Cycling season brings renewed tension on SC roads

Greenville NewsApril 24, 2014 

— Spring has sprung and it has bloomed into bicycle season once again in the Upstate. That means more pedal power on the roads and more of the unending friction between cyclists and motorists.

It didn’t take long this spring for the chafing to begin anew, first with a bicycle bill that Greenville Rep. Wendy Nanney proposed — and later pulled after backlash from cyclists — and then with Greenville County Councilman Joe Dill, who said he’s heard from many northern Greenville County residents who are none too pleased with the abundance of bicycles on narrow mountain roads.

In the Upstate, a cycling community has begun to thrive, spurred on by the public’s enthusiastic acceptance of the Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail and the city of Greenville’s efforts to create safer roads to accommodate bicycles.

At issue is the tension between cars and bikes on the roads in a state that consistently has more cyclists killed on its roads per capita than nearly every other state.

Drivers complain that cyclists don’t obey traffic laws, ride too far into the traffic lanes and hinder traffic flow on busy streets or mountainous roads.

Cyclists gripe that drivers don’t give them space, yell at them and occasionally toss soda cans out the window or try to force them off the road.

Everyone agrees that more education is needed, but most issues could be solved with a little patience and courtesy from drivers and cyclists alike, said Randy McDougald, owner of Carolina Triathlon on Main Street in Greenville.

And Nanney said she still wants to craft a law, this time with input from the cycling community.

“I feel like we need to do something,” she said.

When there’s a spat between drivers and cyclists on the mountain roads in northern Greenville County, Dill said he often hears about it, usually from the car drivers, he said.

“It’s quite an upset group of people,” Dill said.

Two weeks ago he heard from a group of churchgoers that a pack of cyclists wouldn’t let them pass to get to their church on a Sunday morning. Horns were blown. Words were exchanged.

One recent instance nearly came to blows, Dill said.

“We’ve got little roads that are big enough for one car,” Dill said. “And when you have an 85-year-old man who’s trying to get to his son’s house for dinner, he don’t understand why four or five bicycles won’t let him get around.”

Cyclists tell a different story.

Kathleen King, an avid cyclist who recently moved to Greenville, said a car full of people screamed at her because they had to wait five seconds for her to cross a city street they wanted to turn onto.

“It took me five seconds to get out of the way, but by the time I got there, there were three people leaning out windows screaming at me,” King said.

Drivers need to realize they can do real damage if they hit a cyclist, King said.

“A person on a bicycle is a person in the road, not a machine with some idiot annoying you attached to it,” she said.

Hit-and-run

Barry Peters cradled his gunpowder-gray bike helmet and ran his fingers across the jagged cracks.

Peters keeps the helmet on a shelf in his garage. It’s a scar that reminds him that it likely saved his life. But it also brings back the flood of anger he felt in the months after a truck sideswiped him on a winter Sunday morning ride.

Peters, 58, moved with his wife to Greer from Pennsylvania in 2011 and said he plans to retire here. He started bicycling fresh out of college, raced bikes for a while and would ride six days a week, 6,000-7,000 miles a year.

He was used to riding in cold weather, so he set out on Dec. 30, 2012 in mid-20s weather for a jaunt on a familiar route on roads behind the BMW Performance Center. He never made it there.

Just after 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning he was hit from behind on Highway 101.

Peters doesn’t remember the hit. He remembers opening his eyes and seeing the sky. Nine minutes had passed since a truck slammed into his elbow and likely threw him head over heels onto the curb.

A guy with a heavy German accent was leaning over him, saying “Is there someone I can call?”

The witness told police he saw a metallic blue pickup truck on the right side of the road and stopped to help, but the truck drove off, an incident report states.

Peters suffered a broken ribs, a dislocated elbow, nerve damage to his left arm and a broken pelvis that still bothers him. He’s since had his spine fused after more discomfort.

It’s been hard to get back in the saddle. He did a charity ride and has mostly stuck to the Swamp Rabbit Trail to avoid vehicles.

“Getting on the bike and riding in the same direction of travel of the cars … especially if it’s a loud truck or something like that, it’s just terrifying,” Peters said.

S.C. fails bike safety

Peters is fortunate.

More cyclists die on South Carolina roads per capita than all but five states, according to the 2014 Benchmarking Report released by the Alliance for Biking and Walking. That’s actually an improvement over the 2012 report, where South Carolina ranked 49th.

The state’s rate of bicycling deaths is getting worse, though. In the 2012 report, South Carolina’s number of deaths per 10,000 bike riders was 13.5. In the 2014 report, that number jumped to 21.2.

South Carolina also spends less on biking and walking infrastructure than every state except New Jersey and Maryland, according to the report.

