This is a post I've been mulling over for several years, and has taken a couple of weeks for me to jot down my ideas on and get to the point where I find it acceptable to publish.
After several recent high profile car-bicycle accidents, there's been a lot of discussion about making Charleston more bicycle-friendly. It's something that has been a long time coming and there is much that Charleston, North Charleston and Mt. Pleasant can do to make the area more convenient to ride around. I'm not entirely sure that it's possible to make the Charleston area completely bike friendly though.
Some background on my bicycling history.
I grew up in Edmonton, with my primary mode of transportation being my bike for the 26 years I lived there (never owned a car). Edmonton is what I would consider a very bicycle friendly city, with its extensive network of bike routes, paths and trails, relatively low speed limits (usually 50-60 km/h) and layout of the roads (possibly excepting the newer neighbourhoods that have popped up since I left). These factors made getting around Edmonton on bike very easy. During my undergrad, I made the 24km round trip between home and school pretty much every day as long as the weather permitted (meaning as long as there wasn't snow on the road). Most of the time I could even beat my friends who drove to school. I knew how to get around the city better on my bike than driving around.
I rode a lot in Edmonton.
Based on this, these are some of my opinions on making the area easier for bicycling.
Charleston is flat. Really flat. The biggest hill in the area is the Ravenel bridge. That makes riding pretty easy and largely effortless. Unless you're like me and like riding up and down hills, this is a big plus. Charleston has a lot to offer for bike riders.
The down side of this is that there are a number of areas that flood during heavy rain. This makes things a mess for both bikes and cars though. At least a bike won't stall out though.
Bridges and roads
Being a coastal place, there are a lot of rivers and streams. Have a look at most of the bridges in the area. Many of them are built with sidewalks on them. What is noticeably lacking though, are sidewalks leading up to the bridges. What the heck is up with that? The other problem is that most of those bridge sidewalks are pretty narrow, barely wide enough for one person to walk along.
The two major rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, present pretty significant geographic barriers for moving between West Ashley, the peninsula and Mt. Pleasant. The Ravenel bridge makes crossing the Cooper relatively easy. Crossing the Ashley is an entirely different story. You're either braving highway speed traffic and taking your chances crossing entry/exit ramps on the James Island Connector or trying to ride the skinny sidewalk over one of the two Ashley River bridges, only one of which has sidewalks on both ends off the bridge. A recent proposal to add on a side pedestrian/bike bridge to the existing bridge was deemed impractical due to the added weight. I've also seen proposals that call for converting one of the car lanes to a bike lane which I personally think is not such a good idea. However it would provide a better way across than what's currently available. It's definitely a case of "If you build it, they will come". One only has to look at the bike/pedestrian sidewalk across the Ravenel bridge to see proof of that. A better long term solution would be to build a pedestrian/bike bridge over the Ashley and make it easy to get to.
A bicycle friendly place would have a network of bike routes and paths that let people ride in relative safety. There are a few obstacles to setting up a such a network in Charleston but I think it can be mostly done.
As I see it, there are two major problems with the roads in the Charleston area: the layout of the roads, and the speed of traffic.
If you look at the layout of the roads in Charleston, you find streets in developments and neighbourhoods that all dump traffic onto major arteries. Unfortunately that's the only place most of those neighbourhood streets go. In most developments, particularly newer ones, once you're in there's nowhere else you can go. The lack of connectivity to anywhere means the only way to get from one place to another is along the major arteries where you're riding with traffic that's more often than not moving around 70-80 km/h. Sadly at this point there's probably very little that can be done about the roads without demolishing houses and redoing entire neighbourhoods.
The majority of Charleston area roads are designed for vehicle traffic and nothing else. Roads are usually fairly narrow and without much of a shoulder, if any. If you're riding on the main roads, you're riding in traffic that's usually zipping by going at least 50 km/h faster than you are. For the casual bicyclist, that's pretty intimidating. I've ridden on highways with high speed traffic before, but there's always been a pretty wide shoulder to ride in. On many roads around here, that traffic goes by with not much room to spare and leaving little room for error.
The attitudes of many motorists to bicycles on the road is pretty poor in general. Attitudes ranging from "only cars belong on roads" to "only kids ride bikes, get a car" seem to be pretty common around here. I attribute this to people just not being used to seeing riders on the road, the "have to have a car" mentality that's prevalent here and general ignorance. It's something only time and education will change.
The behaviour of many bicycle riders I've seen riding on the roads is pretty atrocious. Riding against traffic, squeezing past cars at lights, blowing through stop signs and lights and generally breaking every rule of the road there is. Again, something that needs to change with bicycle safety courses, preferably starting at the elementary and jr high/middle school level.
With all this said, bicycling is possible around here if you're willing to brave the hazards. I see lots of people do it. Getting around the peninsula on bike is easier than most places around here. There are several riding groups and on any weekend morning you'll see a bunch of road cyclists riding their usual routes. High heels and two wheels is a blog about a local woman who successfully gave up the car for a bicycle commute.
There's a lot of work going on to make the Charleston area more bicycle friendly, which is good to see. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done, and the hardest of it is going to be changing the attitudes of bicycle riders and car drivers towards each other.