Plans make Charleston bike-friendly
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston could, and should, become a better place to walk and ride a bike, say the Imagine Charleston consultants who recently unveiled their draft plans for the city.
And Dennis Strawn, a longtime biking enthusiast and advocate, couldn't be happier.
"I looked at the plan and it looked great," he said.
Strawn was particularly struck by the "word cloud" the planners created from comments collected during public meetings, which highlighted the most frequent comments.
"The three that popped up were walking, biking and connections," he said.
"The things I've been talking about for years with my friends are also good for the city. It seems everybody else gets it too, which is wonderful."
Some improvements could arrive soon. Indeed, dual bike lanes for the Boulevard are already on the drawing board. But other changes will take time and money, and maybe a new attitude among motorists who seem to feel they own the streets, the consultants say.
"There's a non-urban kind of mentality in the state," said Craig Gossman of MKSK, author of the new Downtown Redevelopment Plan, which is part of the broader Comprehensive Plan. Both plans are in the final comment stage, pending final approval by City Council.
"That's not a criticism; it's a reality," Gossman said. "People drive in at 70 miles an hour, get off the interstate ramp and you ask them to drop down to 30 mph. It feels like you're standing still."
The cross streets in the downtown core provide natural impediments, he said.
"You don't see people speeding up Capitol Street. You just can't." It's narrow with people crossing, parked cars and trees.
But some longitudinal streets, up to four lanes wide with timed traffic signals, almost encourage speeding, Gossman said.
"When you drive on portions of Lee and Washington Street, with blank building walls and empty sidewalks, motorists get the message they can go 40, 50 mph."
The solution, said Comprehensive Plan author Brad Strader of LSL Planning, could be a concept called Complete Streets.
"It's using streets for all types of transportation, not just cars," he said. "It's a national trend. I think around 100 cities around the country have adopted it."
One "complete streets" project is already underway, said City Manager David Molgaard.
"One of the early things to come out of the plan, even before the final draft was written, is the bike lanes between Patrick Street and Magic Island," he said. "Brad Strader was very much in favor of that."
The city has hired engineers to design dual bike lanes that will run along the river edge of the Boulevard, using space carved out by eliminating the median strips and narrowing -- but not removing -- the four lanes for motorists.
The bike lanes -- the city's first dedicated bicycle paths -- may not get built this year as Molgaard had hoped.
"There has been some delay," he said. "I'll know more after I meet with the engineers next month. They are right now looking at the mapping data we provided, and soils data."
Another short-term goal is to mark off Virginia and Quarrier streets as share-the-road bike routes using painted "sharrows" -- something bike enthusiasts with the Charleston Land Trust have been pushing for about two years.
"The sharrows I'm sure can be done quickly, possibly even before this fall." Molgaard said. "As soon as the plan is adopted I'm sure that will be taken up by those interested."
The planners considered striping off dedicated bike lanes on Quarrier and Virginia, but decided it was too dangerous because people in parked cars could open their doors into the path of speeding bikes. Such "dooring" accidents are common in other cities.
These measures won't please everybody, Gossman said. "Sharrows will probably not make Mrs. Smith and her 8-year-old daughter feel safe.
"Washington and Lee streets -- they're primary routes. That may be where you make long-term investment for bike lanes."
To help pedestrians, the planners suggest widening the sidewalks at key intersections with curb bumps, or creating mini-roundabouts by building landscaped islands in the middle of the intersections. Both devices also help to calm traffic by forcing drivers to slow down.
Such measures tend to be expensive, however.
"I know the plan calls for complete streets, with bike lanes and narrower streets," Molgaard said. "Any change to the hardscape may need to sit in the wings as we look at what sorts of grants are available.
"It's always nice to have a plan and dollar estimates available when grants come up," he said. "That's what happened with Haddad Park; Sen. Byrd called up with a federal earmark. I know those are a thing of the past, but who knows what the future holds. This comprehensive plan and downtown redevelopment plan gives us a roadmap."
The city can't wait for federal funds, Strawn said.
"It seems the city finds a way to fund projects [it wants] -- bonding capacity for the Civic Center, backed by a sales tax and a TIF [tax increment financing] district.
"But that's very narrow," he said, "a citywide tax for one project.
"But for walking, biking and green spaces, how do you pay for them? Do you have a tax for them? Do you put it out for a vote or do you let City Council pass something?
"It's easy to put things out there [in a plan] but, at the end of the day, how do you make things happen? I'm encouraged by the process but I just hope it goes farther."
Copies of the downtown redevelopment and comprehensive plans can be found online at imaginecharleston.com -- click on the Exhibits tab. You can phone or email comments to Dan Vriendt, the city planning director, at 304-348-8105 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Jim Balow at email@example.com or 304-348-5102.