Saving the King St. Bike Lane

In this special installment of Surge Radio, we sit down with Katie Zimmerman, Executive Director of Charleston Moves, to discuss the King St. Bike Lane in peril.

Saving the King St. Bike Lane

Katie Zimmerman, Executive Director of Charleston Moves, came on Surge Radio to break down the King St. Bike Lane issue – how SCDOT came to propose it, the backroom dealings that caused it to be cut by certain members of Charleston City Council, and how to take action right now!

Saving the King St. Bike Lane with Katie Zimmerman

Belvin: Hello and welcome to Surge Radio. I am one of your hosts, Belvin Olasov of the Charleston Climate Coalition, and I’m joined by Katie Zimmerman, the Director of Charleston Moves. How are you today?

Katie: I’m good, thank you for having me.

Belvin: So Katie and I will be discussing today, the King Street bike lane. What is the current status of the project, how did it come to be, and what can you do about it? And Katie I thought we’d start with the original SCDOT (South Carolina Department of Transportation) proposal. How did this come to be? How did the King Street bike lane even become a possibility?

Katie: So yeah I know it’s probably shocking to people that this was proposed at all, let alone by the state. Across the nation obviously I think we’re all pretty aware at this point that injury rates and fatality rates for vulnerable registers are through the roof, and the numbers just keep going up and South Carolina is one of the states where we still haven’t gotten a handle on this. So there’s a lot of national federal level legislation coming down, budget requirements all these things, South Carolina Department of Transportation saw this and said they began really focusing in on this problem that we have. So they developed a complete streets engineering directive, which we got to weigh in on. They developed a statewide pedestrian and bicycle safety action plan, which we also got to help with. And then they started what came out of that state wide plan was kind of a matrix for where they’re where they should be focusing, sort of prioritizing, where they should be focusing revamping street corridors.

Belvin: And just briefly can we define complete streets?

Katie: Absolutely yes thank you, I get bogged in words. So a complete street is one that serves multiple users, preferably all types of users, but so, you know, a good sidewalk, a good bike lane, a space for motorists, sometimes not space for motorists, transit access, all of those things. But it’s also important to make sure that it’s contextual, so we would never advocate for striking a bike lane on every street because it doesn’t make sense on every street. You want to kind of look at the uses of the street. Look at what surrounds it with the land uses, and engineer out a solution that accommodates as many different types of transportation as possible.

Belvin: Right so like an overall ethos, let’s maximize different users and not just motorists for safety for quality of life.

Katie: Exactly yes, for safety, for quality of life, to reduce traffic congestion and all sorts of good stuff.

Belvin: Right. So going back, the SCDOT has this new mission basically.

Katie: Yeah they’ve really embraced it, which hopefully it lasts. You know you never know as leadership changes as presidential administrations change. But things are nice right now, so they identified this priority corridors all across the state, and began doing what they call road safety audits. And it’s an interesting process because what happens is they identify the streets they get all the relevant stakeholders in the room so all of the local governmental jurisdictions, all of the planning agencies that are relevant, and Charleston Moves gets to participate in those as well for Charleston county, not on behalf of County, but for the ones in Charleston County. And then you know if there are large scale employers, businesses, business groups, along the corridor as well they participate too. So for, I think it was, 2019 and 2020 the top, within the top 10 most dangerous corridors in the state for biking and walking: King Street in Meeting Street, below Line, St. Philip St, and Calhoun Street.

Belvin: Oh wow! 4 out of 10.

Katie: 4 out of 10 statewide. So obviously the college is right there, so they participated in these audits. Lowcountry Local First had a participant there. So trying to get all of these folks to come together and figure out “What do we do?” And so we conducted the audits, everybody in the room looks at the data, everyone tries to think about what’s going on. But then, the key is we all walk the corridors together. We identify what we see as problems on the ground, but we’re also watching how users are using the space, and where things are not functional or dangerous or all of those. Which is great because it’s nice to get these planners to actually look at what is going on right now.

Belvin: Right, like how it actually functions day to day.

Katie: Yeah it’s great, great conversations with the DOT. It’s a nice opportunity to talk with everybody about what change we could see. So they did these audits, then they go back to go through everything. They do a cost benefit analysis of corridors of course, and then they, SCDOT, come up with concepts that they would install using federal dollars. But, these are specifically federal dollars. It is the vulnerable road user pot of money, and that is specifically to enhance safety along corridors for people on bikes, people on foot. So DOT presented these concepts.

