In 2008, 19-year-old Jesse Gamble was biking home from work in West Columbia when he was struck by a drunk driver and killed. Also in 2008, 24-year-old William Wilson was killed by a drunk driver as he rode his bike along Devine Street. Tom Hoskins, 49, a resident of Columbia, was participating in a charity bike ride just outside of Charlotte in October 2007 when a van driver who was allegedly talking on her cell phone struck and killed him and another rider. In September 2005, Dylan Mitchell, 21, was struck and killed while riding home after a group training ride. And in 2000, in probably one of Columbia’s most high profile cycling deaths, dentist Harry Sunshine was struck from behind and killed in an early morning hit and run.
These stories drive home some chilling statistics. The South Carolina Department of Public Safety recorded 2,646 total crashes involving cars and bicycles from 2005 to 2009, with 78 fatalities and 2,368 injuries. In 2010, South Carolina was the 11th most dangerous state in which to ride a bike, with 14 fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The state’s fatality rate per capita (0.4 deaths per 100,000 residents) is nearly double the national average, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. The fatality rate per cyclist is even higher, with 13.5 deaths per 10,000 bicyclists, according to the 2012 U.S. Bicycling and Walking Benchmarking Report.
Blame for these statistics can be placed in any number of places: inattentive or inebriated drivers, cyclists who don’t obey cycling laws, lack of infrastructure to accommodate safe biking and soft penalties for drivers convicted of hitting or killing cyclists. The driver who killed Tom Hoskins was only fined $200 for reckless driving, even though the cyclists had the right of way on the road.
But all hope is not lost in Columbia. The Palmetto Cycling Coalition (PCC), Palmetto Conservation Foundation (PCF), Columbia’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Action Committee (BPAC) and a number of business owners and individuals are passionate about making Columbia more accessible on two wheels. Because of their work and the work of the city, since 2008, Columbia consistently has been recognized as a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists. The national program recognizes cities that welcome cyclists by providing safe accommodation for cycling and encouraging people to bike for transportation and recreation. Charleston, Greenville, Hilton Head, Rock Hill and Spartanburg also have been named Bicycle Friendly Communities, and the University of South Carolina has been named a Bicycle Friendly University.
The number one thing that young professionals want out of the community in which they live is alternatives to getting places by car, according to Natalie Britt, executive director of the PCF. The PCF works to conserve South Carolina’s natural and cultural resources and promote outdoor recreation through trails and greenways. “Encouraging biking is great for the environment and for quality of life,” she says.
“Columbia is actually a great place to ride,” says Cait Costello, membership and communications director of the PCC, a Columbia-based nonprofit that works to improve bicycling access, safety and education in the state. “The grid format of its streets makes it relatively easy to navigate from place to place, and the wide streets are helpful in accommodating bikes when dedicated bike lanes aren’t available.” In addition, the moderate temperatures mean one could reasonably commute by bike seven or eight months out of the year. A big part of what Columbia needs to do is make it a no-brainer for people to get on their bikes and ride, she says, especially for trips of five miles or less.
This past year, with help from PCC, PCF and BPAC, Columbia made steps in the right direction in three areas: expanding dedicated bike parking and cycling paths and trails; developing a master plan for the creation and funding of cycling infrastructure; and improving community outreach and education of both cyclists and drivers.
Bike Corrals and Rails to Trails
“Columbia is a very over-parked city,” says Cait. “More bike corrals means more people can visit an area.” Bike corrals are dedicated parking areas for bikes, usually installed in what were originally parking places for cars. Instead of just one person in a car, a bike corral can accommodate anywhere from 12 to 14 people on bikes. One of the first successful projects of the BPAC was the installation of four bike corrals in Columbia: one on Saluda Street in Five Points, two on Lincoln Street in the Vista and one on Main Street near Taylor. Cait says studies indicate that people who drive their cars to shopping destinations are more likely to browse and leave without purchasing anything. But because it takes a dedicated effort to ride a bike on a shopping trip, cyclists who visit retail locations are going in to buy.
“The merchants associations in these areas have been very supportive of the city’s efforts to install bike parking,” says Natalie. “A shopping area that provides bike parking says that cyclists are welcome.”
But having access to parking in the city’s major shopping districts doesn’t mean much if there’s no easy way to get there by bike. “Five Points, the Vista and Main Street are all great places for riding,” Cait says. “The key is connecting those districts to each other.”
Phase 1 of the Vista Greenway project was the first piece of connecting those districts. As part of the national Rails to Trails campaign, an unused railroad line was paved over to create a half-mile trail connecting Lady Street to Finlay Park. A second phase will connect Finlay Park to Elmwood, and further phases will result in a nine-mile multi-use path connecting different parts of the city.
