Is Columbia a bike-friendly city?

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Is Columbia bike friendly?

May is officially Bike Month in Columbia. (PTL it’s not August, am I right?) Columbia’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee (a.k.a. BPAC) has a calendar of events to celebrate all month long, like this Friday’s National Bike to Work Day.

But how ‘bikeable’ is Columbia, really?

As you’ve heard, Cola’s getting a bike share program (likely to launch in August or September) in which residents + visitors can rent regular and electric-assisted pedal bikes at various stations around downtown – and 80% of the program’s profits will go back to the city to use for bicycle infrastructure improvement (more on that later). The first phase will see 15 stations + 135 bikes (eventually adding an additional 10 stations + 90 more bikes).

Soda City has been testing out e-bikes via eBike Central. To take a test ride around the Main Street district at the market, you leave a license, sign a waiver, put on a helmet and ride around for a few minutes for free. They’ll be back at the market this Saturday and aim to have a weekly presence soon.

But there is still a big conversation (and many varying opinions) on how safe our city is for cyclists – as seen in this documentary made all the way back in 2010.

Today, we’re looking at the bikeability of our city in a few different ways.

First, we looked at the data. The League of American Bicyclists does a study every couple of years on the bikeability of cities, with the last study on Columbia completed in 2017. We were awarded a Bronze status as a bicycle-friendly community (with Silver as the next level we want to achieve and Gold as the ultimate standard). Some interesting data points:

7%. The high-speed roads with bike facilities – much lower than the avg. Silver percentage of 40%.

9%. The total bicycle network mileage to total road network mileage – much lower than the avg. Silver percentage of 47%.

.6% The commuters who bike – lower than the avg. Silver percentage of 2.6%.

10. The number of fatalities per 10K bike commuters – higher than the avg. Silver number, 7.3.

4/10. Columbia’s score for engineering related to bicycle network + connectivity.

“Very good.” Columbia’s grade on our bicycle-friendly laws + ordinances – much better than the average Silver grade of “some.”

Secondly, we tested it ourselves. Sort of. I biked to work, 3.7 miles from Shandon to SOCO BullStreet, to see if I came upon any bike lanes (didn’t happen), how drivers + pedestrians reacted to a novice city biker (some were courteous, some not-so-courteous)… and just how sweaty I would be upon arrival ~25 minutes later (a little flushed, but still office appropriate – but then again I can wear yoga pants to my office). Watch my journey below. 

Yes, I spent most of my journey on the sidewalk. While it’s more courteous + pedestrian-friendly for bikers to stick to the roads, I didn’t feel super confident, being a newb. In most cities, biking on sidewalks is illegal citywide, but in Columbia, it’s actually only technically illegal to bike on sidewalks in the Main St. district (bordered by Elmwood, Assembly, Gervais + Sumter).

Area of Columbia where it is illegal to bike on sidewalks | Image courtesy Cola Town Bike Collective

What you said

Thirdly, we polled you, asking: If your car disappeared tomorrow, would you bike to work? Why or why not? We wanted to gauge how bikeable you think the city is.

Instagram | 43% yes; would bike to work, 57% no; would not bike to work | 363 votes

Twitter | 28% yes, 72% no | 75 votes

Facebook | 22% yes, 78% no | 460 votes

✅Yes votes – a.k.a. people who said pedal, don’t pollute:

“If there were bike lanes and maybe an app showing the safest routes I would!” – hillaryruth91

“I’d love to bike to work. I work less than 5 miles from work but the road (Sunset Blvd.) I have to take is extremely dangerous. I’m constantly saying we need sidewalks for those that are even walking on it. I’ve seen too many people come close to getting hit. Bike lanes would be a dream!” Cveta Picarova Chydzinski

I live in Irmo and work near Five Points. I have biked twice to work. Safety is a concern. Would bike more often in Columbia and in neighboring communities if all made biking a priority. Perhaps instituting a designated bike-commute-day per month so bikers could travel together safely to and from work with law enforcement’s assistance? This would help educate drivers on safety and at the same time promote biking” Michelle Wright Rabon

“Rode my bike to work today using the Greenway through Finlay Park and the Lincoln Street tunnel. Columbia has made some meaningful progress to become bike-able, but there’s still more to do!” – Marjorie Palmer Cleary

That’s a nice looking bike. 😉 I’d def bike if I didn’t have a car and would like to do it more! When the weather is nice (like tonight) I love to bring my bike out! When it gets hot in the summer I’d have to get to work early and shower bc the hills can get you 🔥.” – ashcadd

