“Ill-advised and absolutely stupid.”
That is one of the comments from someone posting about the conversion of one lane on the Ashley River Bridge for the use of pedestrians and people on bikes. My first reaction upon reading it was to wince, and then I instinctively touched the heart-shaped scar on my knuckle. I’ve been commuting over the sidewalk of the westbound Ashley River Bridge for practically a decade now. I’ve seen the best and the worst of that bridge: dolphins playing in the water below, wood storks enjoying the adjacent marsh, unexpected bounties of litter, and motorists tearing across at breakneck speed. I earned the heart-shaped tattoo when I crammed myself and my bike against the bridge’s railing to allow another person on a bike to pass in the opposite direction, and as I started to pedal again, got sucked in to a backdraft from a bus going well above the posted speed limit and slammed back into the rocky railing. It’s not even remotely the worst of what could have happened.
I have been told by people that getting around mostly by bike is pretty stupid. Not because people don’t want to bike; they usually follow up by saying something like, “I just can’t believe you would put yourself in danger like that. There’s no safe place to ride, and the drivers around here are terrible. If it were safer, I would ride my bike.” So when the electronic commenter designated the proposed bike and pedestrian lane as “stupid,” it was a bit odd. If more people want to bike, they need safe and connected infrastructure. The westbound bridge has three lanes. The eastbound bridge has four lanes. Why not convert one of those lanes for all of those people who wish they could get out of their cars once in awhile?
And what about those folks who don’t care at all about ever getting out of their cars?
That’s the best part: the lane conversion will make driving into downtown safer.
Here’s some info from the 2011 study of the lane retrofit regarding driving benefits: During peak weekday hours (7am-9am), the three inbound feeders (Highway 61, Highway 17, Folly Road) averaged above the posted speed limit of 35 mph. After the enhancements and the lane conversion, the computer model predicts an average speed below the posted speed limit.
During peak travel times, there are more than 3,000 lane changes. Converting the lane will result in a 51% reduction in the hourly lane changes on the span.
Vehicles currently line up onto the bridge as ingress into the peninsula is limited to one lane for Bee Street, north on Lockwood, and the Crosstown. This intersection will be enhanced and capacity increased with a second thru-lane. The “traffic backup” will be alleviated (though it obviously won’t make all congestion disappear).
The bottom line is that the conversion of the lane will absolutely make driving safer. Slower speeds, plus fewer lane changes, plus more efficient peninsula ingress. All of those things add up to safer driving conditions.
Charleston is experiencing a development boom, as we all know. With the WestEdge development coming along downtown, and the new apartment development at 35 Folly Road in West Ashley, we will have two heavily-trafficked areas on either side of the bridge, primed to use the new lane—not to mention an abundance of cars taken off the road from those sites. An MUSC employee survey garnered 500 responses from folks who would be willing to use the bridge to bike or walk to work if it were made safer and more practical.
As far as the benefits for folks who will bike or walk or run, this is huge. Multitudes of people who have wanted to bike between West Ashley and the peninsula, but feel unsafe doing so, will finally get across the bridge. I think the number of people who switch to biking to the downtown Farmers Market will be particularly large…until us West Ashleyans get our own Farmers Market, of course. Think of all of the people who use the Ravenel Bridge lane, and then think of all of the people who will use the Ashley River Bridge because it’s lower and flatter. This is the missing piece to the East Coast Greenway, too. The entire east coast is basically waiting for us to get this done. The only thing I have a problem with—and I’m hoping the plans will address this at the meeting this week—is that there isn’t a way to safely cross Folly Road to get to the remainder of the Greenway and ultimately to the bridge crossing. Let’s get that solved along with the lane conversion.
The Conservation League’s Executive Director, Dana Beach, was going through old files a few months ago. He found one of our old newsletters from the 1990s that emphasized, “Plans are in the works to improve bicycle access across the Ashley River Bridge. Right now it is actually dangerous to try to cross on bicycle.” It goes on to highlight “the Mayor’s Environmental Committee [coming up] with a set of recommendations to facilitate bicycle travel in the city and from the suburban areas. One of these recommendations—made more than a decade ago by a similar committee—is to construct approach ramps for the west-bound Ashley River Bridge and complete a system of approaches and sidewalks on both sides of the bridge so that bicyclists may have reasonably safe passage.” Our community has been promised a retrofit to the Ashley River Bridge for more than thirty years.
It’s important to open the James Island Connector to people on bikes in addition to the conversion of the Ashley River Bridge lane. James Islanders won’t get to use this new lane without crossing the Wappoo Cut, a perilous adventure. All the City of Charleston has to do to the Connector is lower the speed limit and put up some bollards or rumble strips. You can get involved here: https://www.facebook.com/ReopenTheConnector
If Charleston is a “world class city,” then Charleston must have safe and connected infrastructure for pedestrians and people on bikes. We cannot expect to travel by car everywhere, all the time. There simply isn’t enough room or resources. If you don’t believe me, just think about all of the available parking spaces that will be open once your neighbors bike to work.