Folks who think cycling advocates are "Too White, Too Shrill" are missing the movement. It is very much a civil rights issue, as important as any, and more important than most, in its ability to positively change lives and communities.
Despite a visionary mayor for decades and a promising new one for months, and despite great weather, an urban core, and flat topography, Charleston is a horrible, unsafe place to ride a bike. Our city leaders — so good on many issues — have completely failed to plan for transportation.
But more and more of us ride. Charleston has the highest growth in bicycle commuting in the country: “From 2009 to 2013, the Charleston metro area posted the highest growth rate (73.4 percent) for cyclers commuting to work in the country’s 100 biggest metro areas.”
And we ride for all the right reasons: health, environment, fun, community, economics.
Tourists ride too. About 5 million people visit Charleston every year. The City has been rated the best city in the US (and the second best city in the world) by all the magazines. I’ve lost count of the number of years for which award from which mag, but all of them promote cycling in Charleston as one of the top things to do.
Come to Charleston and ride your bike, the message goes. The photo on the Post & Courier’s mobile app is guy on a bike. It’s all great in photographs.
Case in point: here’s yours truly in Conde Nast Traveler in 2013:
That’s an influential magazine giving Charleston the top prize and featuring a photo of a bike. That’s a big deal, I thought. I hoped that by promoting cycling to visitors, to the world, the City would get it. More and more people ride, more and more people are coming here to ride, more and more business are coming here whose employees want to ride. It’s a winner for all: create safe cycling infrastructure and thousands more will get out of their cars and outside.
There’s a growing movement here for adequate bicycle infrastructure. There have been individual voices and committed advocates for years, but the advocacy movement has become better organized, more vocal, and more influential recently. Led by the group Charleston Moves, there is a concentrated effort for better bicycling.
This year, it was looking up, with a study to devote a lane across the Ashley River to bicycles. This is an important route because the majority of the city’s population live across the river from downtown, and there’s presently no safe way to ride across.
In 2011, Dr. Mitch Hollon was hit by a truck and killed on his bike on the the James Island Expressway (“Connector”) (the southern most of the three bridges across the river on the map above). In the aftermath, the City cooperated with the SC DOT to post signs prohibiting bikes.
The City’s response to this tragedy was dull-witted and cowardly. Instead of recognizing that Dr. Hollon had been rundown by a reckless driver (who veered out of his lane and into the double width shoulder), the City — apparently cowering in shadowy, incomprehensible legal advice — posted signs in the aftermath. A tone-deaf coup of victim blaming.
There are efforts to reopen up the Connector (by among other things, sanely reducing the speed limit), but they are stalled as the alternative (below) is studied.
The other two bridges to the north on the map are grated drawbridges, one in each direction, with tiny raised sidewalks. I won’t ride across the bridges; they are death traps.
The proposal is to devote one of the four lanes on one of the bridges to bikes. Instead of just building it (as should have happened), the City decided to set up a mock lane and study its impact on car traffic. Bikes are not allowed to use it during the test. Currently, there are orange cones on the road where the lane will be.
The study has been a lightening rod. While the proposal to provide safe passage across the river is long overdue, cheap, and relatively innocuous, it has provoked a fire storm. The phony controversy is covered obsessively by the media, and talk radio is awash with complaints of CARMAGEDDON! “How dare these liberals take away our car lanes!”
It is a bizarre experience to listen to a talk radio anchor go ape about it, and then cut to the actual traffic report. Lots of reports of horrible traffic snarls throughout the region, but no problems reported here, ever. Listen to 94.3 FM in the morning. They cut to traffic every ten minutes. Invariable delays, up to an hour long, in a couple of common spots, but never a problem on this bridge. The real traffic problems seems to stem from those newfangled roads that were supposed to have solved our traffic woes (e.g., 526 — which predictably led to over-development in sprawled out locations — is a daily disaster).
The most recent anti-lane article was yesterday’s Post and Courier piece by Brian Hicks, prematurely sounding the death knell. In his article, he cites complaints of a “mind-numbing merge” of cars before the bridge, but not on the bridge itself. The traffic struggle is real, he insists, but you just can’t see it. He concludes that the politicians are feeling the heat of driver outrage and are going to declare the test a failure before the study’s results are finalized.
Clearly the subject is mind-numbing, as least in its impact on the journalist. The traffic study is collecting actual traffic numbers and statistics, not the rage from unspecified (presumably “anti-establishment”) drivers. (Cyclists and walkers are pretty upset to, but not because of made-up traffic delay, but, as explained below, for more significant reasons.)
Let’s hope that our local politicians can ignore the bugaboo and direct their attention to the actual study and to a bigger, longer range vision.