@BrianBinette and I would love to see Columbia truly be a bike community. To realize that vision, it begins with funding to reconfigure the roads to have bike lanes and bike friendly features. That can’t happen without leaders having the will.” – @PeggyBinette

No votes – a.k.a. those of you who said you’d stick to four wheels:

“Would require my employer to have a safe place to lock it up. Would love to and have a route mapped out but I don’t want to leave road bike sitting in front of the hospital for 12+ hrs.” – scoopcrawford

“I do not feel safe biking in Columbia. We need a greenway similar to what Greenville has with the Swamp Rabbit Trail. I’ve had multiple problems with cars and terrible drivers while running around Columbia streets so I can imagine how dangerous it would be to bike here.” makwilt22

“According to Google Maps, it’d take me an hour and a half to bike to work. And we all know it’s more like 2 hours considering the abysmal shape I’m in.” – Brindolyn McNair

“Actually one of our cars just broke down this week! We are sharing a car because there’s no way either my husband or I would bike to work. We moved here last summer from a more bike friendly community where we would bike to work at least once a week, in addition to recreational cycling, but have not found any cycling routes around Columbia that we feel safe riding yet. The lack of bike lanes, or even wide enough shoulders to have a safe distance from the angry chaos of drivers here, combined with all the debris on the side of the road is a huge turn off. I don’t mind a 15-mile bike ride to work on a nice day if it would be relatively hazard free, but I genuinely fear for my safety more than anywhere else I’ve lived. That’s not being dramatic, just a little salty that one of my favorite ways to explore and stay fit is so challenging around Columbia.”Sara Allen

“Have you seen these Columbia drivers? I love walking around Columbia and still feel like at any moment I could be hit by a vehicle while crossing assembly street. Biking on the road, I cannot even imagine. Also, imagining myself getting to work in the summer would be like #ew.” – Ashley Pullen

“It’s only a 5.5 mile distance, but I would need to bring an extra change of clothes, and I would not ride in the main roads. I used to average 10-12 miles daily, from class to work to home, but I rode the sidewalks. Would never do the road on a busy day. Still, no.” – @alex_ahumadag

Fourthly, we talked to some experts on bikeability in Cola. Read on for what Cola Town Bike Collective had to say.

Q+A with Cola Town Bike Collective

In your expert opinions, how bikeable is Columbia? Why? 

Scott: For a city with very little bike infrastructure, Columbia is surprisingly bikeable. There are tons of secondary and tertiary roads that have very little traffic and act as a great grid for bike users.

David: Columbia is very bikeable – if you know how to navigate the area. If you are relying on public signs, lanes and infrastructure, you’re in for a bad time. The cycling and commuter community has supplemented this dearth of infrastructure with a spoken knowledge of the appropriate ways to travel. Crowd-sourced maps (link to their page or our intro on bike routes for beginners) and advice are the keys that unlock a positive cycling experience. Once that knowledge barrier is overcome, Columbia is a delight to cycle through. There are tons of secondary roads that connect the limited infrastructure to create paths across town.

Where are the bike lanes in Columbia (and the greater Midlands area)? Do we have plans in the works for more bike lanes?

Scott: Current bike lanes in Columbia are on Green St. near the business school, Lincoln from Blossom to Pendleton, Blossom from Axtell to Huger, and then the Vista Greenway. You can always check out the Richland Penny’s website to see what projects are completed and which are scheduled. West Columbia is putting in a bike lane on B Ave. from the amphitheater all the way to Triangle City. Cayce, West Columbia and Springdale are in talks to do a fully connected tri-city network of bike infrastructure, but not sure of the timeline there. Columbia has the Bike Pedestrian Master Plan, but hasn’t earmarked any funds for bike lanes.

David: There are also share the road markings on Lady St. from Assembly to Gervais and Main St. to Gervais St. to Blanding St.

Tell us what infrastructure Columbia would need to make our city more bike-friendly.

Scott: Bike lanes, mixed use paths and greenways. You have to make safe routes for commuters.

David: I believe physical infrastructure is critically important – but we also have a need for social infrastructure. Many safety concerns stem from drivers on their cell-phones, existing traffic laws not being enforced, ambiguous laws on how vehicles interact with traffic. If the City / County / State committed to targeting zero bicyclist deaths and empowered law enforcement and planners to enforce existing laws and refine the vague ones. If you look at Section 56-5-3435, we have a law that says “A driver of motor vehicle must at all times maintain a safe operating distance between the motor vehicle and a bicycle.” Most states that are serious about safety would define a safe distance as at least three feet. Once we have well-defined laws, they will be easier to enforce, which goes hand in hand with efforts of raising awareness and increasing safety for everybody.