The state ranks 40th in the number of people who walk or bike to work. Just three-tenths of one percent of commutes are made by bike, two percent are made on foot, according to the report.

Yet the Upstate is becoming more of a cycling destination. More than 403,000 people used the Swamp Rabbit Trail in 2012 and the cities of Greenville and Spartanburg have been named bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Communities by the League of American Bicyclists.

A lack of bicycle-friendly roads is the greatest problem, cyclists told Rep. Nanney at a town hall meeting she organized at Bob Jones University after she pulled the plug on a state bill that would have forced cyclists to get a permit, pass a test and carry liability insurance if they wanted to ride on state roads greater than 35 miles per hour.

Nanney said she heard from thousands of cyclists in the 24 hours before she decided to pull the bill, which she says was only intended to get the conversation started about bike safety and didn’t stand a chance to pass this legislative session.

Greenville’s program to build complete streets — with shared roads, bike lanes, greenways and road diets that reduce lanes and slow vehicle traffic — is a critical part of the engineering cities need to build into its infrastructure to encourage and protect cyclists, said Greenville City Councilwoman Amy Ryberg Doyle, a bike advocate.

“Since state law allows cyclists on the road, in my opinion, it’s up to the cities to take responsibility and work on how to reconcile these issues within the city limits,” Doyle said.

Tensions rise in Tigerville

Johnny Cannon, a grading contractor who has lived in Tigerville since 1956, said bicyclists have increasingly taken over the rural roads in his community and make it difficult for him to run his dump trucks and heavy equipment between job sites.

“I like to give a warning toot,” Cannon said. “I give a toot, toot, you move over. Well, instead of moving over, they get in the middle of the road.”

Recently, he said he drove behind a woman in his dump truck, honked and she got right in front of him.

“All I could see was her helmet,” Cannon said.

She rode like that for a while, then called the sheriff’s department. No one was charged, Cannon said.

Cannon said cyclists have broken the code of neighborliness in northern Greenville County.

“They load up their bikes, take over our community, show no respect, don’t obey the laws, act very arrogant and cause a lot of problems,” Cannon said.

State law allows bicycles on all roads except interstates. It also allows bicyclists to ride two abreast.

Dill said that’s fine, but when a car approaches, cyclists need to fall into single file to let the car pass.

Dill gets phone calls “about every single pretty day” from frustrated drivers, he said.

“We’ve got some roads here where they can’t take two cars and then you put 15 bicycles there,” he said.

The Swamp Rabbit Trail has brought notoriety and an economic boost to the region, and Dill said he’d like to extend the trail as far north as funds will allow because that would give cyclists an off-road option.

Cyclists have long enjoyed the scenic mountain rides, but Dill said in the last three to four years, the crowds of bicycles have increased.

“The word’s out that this is a beautiful place to ride your bicycle,” he said.

Some in the region, like Cannon, want to see the law change to make cyclists ride single file and give way to vehicles, but Dill said he hopes cyclists and motorists can work together instead.

“I’d rather see us all work together to solve this problem because when you’ve got laws you have got to have enforcement,” Dill said. “So I’d rather see the bicyclers work with the people.”

John Eldridge, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said deputies rarely hand out tickets to cyclists because the office doesn’t see it as a significant problem.

“It’s case by case,” Eldridge said at the town hall. “Generally the problem can be solved without the need for a ticket.”

There’s more enforcement on the Swamp Rabbit Trail because cyclists mix with pedestrians and it’s such a popular place to bike, he said.

Amy Johnson, director of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition, a statewide advocacy group, told the Sheriff’s Office “sometimes we just need to get tickets.”

Some don’t know laws

The root of the problem is education, both of cyclists and drivers, Johnson said.

“A lot of states institutionalize instruction,” Johnson said. “I think that should happen before we start restricting bicycling.”

The Palmetto Cycling Coalition is close to rolling out a localized education campaign in schools and organizations across the state, she said.

The campaign will get beyond the bike clubs and bike shops to reach riders who likely have never learned the rules of the road, she said.

Commuting by bike is the only option for many workers, cyclists told Nanney at the town hall.

Those are the riders that need to learn the laws, but they’re the hardest to reach, they said.

McDougald, owner of Carolina Triathlon, said many of those riders are customers at Greenville’s 16 bike shops. Shops like his could reach them if they had the right materials to hand out to educate riders.

“Maybe there are some things that we can do to get the information into their hands and get them better educated,” McDougald said. “When I drive home and I see someone dart across the road and they have no helmet and no lights, that’s the guy that’s going to get hit by a car. Things that we can do as an outreach to help those guys get educated, get a helmet, get lights, I think that would all be good.”

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