Braving the Deep, Deadly South on a Bicycle

But there is an obvious catch-22 here. It’s hard to encourage people to ride if the streets aren’t safe. Says Johnson, “You are literally sending them out into harm’s way.”

Cycling enthusiasts in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, can direct visitors to the corner of Lockwood and Montagu, where a white bike with broken tires and a garland of plastic flowers sits chained to a no-parking sign. It marks the spot where Edwin Gardner, a “pillar of the bike community,” was killed by a car three years ago. "Hit and run over and dragged,” remembers Tom Bradford, founder of Charleston Moves, a local biking and walking advocacy group.

The south is rife with stories of prominent cyclists who have been injured or killed. Last year Durham, North Carolina, lost one of its most beloved bikers, Seth Vidal, to a hit and run. The year before, Baton Rouge suffered the same fate. The year before that it was Charleston's turn. In one incident in Arkansas this past summer, 13 cyclists were struck at once in a massive accident that killed one and hospitalized the rest. Reckless driving caused all of these deaths. “Total lawlessness on behalf of drivers,” in the words of Peter Wilborn, founder of the national bike advocacy group and legal practice Bike Law.

How do you increase safety before you increase bikers? Many southern states are rolling out or expanding driver education programs. In North Carolina, representatives from the Department of Transportation say they’ve already seen significant “improved yielding” or road sharing across the Research Triangle as a result of their expanded program, Watch for Me NC.

But Wilborn insists that education alone will never be enough to make the streets safe for bicycles. “Cycling fatalities are inversely proportional to the amount of money spent on bike infrastructure,” he says. “This is well documented. There is a number of what a state spends—and that number correlates almost exactly with its ranking on fatalities.” If you want to know why South Carolina is unsafe, he says, look at how it doesn’t spend its money. Frankly, he adds, “South Carolina does as little as possible.”

Representatives from the South Carolina Department of Transportation safety program can point to a number of initiatives underway to improve safety across the state, for both cyclists and pedestrians. "Bike and pedestrian safety is an essential consideration for all safety projects" in the state, they told me by email. But South Carolina still ranks near the bottom of the list (44th) for allotting money to bike and pedestrian safety, according to review of the benchmark statistics by the Palmetto Cycling Coalition. As investment lags, so will safety.

Despite the danger there is a feeling that things are changing. Or about to change.

In South Carolina at least, a new bike culture is beginning to emerge. In July, 2011 a South Carolina city, Spartanburg, became the first in the region to offer a bike-share program. Within two years, there were seven in the south—10, if you include Texas. In a coup for local advocates, South Carolina’s newest and biggest bridge, the Arthur Ravenel, sports a pristine new bike lane.

And there is growing enthusiasm in other states. “Mississippi takes a lot of flack for how far it hasn’t come yet,” Melody Moody says. But it’s made real progress, and there are plenty of “passionate people in Mississippi who are fighting for change and doing interesting and innovative things,” she says. Others point to new complete streets programs and infrastructure investments in large cities like Atlanta and Charlotte as promising signs, on the municipality level at least.

Nevertheless, cyclists in the region are still struggling to change minds set against “bikes as transportation”—and, more importantly, working to capture real money for safety improvements.

They still have a long road to ride—particularly true if South Carolina is any example. In January the state’s Secretary of Transportation, Robert St. Onge, was kindly asked to tender his resignation—after he'd been arrested at 8 in the morning for drunk driving.

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Aaron Reuben is a freelance journalist and researcher at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

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