Belvin: And what did they present?

Katie: They presented…so for King Street below Calhoun to Broad, they had presented a buffered bike line And we were obviously very excited about that.

Belvin: Right.

Katie: They also included what is called pedestrian scrambles, which are wonderful tools in the right place, and it’s where the traffic signals have an all red phase. So all the pedestrians, no matter which side they’re on, they all cross, do their thing. It clears out and then the traffic cycle starts again. So they’d identified that for Calhoun and King, Calhoun, and I think Calhoun and St. Philip, Meeting and Market. That’s a big one.

Belvin: Right so it’s not just bike infrastructure it’s sort of these comprehensive pedestrian safety improvements that are also scattered around the peninsula.

Katie: Right, yeah. But a system. Right, so a lot of the conversation before they develop the concepts were, well obviously BCDCOG are part of the audit. They are in charge of the Lowcountry Rapid Transit Project (LRTP).

Belvin: Right and that is the Berkeley Charleston Dorchester Council of Governance and sort of a tri-county administration.

Katie: Exactly yes. They also control CARTA, our bus system. So you know they were, they were very clear at that point Lowcountry Rapid Transit, the route had been selected, it was gonna be on Meeting and on Calhoun so that affected what a lot of the biking and walking infrastructure proposals. So it sort of ended up, we weren’t gonna be able to get in, in order to accommodate their rapid transit plan.

Belvin: Right, which involves a lane dedicated to…

Katie: Not on those streets. So it’s going to be in traffic and a 60 foot articulated bus in traffic on those streets. I mean, transit is great, and so we’ll see how that works, but it also affected where we felt cyclists could safely be.

Belvin: Right, it limited the options.

Katie: And the city has a People Pedal Plan that we also helped with, and in that plan Calhoun is identified for a two-way cycle track. We don’t get our cycle track because rapid transit is taking over. So it became very clear cyclists were going to end up getting funneled onto King. So DOT presented this buffered bike lane.

Belvin: Right that whole stretch of the peninsula, you don’t have these 2 streets as options, and King Street is the closest option so they put in a buffered, and buffered meaning there’s not just one line drawn on the road right? There is an actual protection that raises up.

Katie: Right, right. Well, but it depends, and their proposal for buffered it wasn’t very specific. They had paint as the buffer, similar to what time the Isle of Palms connector.

Belvin: Oh but like a layer, not just one line.

Katie: Yeah it’s Chevrons. Yeah but we had conversations with them following, because then obviously they had a public comment. It received overwhelming public support for these things, and we suggested to them let’s look at making it a protected bike lane, and they didn’t say no. They were still kind of going through the considerations at that point, and going through the process, the public process, this is federal money, you know, involving everybody, and then at some point it just sort of broke down.

Belvin: So they put out the proposal. It was public information. They had these sessions, where folks sort of weighed in. Things seemed to be going smoothly. It’s on its way to deal with the city, because the city of Charleston needs to approve this, and then something happens.

Katie: Right.

Belvin: What would that something be?

Katie: Well um it’s a bit, because a lot of it was private meetings, you know behind closed doors. Obviously Charleston Moves was not included, and I’m still not sure who was included in those meetings. But at some point what we’re able to piece together is, a couple of business owners were upset. They reached out to their council member, and then all of these sort of back room designs started happening.

Belvin: Right, since then there’s not been a consensus that they’re going forward with a King Street bike lane since, and this isn’t like a conglomeration of all these King Street business owners?

Katie: Right.

Belvin: This is not them all banning together, this is perhaps a minority of business owners who, behind-the-scenes raised hell, and as a result, there is scrambling to find a way to take in this plan with all these myriad improvements without the King Street bike lane.

Katie: Right, and who knows what else. I mean because these new plans are not public, they’re still not public, we don’t actually know what all is really in there. All we know is you know what, there was a Post and Courier column, editorial column, on it the other day and the author describes some things in there, but that interviewed a business owner who said she supported it, but she hasn’t seen it. But who knows?

Belvin: So I guess what’s happening here is that SCDOT has this whole process, puts out this proposal, the City, because of some opposition from a handful of maybe powerful people, is basically drafting an alternative without sharing it with the public, without discussing it really publicly, without offering any public input, and trying to ram it through.