In addition, the BPAC is working on an informal list of preferred routes around the city, routes that avoid dangerous intersections and congested streets, in addition to minimizing travel up Columbia’s ever-present hills.
The BPAC and the Master Plan
The BPAC, a city council appointed citizens advisory committee, was formed in September 2011 to advise the City of Columbia Transportation Planning staff, the mayor, city council members, community organizations and other partners on bicycling and pedestrian issues facing the city. The committee represents community and constituent interests and provides feedback to city staff on projects related to walking and bicycling. BPAC’s main project is the development of the city’s first bicycle/pedestrian master plan, which will be a road map to a connected bicycle and pedestrian friendly city.
“The master plan will document existing infrastructure, it will identify places that need improvements, and it will outline funding opportunities,” says Natalie.
John Fellows, planning administrator with the City of Columbia, says, “The master plan will inform policy and infrastructure. Instead of just reacting, we’ll have a plan. That’s important to obtaining funding from the Department of Transportation. They want to see that formal plans are in place, so this will help us as we try to access federal and state funds to make these improvements.” The master plan will also help guide spending of the portion of the city’s new penny tax that will be dedicated to cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. But because proceeds from the tax are unlikely to be realized for several years, other sources of funding have included grants, the hospitality tax and the city.
The master plan, which should be completed within the next 12 months, will offer both ideas that can be implemented right away and more complex projects for the future. “Short range projects include connecting the pieces we already have, like existing sidewalks and bike lanes,” John says.
One of the short-range projects the city currently is working on is the Complete Streets campaign. Pedestrians are familiar with streets, like Kilbourne Road between Devine and Devereaux, where a sidewalk abruptly ends, only to pick back up blocks later; cyclists too travel streets where bike lanes appear and disappear at random, such as along Beltline Boulevard and Trenholm Road. Complete Streets works to connect gaps such as these through renovations, improving access to walking and cycling.
“Additionally, as new streets are developed, we’re trying to include more bike facilities, including dedicated bike lanes and ‘sharrows,’” says Dana Higgins, an engineer with the City of Columbia. Dedicated bike lanes are areas along the shoulder of the road marked off for use by cyclists. Sharrows are signs painted on a street that alert car drivers to be on the lookout for cyclists in an area, like along Sumter Street on U.S.C.’s campus.
“We’ll also be looking at adding even more bike corrals, because the ones we have always seem to be pretty full, as well as implementing bike boulevards, which are designated streets where bikes have the right of way to cars. They are crucial to improving commuting times for cyclists,” John says.
Other plans the city could implement, according to Cait, include transforming some four-lane roads into two-lane roads with a center turn lane, with the space from the extra lane made into designated bike paths, and bike boxes that are painted at intersections signifying where a bike should be when stopped at a traffic signal.
Dana will be attending The League of American Bicyclists 2013 National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C. on behalf of the City of Columbia this month, where she hopes to get even more ideas about what other communities are doing to improve access to safe cycling, as well as how they handle funding issues. “Everyone at the city, including the mayor, sees how important this is to the community,” she says.
Let’s Get There Together
One of the most important tools in making Columbia’s streets safer for the two-wheeled set is public awareness. The PCC, in coalition with Bikelaw, developed the Safe Streets Save Lives campaign, which produced several entertaining and thought-provoking public service announcements on such topics as how to bike safely in traffic, how to signal turns safely, and how to drive with an eye towards being courteous to cyclists. The website also offers answers to frequently asked questions about rights and duties for both motorists and cyclists on the road.
For instance, many drivers and cyclists aren’t aware that bikes are legally allowed to be on the road, and they are considered to be a vehicle, with all of the rights and responsibilities of an automobile. That means cyclists must ride with traffic, they can’t break the speed limit, they can’t run stoplights and stop signs, and they must signal their intention to turn. They are not required to ride on the sidewalk – in fact, in some cities it’s illegal, not to mention dangerous, especially to the pedestrians there. Generally, cyclists are required to use the bike lane when one is available, but in many places, the presence of trash carts and yard waste makes that difficult. In cases when no bike lane is present, cyclists are allowed to ride in the road and are required to ride as far to the right as is practical.
Motorists also have responsibilities when it comes to cyclists. For instance, they are required to be at least three feet away from cyclists when passing. It’s also a misdemeanor to harass or throw objects at a person on a bike, which is punishable by a fine of $250 and/or 30 days imprisonment. “Typically, a police officer has to witness the harassment to write a citation,” Cait says. “But if it happens to you, you should still report it. It creates a paper trail against that driver in case something more serious happens down the line.”
She cites the case of a doctor in California who was sentenced to five years in prison for assault with a deadly weapon when he pulled in front of two cyclists and slammed on the brakes, launching one of them through his back window. He had become increasingly annoyed by the presence of cyclists in his neighborhood, and wanted to “teach them a lesson,” he told an officer on the scene. While he had already had run-ins with cyclists on two other occasions, he was not cited in those instances because no one was injured; it did, however, establish a pattern, which ultimately led to his conviction.