Much of this response is to be expected; rage is all too common these days.
One response, however, caught me off guard. A columnist for the Charleston City Paper (byline Mat Catastrophe) writes that he supports the cause of cycling generally and the bridge lane specifically:
“With that in mind, let me say up front that I like bikes. Further, I believe bicycles need to be a larger part of the personal transportation scene everywhere, not just in Charleston. The number of bike lanes added to area streets is a start, but there are still problems with access that do need addressing. One of those is the long sought-after opening of a lane on the T. Allen Legare Bridge to pedestrians and bicycles.”
Unlike Hicks, his problem is not with with the project. His problem is with the people advocating for the lane. He thinks that we take it too far; we undermine our effectiveness by rallying in front of City Hall, overplaying our hand, and making too much of a stink with the slogan of “40 years and counting.”
Our problem, according to him, is our “Oblivious White Liberal Syndrome.”
“In particular, the “40 years and counting” talking point put out by Charleston Moves is one that, frankly, just speaks to the level of Oblivious White Liberal Syndrome involved here. Again, this is a bike lane you’re talking about, not equal pay for equal work. Not the right to use the bathroom you are comfortable with. Not reparations for centuries of unpaid work which we still reap the benefits of today. A bike lane on a bridge. Is it important? Yes, absolutely. But it’s important in ways that could be better illustrated by keeping it in perspective.”
I don’t know the columnist personally. But I’ve read some of his columns and often agree with his views, and I get his curmudgeon schtick. I also am a fan of the Charleston City Paper and appreciate its voice and often good journalism.
And I also understand what he is saying here. No doubt that many folks (including natural allies) are turned off by white liberals.
Let me get this straight:
Hicks is reporting that the project is dead because of the passion and zeal of its opponents: pissed off drivers.
Catastrophe argues that the project is hurt because of the passion and zeal (and race) of its proponents: white liberals.
Instead of being “Too Black, Too Strong,” he implies that we are “Too White, Too Shrill.”
But who is really being shrill here, the advocates who believe in opening up our streets to all, or a few very loud, irate drivers who don’t want delays?
The problem with Catastrophe’s opinion is that it adds fuel to the Hicks narrative. It provides confirmation bias of a widely reported, but largely irrelevant and mostly non-existent, culture war between cars and bikes.
I wish Catastrophe had done some research on Charleston’s civil rights history and what’s happening with cycling across the country, or called someone who knows the topics. I would have been happy to talk to him.
Here’s what I would have said:
Our transportation policies are vestiges of white flight. Population and traffic patterns in West Ashley were caused by white flight from middle class downtown in the 60s and 70s, decimating northern peninsular neighborhoods and schools. Streets were poorly retrofitted for the daily exodus. Spring and Cannon streets were transformed from neighborhood spines to de facto highways to get whites into Charleston in the morning (along Cannon) and out of Charleston (Spring) at night. The city’s transportation infrastructure and planning were focused on this daily movement of whites off the peninsula, ultimately leading to the disastrous Crosstown, which split the city and neighborhoods in two.
The goal now is to reverse this, and actually plan for traffic in a way that rebuilds our City and connects, not isolates, our neighborhoods. This is why Cannon and Spring (like Beaufain) are finally returning to sane, two-way traffic this year.
These uncrossable bridges were used to justify segregation. Back then, the School District argued against the U.S. Justice Department in federal court that desegregating our local schools was impossible precisely because of these bridges across the Ashley. Students could not easily be transported across them (and could not walk or bike across them) so the black kids had to stay downtown, with white kids in better schools in the suburbs (or so went the despicable argument paid for by Charleston taxpayers). It’s not a design flaw that these bridges are hard to get across. It was the point, at least in how they were presented to a federal judge.
And it still matters. Open up the river crossing to all, and a group of kids with bag lunches can leave the West Side in the morning, cross the river, ride up the Greenway, go fish the creeks past the Clemson Extension, and be home by supper. It opens up the Lowcountry to all, not just folks that can afford or choose cars or choose to chauffeur kids around.
The use of the bridges has been primarily by dependent cyclists. It’s facile to paint this as a movement so that affluent whites can pedal around, but the primary users of the existing sidewalks on the bridges has been low income people dependent on their bicycles for transportation. Don’t believe me? Set up a chair at Crosby’s Seafood and watch.
As a bike crash lawyer, I have represented too many families of low income people killed or seriously injured on bicycles in Charleston. Dependent cyclists are going to ride from point A to point B because they do not have another choice. Our City should provide safe routes. Why should lower income cyclists be forced to jeopardize their lives for the sake of extra convenience for drivers?
