COLUMBIA, SC — As projects such as the Bull Street development and Main Street’s revitalization aim to give Columbia a more attractive, livable downtown, officials have a new plan to factor bicycle and pedestrian friendliness into the equation.
Walk Bike Columbia is the city’s proposed master plan to identify ways to develop a cohesive network of “complete,” streets that meet the needs of all road users, including motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians and transit passengers. The city’s Design/Development Review Commission will consider the plan at its Thursday meeting. The City Council would have to sign off on details.
There have been many plans to increase cycling safety and access in Columbia. Local cyclists says there’s been progress in making the city more bike-friendly – but more progress is needed.
“It’s a matter of livability,” said Brian Curran, owner of Outspokin’ Bicycles on Devine Street and a member of the city’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee, which helped devise Walk Bike Columbia. “People want to be active, and the way things are now, it’s hard to ride your bike.”
A year of study, data collection and consultations should suggest practical steps for making the city safer and more accessible for bicyclists and pedestrians. Bike sharing – a trend that is cropping up nationally but is new to Columbia’s cycling discussion – is among the components the plan will consider.
Bike-friendly measures already adopted include additions to the Three Rivers Greenway and completion in 2012 of the first phase of the Vista Greenway. When that pedestrian and bike path is completed, it will connect the Vista with the neighborhoods north of Elmwood Avenue
But the city lacks an overall connective network of safe bicycle routes and amenities.
“It’s hard to get from point A to point B all on bike lanes. It’s almost impossible,” said Curran, who’s been riding bicycles in Columbia for more than two decades.
The master plan, among other things, urges the city to analyze areas of the city that need improved amenities; to recommend safe travel routes for cyclists and pedestrians; and to create design guidelines for future bikeways, crosswalks and other features, said Lucinda Statler, the city’s urban design planner and project manager for Walk Bike Columbia.
But accomplishing those goals won’t be simple, she said.
“We have an existing street network, so it’s not like everything is going to magically become bike friendly,” Statler said. “That’s the challenge, is retrofitting existing facilities.”
Columbia doesn’t yet have any examples of the ideal complete street, Statler said. “But hopefully we will soon.”
She said Greene Street, which runs through the University of South Carolina campus, comes close, and Assembly Street’s partial face-lift has been a move in the right direction.
‘A great cycling city’ with needs
Aaron West describes Columbia’s cycling community as tight-knit and social. He’s a member of a group of several dozen riders called Tri-City Cyclers.
“We ride because we love it,” West said. “You can just get a different experience riding around Columbia, and it’s kind of fun. It’s kind of like an adult toy.”
He joins other Tri-City riders twice a week for group rides through Cayce, West Columbia and Columbia. Anywhere from a few dozen to as many as 100 or so riders gather on any given outing, divided into smaller packs grouped by riding pace.
West has been cycling in Columbia for about five years, and overall, he said, it’s “a great cycling city.” But one improvement he’d like to see is more connectivity among safe routes for cyclists.
Curran agreed, describing a “treacherous” route without bike lanes on the way to Fort Jackson, where many cyclists go to ride safely.
Bicycle safety is the priority for the Palmetto Cycling Coalition. Director Amy Johnson said the city could improve cyclist safety by making streets narrower to slow traffic and converting more parallel parking spaces to back-in angle parking spaces, which give motorists a better view when pulling into the road.
“Bicyclists know that they are vulnerable out there, and teaching them to be confident riders makes them safer riders, too,” Johnson said.
But many motorists in the city aren’t accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists because they don’t encounter many of them.
“Right now, people are afraid to ride their bicycles for a number of reasons,” Statler said. “People aren’t ever going to notice (bikers) if they don’t get out there. That’s a huge component of it, is getting people aware that they’re out there.”
Bike sharing in Columbia?
A way to encourage more cyclists to get on the streets could be bike sharing, which the city will explore as part of the new master plan.
“It’s a huge tool for encouraging novice urban bicycle commuters,” Johnson said.
Bike sharing works by docking communal bikes at various stations throughout a city. A rider can hop on a bike at one station and ride to another station in another part of the city, where the bike is re-docked. Many cities position bike stations near public transportation hubs, like bus or metro stops, so riders can plan their full commuting routes around public transportation.
Most programs allow riders to purchase annual or one-day passes to ride an unlimited number of times.
Spartanburg and Greenville are the state’s only bike-sharing cities. Spartanburg became the first bike-sharing city in the Southeast in July 2011. Currently operating with 30 bikes, the program is expanding to add eight more bikes and a fifth docking station next month.
There also are bike-sharing programs in Charlotte, N.C., and in Chattanooga and Nashville, Tenn. Charlotte’s program launched in August 2012, expanding to 200 bikes available at 24 stations. The program exceeded expectations with almost 500 annual members and 11,000 one-day riders in its first year.
Some in the local cycling community say Columbia could benefit by joining the bike-sharing trend.
It could get more cars off the street, Curran said. And, West added, bike sharing could encourage people to see the city from different angles.
“Columbia’s always looking for a reason for people to come here,” Curran said. “I don’t know that (bike sharing) would be the reason to come here, but it would certainly add something.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.