What is Cola Town Bike Collective working on to make our city an easier place to bike? We’ve heard rumors about an app.

Scott: Yep! We have a web-based app coming out called Sprocket, which will utilize the knowledge of our team and their thousands upon thousands of miles commuting in Columbia. Our app will allow users to enter a starting point, destination and overall comfort level of riding on streets, and it will serve them up various routes based on that criteria. As bike lanes are built, the app will update to reflect the new infrastructure. The app also just has fun areas to ride (like canalside, the riverwalk and Timmerman Trails). Lastly, the app will have call-outs to bike friendly businesses, bike repair stations and bike racks where you can lock up.

David: Like I mentioned above, the key to unlock a positive cycling experience in the Midlands is the knowledge of which thoroughfares you need to take. Sprocket is our efforts of taking our combined 30 years of commuting experience and sharing it with the region. It is designed to be modular and also solicit input from the community. Our biggest goals is to connect communities and business districts in a people-centric capacity rather than car-centric.

We’re new to city biking (biking to commute). Can you give us the low-down on biking etiquette? For example, I attempted to bike to work last week, and I spent most of my commute on the sidewalk because I was afraid of traffic on busier roads. I’m assuming we’re supposed to be biking on the roads, not the sidewalks, right?

Scott: Bike etiquette is the exact same as car etiquette. All of the same rules apply. Signaling is done with the left arm straight out as a left turn, bent 90 degrees up for a right turn, and bent 90 degrees down for stopping. When it comes to safety on the roads, S.C. has laws in place that allow cyclists to use as much of the lane as needed for their safety. This means you can ‘take the lane’ and ride in the center of the lane if you feel the road is too narrow for a car to pass safely (think Main St. here). It is seen as good etiquette to let cars pass if you have been taking the lane and the road has opened up. I like to wave the cars pass and give them a friendly wave as the pass as a ‘thank you for not killing me today!’

It is illegal to ride on the sidewalks in the Main Street area and comes with a hefty fine if caught. The perimeter of that district is Elmwood, Assembly, Gervais and Sumter. It is legal to ride on the sidewalks elsewhere in Columbia, though most other cities will fine you for riding on the sidewalk.

David: Cyclists are responsible for knowing and obeying traffic laws (including stoplights). Reiterating on what Scott mentioned, in some instances it is critical to take a lane of traffic to safely get down a road. Predictability and clear signaling are also extremely important. For a full list, Palmetto Cycling Coalition has a great summary here.

Is it safe to bike around downtown Columbia?

Scott: Absolutely. I have thousands of miles in Columbia and I have never had a collision with a car. You do have to wear your head on a swivel, and I always tell people not to wear headphones. You need to be connected to what is going on around you. While Columbia has very little bike specific infrastructure, it is blessed with a pretty helpful grid pattern which allows for cross town routes that are very bike friendly. (For instance, I can take Pickens from Rosewood all the way to Richland St. and have very little traffic issues, with Lincoln you can go from Whaley all the way to Elmwood!)

David: Yes and no. I’ve ridden thousands of miles, like Scott, with no collision with a vehicle – but you must have a safety-first attitude. Sometimes cars break the rules and you still have to realize that there is no amount of being right that makes it okay to collide with a 2,000+ pound machine. Some of our roads have debris or holes so you have to look where you are going and also use appropriate lights.

What safety tips do you have for new city bikers?

Scott: Always allow yourself an ‘out’. The best way to practice this is to always ride at least 3 feet from the curb. This will avoid 80% of the debris and all of the storm drains and will keep you from having to dart into traffic to get around them. Additionally, if you need to avoid a pothole, you can go around it on the curb side and not shoot into traffic. Always hold a consistent line – don’t weave in and out. Drivers are fine with getting around someone if they are riding a consistent line. Always have front and rear lights and always wear a helmet.

David: I would recommend 500+ lumens for a headlight if you are riding at night. Watch out for train tracks. You must cross them with your tires perpendicular to the tracks or you will catch your wheel and do a nice tumble. BE PREDICTABLE! Do not weave in and out of your lane – try to go straight forward and stay a couple of feet away from the curb.

What responsibilities do we have to look out for bikers when we’re in our cars?

Scott: Just try to be considerate, give plenty of room when passing, and please don’t honk or floor it when passing.