Katie: Yep. And the interesting thing is having conversations with council members. Most of council, from what I can tell, doesn’t even know what’s in the plan. One of them told me the first he’d heard of it was reading that column in the Post and Courier this week. So it’s a very, they’re holding it very close to the chest, and I’m not fully sure who “they” are.

Belvin: I mean we know some of who they are in terms of there is a Traffic and Transportation subcommittee and they’re the ones who will be deciding. And on 17 July…

Katie: Well the meeting is on the 18th.

Belvin: 18th. Ok. So the meeting is on the 18th of July. And for a lot of you coming out, this interview is coming out on the 17th, but um on Tuesday the 18th of July the Traffic and Transportation meeting will occur. And we will be able to hear, I suppose, who on that subcommittee, who on council is trying to push through this no bike lane on King Street shadow plan.

Katie: And who knows what else…

Belvin: And who knows what else. Because there’s some things being thrown out right? Because the argument that has been made is that oh doesn’t make sense to have a bike lane on King Street, which we could argue on merits all day, but we’re trading you the St. Philip bikeway. What is the issue with throwing out a potential alternative that was not drafted by SCDOT?

Katie: Right yeah, I mean there’s so many issues. But, the main one is since the plan isn’t public, this new plan isn’t public, we don’t really know what the trade-off that they’re proposing is. So and again, because none of this is public, I’m just hearing bits and pieces. So, I’ve got some people telling me well, no the extension of the cycle track on St. Philip, that would not actually be a state…part of the state’s project that would be a separate city-lead project. Which raises a lot of new questions.

Belvin: Right. funding questions, logistic questions, will it actually happen questions.

Katie: Exactly and then you know who will then oppose that, right? So then we start this whole thing over again. And you know the other kind of interesting thing about some of the arguments that are swirling around, and what I noticed in the column  that ran in the newspaper this week, the DOT‘s original proposal for the bike lane on King seems to be, it’s being presented as not of road diet projects and now with allegedly these new plans is. And so, you know, the author sort of was a little sarcastic about how do you cram a bike lane in on King, well what DOT had drawn up was you sort of fix the on street parking, because its a bit of a problem. We’ve got a lot of people and vehicles that are way too big for a historic street and there’s not room to park. Then you would have the lane of traffic and then you would have the bike lane. So they proposed you wouldn’t have two lanes of travel on King Street where it is one way. Which makes perfect sense. It doesn’t really function as two lanes now.

Belvin: It’s a very dysfunctional two lanes.

Katie: Yeah so this alleged new design that no one has seen, but people are writing about, is now apparently going to be widened parking spaces and then one gigantic lane. So 14, 16 feet, but who knows? But you cannot…it’s not a safe proposal if that in fact is what is in the proposal. You don’t wanna have a downtown, urban, congested, people-filled street, you  don’t ever want to widen the lanes of travel that only encourages motorists to try to go faster. I suspect what is going to try to happen is that they are going to start jockeying to try to pass each other, especially if somebody’s waiting to park. Then you add cyclists to the mix in that they’re going to get doored, they’re going to get pushed to the side. It’s gonna be a more dangerous situation, ironically, using federal vulnerable-road user money, which the intent is to make a place safer for the most vulnerable among us. Not to make it more car oriented

Belvin: Right, right.

Katie: It's a fascinating proposal,l that again none of us have seen. And the agendas are out for both the Traffic and Transportation Committee and full Council, and all that’s in the packet is this agreement that the city has to enter into with the state. And it’s boilerplate you know? It’s just, you’re giving DOT the ability to run this project in the city’s boundaries. Which is something that has to be signed off on city’s transportation projects. But, the lack of information is stunning.

Belvin: Right it is sort of Calvinball, whereas the SCDOT has a process where they use safety best practices, have community input over time for time and then this is being drawn up by we don't know, containing we don’t know what.

Katie: Right. With assurance about things we don't know anything about.

Katie: Right and it’s unclear, I mean I don’t know whoever drew this new plan up... Did they participate in the audit? Read the audit report later? You know that was sort of the safety study, I am not aware that there’s been an updated safety study to justify whatever these new plans are. So it’s cavalier.

Belvin: Cavalier, that’s a very generous way of putting it... and just briefly I wanna talk a bit about the merits of a potential King Street bike lane.

Katie: Sure.

