Big Win in Charleston: Car Lane Converted to Bike/Ped Path on Key Bridge

Bicyclists grown onto the Legare Bridge. Photo: Charleston Moves
After Tuesday’s vote, cyclists in Charleston won’t have to mix with traffic on the Legare Bridge. Photo: Charleston Moves

Charleston, South Carolina’s Legare Bridge carries about 56,000 cars over the Ashley River daily, but it’s never had a safe path for people on bikes. Connecting central Charleston with population centers to the west and south, it is such a critical corridor that bicycle advocates call it Charleston’s “missing link.”

Charleston bike advocates won a safe spot on a critical bridge this week, thanks to an effective campaign. Image: Post and Courier
Charleston bike advocates won a safe spot on a critical bridge this week, thanks to an effective campaign. Photo: Post and Courier

Now, after years of campaigning, Charleston cyclists have finally won a safe route on the bridge. Charleston City Council voted 8-5 Tuesday to open one of the car lanes to biking and walking exclusively, and active transportation advocates are elated.

Tom Bradford, director of Charleston Moves, the city’s bike advocacy organization, said the decision “truly is the linchpin to total bicycle friendliness.”

Central and downtown Charleston are on a peninsula, and the city and its suburbs sprawl over creeks, marches and rivers, so safe access to bridges is absolutely essential to navigating the city by bike. Bradford said Charleston has been getting more bike-friendly, but because of the city’s geography, “it never would have amounted to more than a hill of beans unless we could get across the Ashley River.”

Bike advocates have talked about opening the bridge — State Highway 17 — up to cyclists since the 1970s. The campaign intensified a few years ago when Charleston Moves took the lead. The group organized a petition drive, generating 1,500 signatures. It also went around to neighborhood groups and student organizations asking for resolutions in support of a bikeway on the bridge.

And Tuesday night, when City Council was set a vote on the issue, advocates for a safe bridge path packed the house. Charleston Moves‘ Board Chair Stephanie Hunt describes the scene:

It was … a very proud moment (or long stretch of hours!) to see the standing-room-only crowd we assembled and the tremendous depth of support from people of all ages and walks of life that I did not even know were aware of Charleston Moves: from 9-year-old Oliver Abar to 65-year-old Waterfront Park condo ladies who bike! And that was just the tip of the iceberg — the hallways outside were equally crowded with folks who couldn’t get in and I never even saw.

Yesterday the Charleston Post and Courier editorial board criticized the five dissenting council members, pointing out that traffic studies have shown that removing the one lane for car traffic would increase commute times for drivers by only 13 seconds.

“The discussion Tuesday was about traffic counts and travel times, but what Charleston City Council actually voted for was to keep bicyclists safe,” they wrote. “It was the right thing to do.”

  • Great news! Congrats to Charleston, already one of my favorite cities to walk and bike around.

  • Nathanael

    This is a sea change. If this can happen in South Carolina… an actual *lane conversion*… then the national mood really is turning.

    I know it’s Charleston, which has had an influx of progressives, but still, it’s huge to hear anything like this out of South Carolina.

  • Froggie

    Nitpick: it’s actually US route 17. Was on it and the bridge about a month ago.

    I hope they can pull this off successfully. The problem with using that bridge is that there are freeway-style interchanges on both sides of the bridge.

  • Biking in a skirt

    There is no such thing as a “car lane.” General use lanes are for buses, trucks, cars, carriages, motorcycles, and bicycles alike. Bicycle drivers have the same right to the general use lanes as car drivers or bus drivers.

    What it sounds like this plan may do is to create a sidewalk, where bicycles are allowed but must yield to pedestrians at all times. Depending on the conditions such as speed, visibility, and amount of use, that may or may not be an improvement for bicyclists. At least there’s no crossing traffic to yield to at curb cuts since it’s on a bridge.

  • John Brooking

    Headline writer, please stop saying “car lane”. There’s no such thing. The proper term is “travel lane”, and bike riders are allowed to use them too, in most situations. “Car lane” reinforces the misconception that bicyclists aren’t allowed to use it, which is just not true.

    One more nitpick for the author: “never had a safe path for people on bikes” should more correctly read “never had a comfortable path for people on bikes”. Separation can sometimes provide some additional safety, or sometimes not (at intersections and driveways). I understand that sharing a travel lane with car drivers can be uncomfortable, especially on a bridge, been there done that, and that can be a legitimate reason to separate. But sharing a travel lane is generally NOT prohibitively dangerous for a bicyclist who can ride in a straight line and be assertive about their use of space.

  • John Brooking

    So it will be interesting to see how the ends of the bridge are handled, since intersections are always the hardest part of separated infrastructure.

  • John Brooking

    Oh, just noticing this article is two years old. I just saw it shared on Facebook today.

  • neroden

    Officially general use lanes are for use by PEDESTRIANS as well, and EVERYONE must yield to pedestrians.

    But that doesn’t happen in practice; in practice the ludicrously high speed limits mean that cars run down pedestrians. So they are, in practice, car lanes.

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