David: Many people cycle as their only transportation, and their only goal is to get home or to work without getting killed. Please be considerate and understand that you are sitting in a very heavy machine that will end somebody’s life in an instant. Treat it with the level of responsibility and attentiveness that it requires. We all have families that we want to come home to.

What advice do you have for navigating around hills?

Scott: The app that we are developing will take those into consideration, but there are routes through Columbia that greatly mitigate the hills. An example is I could take Pickens from Rosewood to UofSC, but that is hills the whole way. The better way if I wanted to avoid hills would be Gregg St. to Saluda, down through Five Points and back up Green St. While Green is a bit of a hill, it only averages 1.5% grade, and it is well shaded and the cars are slow!

David: Looking at the horizon can be telling about ways to navigate. Water towers are always at the top of a hill. You can download the Strava app for free and see the elevation of a route. The best advice is to learn how to use your bike properly. Most bikes have lots of gears that allow you to climb most of the hills in Columbia.

Where can people rent + buy bikes in Columbia?

Scott: The CTBC rents bikes occasionally, and some shops rent bikes, though I can’t speak with absolute certainty that they still do. Unfortunately, Spinlister went under and that was a bike rental app. Columbia will be launching their Bike Share in September, so that is exciting to see on the horizon. You can buy quality bikes from any of the shops- Outspokin’, Summit Cycles or Cycle Center. They will help make sure the bike fits you correctly! If you are on a budget, of course the Cola Town Bike Collective sells used bikes that have had a full overhaul at very reasonable prices.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming bike share program? Are we ready for that?

Scott: Most of the bike docks will be in and around the city center. I am going to be cautiously optimistic, as I see anyone on a bike as good. I believe 80 of the units are going to be electric assist, so those should certainly be fun in town!

David: Looking at other cities big and small that have launched a bike-share program – I don’t know if there is any way to be completely ready for that. The program being put in place in Columbia is near the city center where there are already quite a bit of bicycle commuters. The bikes are designed to be large and visible. I think they will be a catalyst for the city accomplishing its plans to complete the Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan. We are installing these things for the public – so as people use these bikes, there is an implicit responsibility for the city to ensure safe usage of them.

What is your advice for biking to work in the Columbia heat?

Scott: Fortunately, even in the heat of the summer, it is only ~75º in the morning at 8 a.m. when I am moving, so it really never is awful. Right now the mornings are a beautiful 68º degrees, even when the high is going to be 96º on Saturday. The key is that bike commuting is supposed to be done leisurely. You aren’t trying to win the Tour du France. Now, commuting home at 4 p.m. is best done on the shadiest route possible!

David: I keep a change of shoes at my desk and in the hottest part of the summer, a change of clothes. Most bikes can be fitted with a luggage rack that lets you put pannier (saddle-bag) on the rear of it where you could easily carry a change of shoes/clothes. Since my job requires me to dress from business casual to professional, I utilize travel cubes in a bag to keep my shirts from wrinkling. Like anything, there’s a little bit of trial and error, but it is totally fun!

What do you think about the e-bike trend that’s been popping up around town – like at Soda City?

Scott: I love it! I have a designer friend that has been commuting to downtown Columbia from West Columbia on his e-bike every day (weather permitting) for over five years. Every bike or e-bike on the road is one less car, and less congestion. Heck, one day I may wake up and realize I got old and hang up my manual bike for an e-bike!

David: E-bikes are great! Especially if you do not want to be completely sweaty when you arrive at your destination. You still get the experience of being outside, mobile, and not in a car. Everyone on a bike is a person not in a large vehicle. Columbia’s a truly beautiful city when you slow down, get out of your car, and enjoy it.

 

So, would I bike to work again? Maybe – but probably not until it cools down again. The morning commute wasn’t too bad temperature-wise, but I had Sam drive me + the bike back home come 5 p.m. when temps rose above the 90s.

I also realize that I need some practice on the roads to feel confident enough to wean myself off the sidewalks since Columbia currently doesn’t have access to many bike lanes. I’m looking forward to Cola Town Bike Collective’s app that helps bikers navigate around busier roads to pedal more safely from point A to point B.

One Columbia Bike Month event I’m looking forward to is Bike to the Ballgame on Saturday, May 26 from 5-10 p.m. The guys from Cola Town Bike Collective will be leading a group on wheels from the State House North Lawn to Spirit Communications Park to watch the Columbia Fireflies game. All ages are welcome – just bring your bike + helmet and pedal along.

–Beth