Belvin: Because we’re in a place right now, how many blocks of bike lanes, dedicated bike lanes do we have in downtown right now?

Katie: That is a really good question. So bike lanes, just in general, and I won’t analyze whether they’re subpar or not, so I couldn’t tell you blocks, but we got the bike lane on East Bay and Morrison. We’ve got the first protected bike lane in the city of Charleston on Brigade. And for anyone who wonders about that project, that was really more of a pilot project. It was meant to show the state and the city that they could actually install something like that without the apocalypse occurring.

Belvin: Right, you had to do a first one.

Katie: Right, yeah. So I know people complain that it doesn’t connect anything, but it was. It was supposed to connect the Low Line and other stuff that has sort of gotten held up.

Belvin: Well that is sort of the thing, it doesn’t connect anything while we build a bike lane. If you sort of follow that logic we would never build a bike lane because initially it won’t be connected. It sort of takes us stepping forward building more and more bike lanes and eventually they’ll be a status quo where we can say, Charleston is really bikeable, as opposed to the current status quo which is that it is dangerous to bike in downtown Charleston.

Katie: Well anywhere in Charleston, unless you’re on a separate street, so like West Ashley Greenway, that’s all we’ve got. Yeah so it’s, those are kind of the, you know when folks probably saw several years ago the city installed were called “Sharrows” which are the shared use arrows. And they did it in the center of the lane, which is exactly what we wanted to see. And the intent for those is that you use them in spaces with low speed, but you want to make it very clear to everybody that this is a shared space. People on bikes are absolutely supposed to be here, leave them alone. And so the city did those on city-owned blocks that were identified in the People Pedal Plan. So there they are sort of, I don’t wanna say scattered about, but they do sort of connect, but not a bike lane. But that's sort of the other thing that we’ve got going on out there.

Belvin: Right, but if there’s a peak in safe bike technology, it’s a protected bike lane.

Katie: Absolutely.

Belvin: And we have a body that previously was sort of opposed to these things and that is SCDOT. Things have shifted to a point where wow they’re actually proposing things that are very helpful for bike infrastructure. And all we have to do as a City is sign off on it right? Do a check next to it and we have federal funding coming in to implement this bike infrastructure. And yet,  we’re in a situation right now where because of backroom political dealings the bike lane is in danger, imminent danger, of being cut from the whole proposal

Katie: That’s right

Belvin: And that it’s a big step for potentially this central corridor, that maybe one day could be pedestrian and bike only.

Katie: Right

Belvin: I don’t think it’s a crazy idea that King Street, which every second Sunday is shut down to cars, is just pedestrian traffic. It’s beautiful, it’s accessible, it's more livable. You could have that happen, and there are all these questions about what about delivery to businesses? There are actually other places in the world that have streets with businesses that are pedestrian only. They have specific times where they have these drop offs for the businesses. It’s actually a solvable problem.

Katie: Very solvable

Belvin: And all we are talking about here is solvable problems

Katie: And that’s kind of the other thing too. You know what I have said to the mayor, to the downtown Council Member, who has been very clear he’s opposed to this bike lane proposal, and I said look, I think a bike lane on Kings is a great idea. I think we should do it if what you’re telling me is that this is just not, it’s a nonstarter then let’s talk about what makes sense to do. Particularly on King where it becomes one way, work to actually make it safe and enjoyable for people who are not in motor vehicles. Let’s have that conversation, let’s have it publicly, and let’s figure out a plan for King Street. Because how many times have you heard from somebody, I feel like 90% of the public says, “Why are cars even on King Street?”. It’s a constraint pushback that nobody has ever really sort of rallied, and sat down and had a full public conversation and began planning about. And I feel like that’s…it’s part of what is so upsetting about these sort of secret plans. This is a solvable problem, if it’s not a bike lane it’s certainly not a wide lane for cars. So let’s have a real public process and talk about this and sort it.

Belvin: What is sort of funny to me about portraying bike advocates as unreasonable in this process is that you are eminently reasonable Katie. You are someone who is willing to negotiate, willing to work within whatever the boundaries are to make the best possible outcome for safety.

Katie: Thanks, I try

Belvin: You’re not an ideologue, you are someone who just comprehensively is trying to push the ball forward every place. And they are trying to take the ball and run

Katie: Right, and hide.

