accommodate even 100 bicycles? If not, drivers may have the same reaction given to a single sailboat leisurely crossing the Ashley River during rush hour, causing the drawbridge to go up. Is that one leisure boater’s need to cross this portion of the river, during a heavily-congested hour, more important than the hundreds of drivers who may be late, simply because someone wanted to go on a boating trip?
City Council certainly considered both side of this issue, and accordingly all of the citizens and groups which participated in the process should feel that their input definitely mattered. Hopefully the bicycle lane, when completed, does not prove the opponents correct by making an already bad traffic situation even worse.
Dwayne Green is an attorney practicing in downtown Charleston. He is the former Assistant Corporate Counsel for the City of Charleston and a past chair of the Charleston Board of Architectural Review.