Remember the Ravenel Bridge. The same type of attacks were lobbed at the proponents of the bike/walk lane on the Ravenel Bridge. If you don’t remember back then, that lane exists because of the efforts of a very few old white guys; it was not in the original bridge plans. Plenty of politicians and others were against the lane as a waste of money, not a priority, and (like Catastrophe now) no big deal. Now, and for great reason, everyone recognizes its importance to all groups. It opened up the harbor, the sky, to all, not just those with three-story houses on the water. It made the treasures of the Lowcountry public. It connected communities. It got people of all ages and races out and about. Now, the only complaint about the lane is that it should be wider. That’s exactly what the white liberals were saying back then.
Once a safe route is built across the Ashley, the controversy will end and be forgotten. Like the Ravenel Bridge lane, its use will skyrocket, and it will be seen as essential by most.
What happens when cities provide for safe bicycling? Here’s the most important point that Catastrophe doesn’t know. In cities across the country and world, the new leaders of the cycling movement are women and people of color.
Why? Because cycling — for over a century — has been a central part of women’s liberation and civil rights. For women of color in this country (and in most other parts of the world), cycling has been culturally and historically off limits. To give an example, for Arabic women refuges in Northern Europe, cycling has been embraced as a celebration of new freedom. They take to the streets. Such fundamental rights (self-sufficiency and freedom of travel) are easy to take for granted.
And the same is happening throughout the US. As cities make cycling safer and more accessible, black women are joining together to celebrate their new access to the public realm.
Here are the facts:
- Between 2001 and 2009, the fastest growth rate in bicycling was among the Hispanic, African American, and Asian American populations. Combined, those three groups went from making 16 percent of the nation’s bike trips to 23 percent.
- Between 2001 and 2009, the growth in percent of all trips taken by bike was 100 percent among African Americans; 80 percent among Asians; 50 percent among Hispanics; and 22 percent among whites.
- Eighty-six percent of people of color surveyed said they had a positive view of bicyclists.
- Seventy-one percent of people of color surveyed said that safer cycling would make their community better.
Diversity and women in cycling have been the subjects of the last two annual National Bike Summits. We’ve been to both of them, and can report that the thought leaders of the cycling movement are diverse, and the focus of many is equity of access to our streets. It is very much a civil right issue, as important as any, and more important than most, in its ability to positively change lives and communities. Our friend in New Orleans Emilie Bahr has written a great book about women and urban cycling, Urban Revolutions: A Women’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation.
Here at Bike Law, we took a trip in September 2015, driving from Charleston to Denver and back. We visited 16 cities in 14 days to ride and to check out local advocacy scenes and biking conditions. In almost every place we went, we were met by members of Black Girls Do Bike or Black Women Bike or other groups of black women on wheels.
These aren’t token photos or token people. These are some of the leaders of the local cycling movements that we met on our trip.
To name an example that is perhaps closest to Charleston, the strongest cycling proponents in Birmingham, AL are a large group of African American cyclists. They are new at it, and have only started to ride because of changes in bike culture and cycling infrastructure there. That these groups don’t (yet) exist in Charleston is only because the City has failed to provide them a safe place to ride.
Last, a story.
I moved to Charleston in 1996 to practice civil rights and labor law. My first client was the ILA dockworkers union; I still represent them. A couple of times a month, I’d ride my bike to the old Hiring Hall on Morrison Drive (demolished to make way for the Cooper River Bridge) for meetings. I lived in Wagener Terrace, worked on Church Street, and moved to Charleston without a car.
One day, union president Kenny Riley took me aside. “Pete, we are happy that you represent us, but you can’t be riding your bike up here. The men are making fun of our lawyer on a bike.” He was serious. And it was more than just making fun: to Kenny, I was disrespecting myself and them. A lawyer, their lawyer, needed a fancy car.
Kenny is a second-generation Charleston dockworker, born and raised on Savage Road in West Ashley, where he still lives.
A few years later, Kenny and I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark together for work. There, Kenny saw successful, normal adults in normal adult clothing, riding their bikes on bike lanes everywhere they went. We stood together one morning and watched thousands of people cycle by.
A scene like this:
At first Kenny shook his head, then laughed, then became impressed, then inspired. I didn’t say a word, other than elbow him and nod “Yup.”
“When I get back to Charleston, I’m buying a bike.”
And he did. Except he soon realized that from his home in West Ashley, there was nowhere safe to ride. So he put his bike in the back of his pickup, drove downtown, and round around in circles at Hampton Park.
I called him this morning as I was thinking of this post. “You still have that bike?”
“You know it. It’s in the back of my truck.”
Our goal is for Kenny, and everyone else, to be able to take the bike out of the car and onto the road.