One of the most controversial things that cyclists do is ride in the center of a lane or ride two abreast, sometimes backing up traffic behind them. Drivers tend to see this as arrogance on the part of the cyclists, which makes them angry and aggressive. For the most part, it is considered bad manners to do this, and cyclist should merge into a single file line and pull to the right when safe to allow cars to pass. But there’s no legal requirement that they do so. In fact, the law states, “Every bicyclist operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable,” meaning that they are allowed to move closer to the center of the lane when no shoulder is present or when glass or other debris litter the edge of the road. Also, the law states, “Bicyclists riding bicycles upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast,” meaning that they are legally allowed to ride side by side whenever and wherever they like.
Most cyclists who ride in the center lane or who ride side by side aren’t doing so to be obnoxious. According to Safe Streets Save Lives, riding two abreast is often safer for cyclists, especially on narrow roads. But on wider roads or in heavy traffic, single file riding helps keep motor vehicle traffic flowing smoother and may be safer for all.
“Instead of drivers getting angry at cyclists, they should look at it as one less car on the road, which is actually better for them in terms of traffic and congestion,” Cait says.
“Motorists have to understand that, legally, cyclists are allowed to be on the road,” Natalie says. “Be respectful, slow down, and give them space.”
At the same time, all cyclists have a responsibility to follow the law, Cait says. “There tends to be a confirmation bias, where drivers see only the cyclists who are doing things wrong and not the ones doing things right.” So it’s incumbent on each cyclist to be a good ambassador for the benefit of all cyclists.
A variety of events in Columbia are designed to educate cyclists and drivers as well as improve visibility and awareness, says Mary Roe, encouragement chair for BPAC. On the second Wednesday of each month, guided rides from Cycle Center, Outspokin’, Summit Cycles and City Roots head to Handlebar Happy Hour at Publick House, where free food and drinks are provided along with the opportunity to hear a guest speaker who is involved in improving cycling in Columbia. As many as 80 riders have attended the sessions, which began in August 2012. Councilman Seth Rose, who has been a huge supporter of biking in Columbia, will be the guest speaker this month. Merritt McHaffie, executive director of the Five Points Association, Matt Kennell, president and CEO of City Center Partnership, and Sarah Luadzers, executive director of the Congaree Vista Guild, will speak about the support their respective districts have towards the biking community in April. Councilwoman Tameika Devine, who is an advocate for safer infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians, will speak in May.
The most high profile events will take place as part of May’s National Bike Month. On April 27, Mayor Steve Benjamin will kick off Bike Month with the second Famously Hot Mayor’s Bike Tour, a three-mile family-friendly bike tour through downtown Columbia. On Saturday, May 4, BPAC’s Education Committee will partner with Safe Routes to School and Safe Kids to celebrate Bike to School Day. Parents and kids will participate in a bike rodeo at the Vista Greenway, where they will learn about bike rules and biking safety. Members of Columbia Police Department’s Proactive Community Enforcement – the bike cops – will lead kids on a short ride to give them an opportunity to learn how to ride safely on the roads. Then at noon, parents and kids are encouraged to ride over to The Nickelodeon, where a family-friendly bike related movie will be playing. The Nick has plans to show other bike-related movies as part of National Bike Month every Saturday in May.
Richland Library’s Wheatley Branch will hold a neighborhood bike event on May 11. Barb Urban says the library will block off its parking lot, and lots of neighborhood families will bike over for the event. Kids will learn bike rules and hand signals, and stations will be set up to do helmet and bike safety checks. There also will be an obstacle course where kids can learn bike-handling skills. Barb says the library adapted the NHTSA’s Cycling Skills Clinic Guide, which anyone can use to put on a similar event.
The BPAC will be holding a workshop on May 15, where the mayor of Memphis, Tenn. will speak about how his city went from being the worst city in the nation for biking to one of the best, and the BPAC will discuss details of the bike/pedestrian master plan. Other events planned for Bike Month include workshops for beginning commuters and for women. On Friday, May 18, cyclists will meet at the State House for Bike to Work Day. They’ll ride down Main Street to Mast General Store for snacks, and businesses along Main Street and city staff are encouraged to participate.
But perhaps the most poignant of the National Bike Month events is the Ride of Silence on May 15. Held in conjunction with the National Ride of Silence, cyclists join in a slow paced ride to honor those who have been injured or killed while cycling on public roadways. Riders ride in silence, the only sound the clicking of their gears. Here’s hoping that, with all of the work the city is doing to improve access to and awareness of cycling in Columbia, there won’t be any victims to honor at next year’s ride.