By Jonathan Davis
First Things First
Columbia and its neighboring cities are rapidly developing. Like the United States and the rest of the world, Columbia is experiencing a massive shift of population from rural to urban areas. Getting around Columbia and the greater area, one will quickly notice that the automobile and automobile infrastructure dominates the landscape. It isn’t uncommon to see more vehicles than people in a day. There are exceptions however. For example, in and around the University of South Carolina, during festivals, and the Main street farmer’s market which can get quite crowded. The Vista and Five Points also receive decent foot traffic Thursday through Sunday night. For the most part however, sidewalk usage remains low between destinations.
The University of South Carolina has a student population of nearly 35 thousand people, and the vast majority live less than 2.5 miles away. There is massive potential and reward for incentivizing students who live especially close to get there by foot, or perhaps by bicycle.
The city of Columbia itself has a population of 131,674 and is only a few miles across. It is a mere 15 to 25 minute bike ride away from other fast growing regions such as the City of Cayce, West Columbia, and Forest Acres. All welcome people from all around the world, many coming from regions where walking and biking is the primary mode of transportation. In fact, 5.4% of Columbia’s population is foreign-born.
For all things considered and more, there is no good reason why downtown Columbia explicitly shouldn’t be incredibly bicycle and pedestrian friendly. The opposite, however, is much closer to reality.
The Reality of Our Roads
Columbia and its neighboring cities are simply are not well-designed for anything other than the automobile. Sidewalks are often very narrow and disconnected from one another. On Columbia’s main roadways, drivers tend to far exceed the already high speed limits and half-mindedly carry that speed into residential and dense urban roads with low speed limits. As a result it isn’t uncommon for aggressive and/or negligent drivers to race to cut off pedestrians and cyclists, preferring to save a few seconds over respecting the lives of their fellow citizens.
Furthermore, South Carolina drivers often text and drive with very little legal incentive. There is virtually zero enforcement to be wary of. Drinking and driving is also a built-in part of Southern culture, even those with suspended licenses often opt to drive until thrown in jail.
The reality is that many drivers in the South are simply not looking for pedestrians, cyclists, and in many cases other drivers. The reality is that South Carolina has the nation’s 3rd deadliest drivers. There is an utter disconnect from reality of what is actually occurring behind the wheel.
Severely lacking public participation in this matter goes hand in hand with the lack of the past and current government failings. Our communities infrastructure, policy, culture, and standard of living should represent an international modern city in 2020. We should be connected in a well-designed, sustainable manner that encourages everyone to participate in daily actions than support local business, personal health, which drives face to face connections in shared public spaces.
Being Part of the Solution
Columbia needs to look and operate like a modern urban center. This does not mean that it needs to give up its core identity. Things however, must change. Failure to adapt is the acceptance of failure.
To say that lack of creativity is the root cause however, would be largely uninformed. South Carolina suffers from other major problems. A lack of education, a prevalence of poverty, and cultures that are often insular are just some of the major obstacles preventing the advancement of our traffic culture, policy and infrastructure.
It is an illusion that roads can be forever widened. That towering, or football stadium-sized parking lots along with accepting congestion is the solution. There must be a better way.
The Columbia cyclist must be creative in order to inspire others. It takes a certain amount of ballsyness to claim space on the road while riding a bicycle. An incredible amount of spatial awareness is absolutely required if you wish to both be respectful of the right of way of others, but to also hold your ground in a legally-aware manner.
There is also a certain amount of gear that is necessary if you wish to get around Columbia alone on a bicycle to maintain enough visibility, get yourself out of basic mechanical issues, and properly lock up. A helmet, lock, high quality front and rear lights, flat-kit, and mini pump is generally is the base minimum. It may seem like a lot to ask for in the beginning, but all adds up to a lot less than what maintaining and owning a vehicle costs. Think a couple hundred dollars instead of thousands. Not to mention to benefits of exercise, community building, and density of those traveling compared to a road full of largely single-occupancy vehicles.
Bicycle Community Building & Bicycle Action
A steady effort that grows in popularity over a long period of time is what is required to reach a tipping point. People who ride, or simply support the use of bicycles must have incentives to be long term loyal supporters. There must be victories, and there comes a time for pragmatism.
The Cola Town Bike Collective and the area’s bike shops are the vehicle for this pragmatism. They provide bicycle repair services, and a public space for people to meet and organize. People get show up and get together to organize rides, bolster public participation in action for infrastructure and policy, and become more familiar with their community. It is sometimes one of the first places people visit when they first come to Columbia when they have a background in bicycle riding. It was my first real social base that I ended up successfully branching out from, and people from all walks of life love bicycles.
It’s about creating a community that looks to future and is here to stay, and that, is something that certainly requires creativity.
N/A. “South Carolina Motor Vehicle Death Rate.” World Life Expectancy, 2018, www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/usa/south-carolina-motor-vehicle-death-rate.
United States Federal Government. “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Columbia City, South Carolina.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, July 2019, www.census.gov/quickfacts/columbiacitysouthcarolina.