Belvin: And hide, and are crouching behind a bush

Katie: It's very strange, and I think it’s also strange that if someone is confident in their position that a wide lane of travel is the way to go on King. Which again it’s so not, but if you’re confident in that decision, why would you hide it? Just put it out there and do what you’re gonna do, you know?

Belvin: Well one of my theories as to why they might be hiding it is because they want to push it through with his little public kerfuffle as possible. But if you, a member of the public, would like to get a little kerfuffle energy in this process, make very clear the fact that you support multimodal transportation, that the King Street bike lane makes sense, and that this process has been a little outrageous. What can folks do to make an impact right now?

Katie: Yes, that is the best question.So as Belvin said, these meetings are going to take place on Tuesday the 18th. The Traffic and Transportation Committee meets at 3 PM. There is no public comment opportunity at that meeting but you can attend it. It’s at City Hall, or you can live stream it on the City’s YouTube page. The other thing you can do is you can attend City Council, which is gonna be two hours later at 5 at City Hall or virtually. And you can even speak during Citizen participation at that meeting. You can sign up in advance to speak. The city has laid out a process for that. They have multiple ways to do it and you can even speak virtually at the meeting or you can speak there and you can sign up in person to speak until 5 PM. They have sort of narrowed, they used to let everybody just talk for as long as they want, they have now limited it to the first 30 speakers for citizen participation. But, to be clear this issue has no separate public hearing scheduled on the city agenda, so we’ve got our chance at citizen participation. Or doing what a lot of folks are doing right now which is emailing the mayor and council in advance, and making your opinions known to them. So we actually have, if you go to, and you can see this on our social media pages as well, we’ve sort of laid out a list of email addresses, and sort of the summary of what is going on. And I am going to send out another email, if you get emails from us. It’s going out today, to sort of lay out the public comment opportunity as well.

Belvin: Right so you can email, you can just add to the chorus of voices saying I want the King Street bike lane, this process has not been right. Because basically, my feeling is that the less there is in darkness, the better chance we ultimately have in winning a King Street Bike Lane, or getting clarification in the process, or winning what we are here to win. And if you are so inclined, showing up in person to the meeting, that’s a powerful way of expressing displeasure.

Katie: It’s also good to just, and this is a really nerdy thing to say, but its just good to go to City Council sometimes, and just see them in action. It’s good to kind of know how your local officials operate, the discussions that they have, and getting to know them. It’s just good to get involved.

Belvin: Right, it sort of builds up the citizen participation angle. Right, well Katie I hope we win this. I would love to see a King Street Bike lane. I mean to me it serves sort of this additional symbolic aspect to it, which is like here is the most iconic street in Charleston, where we have the opportunity here to have this iconic street, have something that I think should be central to the development of Charleston, which is a bike lane, which is bike infrastructure. And the process is sort of emblematic of a larger issue, which is it seems like Charleston does not properly value multimodal transportation.

Katie: Right

Belvin: You know and they can maybe say they do, but if time after time, when push comes to shove, that is pushed aside for car infrastructure, then what are we really doing here?

Katie: Right yeah. And if you stand on King on the sidewalk and just kind look down the street it’s absurd.

Belvin: Right, it's a circus.

Katie: You’ve got this historic street that was not built for cars, and then you look at the sort of chaos that is happening, and it's dangerous chaos, and you look at all of these human beings crammed on these very narrow, sidewalks, and spending money and then you know people on bikes, people on scooters and everything else,  trying to get through this whole system, and bikes on the sidewalk as well, and it’s, it’s just there’s so much space dedicated for motor vehicles on King Street when there’s not a lot of room to begin with. And then you look at the numbers. We know the city tracks pedestrian numbers on King, and the state tracks vehicles. Every single day on King Street there are four times as many human beings as there are motor vehicles going through there.

Belvin: Oh wow.

Katie: So this is not a space where cars should ever be prioritized for business, for safety, for historic preservation. I mean it’s just…it doesn’t make sense when you really stop and stare and look at it. So the idea that we’re just not gonna have a conversation about that is unacceptable.

Belvin: I agree. Well let’s have the conversation conversation, and if I have learned one thing from chess to go for the king. Thank you for joining us. Katie Zimmerman of Charleston Moves, which is a multimodal transportation advocacy group that does great work.

Katie: Thank you.

Belvin: And I encourage you to follow them on social media, and thank you for listening. And I encourage you to take action on King Street bike lane. Have a good one.