In my mind, I’m still in Carolina

‘Twas five days of non-stop Joyride fun. Speeches, trainings, interviews, bike rides, yummy food, and sweet southern hospitality, sponsored by the inestimable First Health of the Carolinas, Palmetto Conservation Foundation, Palmetto Cycling Coalition, and a number of other groups. In each town – Pinehurst and Southern Pines, NC; Columbia, Charleston, and Greenville SC – so much hope for a healthier future. (Let’s face it, the health statistics in this part of the nation are alarming.)

Key components needed for success:  political leadership, well-trained and supported city staff with at least one dedicated position for bicycle, pedestrian and trails planning; traffic engineers who are also well-trained and both understand and support the goals for active transportation; and organized community advocates. You also need visionary, robust bicycle, pedestrian and greenway plans and funding.

Tiny Southern Pines NC is on the right track with a new bicycle plan and $60,000 in dedicated funds. With grassroots support for greenway connections, college students bicycling all over downtown and energy behind the Holy City Bike Co-op, Charleston has a fast growing bike culture. Also, this lovely City has a dynamic advocacy group, Charleston Moves, a fabulous new bicycle/pedestrian bridge, and one of the brightest Mayors in the country in terms of Mayor Joseph Riley’s understanding of urban design. Columbia also has political support under Steve Benjamin. (He won me over when he gave me the key to the city as an honored guest. Awwww.) Both communities are designated bronze by the League of American Bicyclists, and both of their Mayors not only welcomed me with open arms but actually listened to my presentation. (Although Riley had to step out for a moment when President Obama called. I suppose that’s a reasonable excuse.)

Columbia has a burgeoning student population at USC. It’s the home to the two OUTSTANDING statewide advocacy organizations mentioned above, and has tremendous infrastructure opportunities. With a goal to become a silver-level bicycle friendly community in two years, Columbia is setting its sights in the right direction.  All of these places, in fact, are ripe for positive change and although each has a long way to go, they are clearly heading in the right direction.

Last stop: Greenville (SC), where something truly special is going on.

My first inkling came as we walked from the car – having just arrived from Columbia – onto a pedestrian bridge.

All bridges are unique, representing a literal “bridge” between two disconnected sides of something, allowing us to bridge an otherwise impenetrable barrier, whether a waterway, railroad track, or highway. That barrier represents a broken link in a chain; the bridge makes the chain whole.

The barrier spanned by this particular bridge is the waterfalls of the Reedy River. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, industrialists built mills along the Reedy, which quickly became polluted. The 1900s saw a modern six-lane auto bridge. By the 1960s, the mills were quiet and the Carolina Foothills Garden Club, with the support of the City of Greenville, Furman University and the Planning Commission, launched an effort to clean up the river and reclaim the falls as a public park. In 1990, landscape architect Andrea Mains introduced the concept of transforming the park into a regional attraction, with beautiful public gardens and a pedestrian bridge.

In 2003, the six-lane highway bridge was demolished, replaced by the elegant Liberty Bridge, which serves as the focal point of lovely Falls Park.

The Liberty Bridge, with a total length of approximately 380 ft (120 m) and a clear span of 200 ft (61 m), appears to float over the landscape. The twin towers and suspension cable are visible from vantage points around the city, calling attention and drawing visitors to the public park, falls and river.

Liberty Bridge is just the beginning.

The town has a bustling, pedestrian-friendly downtown, with wide Riverwalk promenades lined with small businesses, benches and tables, and gorgeous art and fountains. Where did all this come from?  A local business leader, Mark Taylor of SynTerra Corp., told me that in 1997, he was amongst a delegation of 109 who visited Portland and became inspired by the City’s investment in high quality urban design, including the many Lawrence Halprin fountains.

“At the time, downtown Greenville was a ghost town,” Mark explained. “Dead. The Portland story of revival resonated with us.”

When I tell Portland’s bicycle transportation story, I always talk about the building blocks that laid the groundwork for success. These are the regional urban growth boundary, investments in transit, revitalized downtown, parking policy, pedestrian friendly developments, and gridded street layout (in parts of Portland). Of course that list would include the components I listed above: leadership, staff, and advocates. One more ingredient that I perhaps under-value: high quality urban design.

Remember this always: bicycle transportation does not succeed alone. It is a part of a larger package of transportation, land-use, and urban design improvements.  Greenville’s leaders get this. The impact of the Greenville mission to Portland is evident from the many fountains and similar features all over downtown.

At the same time, Greenville’s bikeway infrastructure is quickly evolving. From bike lanes on a number of major roads to the Swamp Rabbit Trail on an abandoned railway to a soon-to-be-adopted visionary bike plan, Greenville has become a gem. This is no small feat considering that all of South Carolina’s towns share the same major obstacle: the South Carolina Department of Transportation owns 85% of the roads, severely limiting local control and pitting the goals of moving cars against sustainability, urban form, and economic development. Yet, Greenville is succeeding.

“Does my friend George Hincapie have something to do with this?” asked a local talk show host.  Sure, having a racing superstar in your town helps. His brother’s shop, along with close to a dozen new bike shops (including a Pedal Chic, a women-specific bicycle store!) have helped legitimize bicycling as not only a mode of transportation and form of recreation, but an economic generator.

My recipe for Greenville is straightforward.

  • Finalize and adopt the bicycle plan. Hold a big celebration. Then start implementing immediately.
  • Formally appoint a staff person as bicycle coordinator.
  • Infuse all city departments with the responsibility that bicycle transportation is part of every facet of their work.
  • Implement as many of the “low-hanging fruit” projects as possible, especially the bike boulevards. Biking on many of these roads is already wonderful; solidify this network with signage, markings, speed reduction techniques, and intersection enhancements.
  • Expand the Swamp Rabbit Trail.
  • Create a robust encouragement program of Safe Routes to School, car-free events, and individualizing marketing activities. This is really going to work!

In other words: Greenville, Charleston, Columbia, Southern Pines, and Pinehurst are all heading in the right direction, putting in place the critical components one by one, inspiring the entire southeastern United States.

When you’re on the right track, keep going. And enjoy the ride!

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3 Responses to In my mind, I’m still in Carolina

  1. Great overview of what’s happening and could happen here in Greenville. I ride the Swamp Rabbit Trail approximately three times per week and it is, indeed, a gem. I’ll do my part to participate and volunteer.

  2. Pingback: Heading south on the Dinner and Bikes tour | Taking the Lane

  3. I grew up in Greenville and a lot of my family still lives there. I can attest to the huge level of change in downtown Greenville, SC and its surrounding neighborhoods. When I was a kid the downtown was almost a ghost town and many considered Cleveland Park lost to drugs and other crime. Greenville’s Renaissance didn’t occur without opposition. Plenty of naysayers complained that nobody would want come downtown or sit outside at Coffee Street Mall and listen to music. I am certain they are now eating there words. Downtown has been recreated to work for people rather than cars. Unlike many downtowns it doesn’t look like a parking lot, either. Everytime I visit the sidewalks and cafes are bustling with people. Cleveland and Falls Park draw visiters like magnets. Swamp Rabbit Trail is a jewel. When I left for college some 30 years ago, I never would have imagined that I’d ever consider returning but much as changed there. I think Greenville is a great example of what can happen when ideology is put aside and government and the private sector commit to focus on area of mutual interest and agreement. Very impressive, indeed.

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