Sharing the road: Who has the right of way?

  • Wednesday, April 2, 2014

“Bicycle: A bicycle is a device propelled solely by pedals, operated by one or more persons, and having two or more wheels, except children's tricycles.” – S.C. Code of Laws Section 56-5-160

I opened up a can of worms with a posting of mine last week on Facebook. I posted a picture of a pack of bicycle riders on the Isle of Palms who were riding right where the one-way dedicated bike path is that leads toward Sullivan's Island. However, rather than riding in the clearly marked bike lane (I made sure I snapped a picture showing the painted words in big, white letters), this exercise group was taking up the vehicle lane of the road. Even after they saw me, and seeing that the road had the double “no passing” stripes which applied to me, not once did these cyclists move to single file within their dedicated bike lane to let my car pass.

These situations between motorists and cyclists are growing more common around the Lowcountry, and East of the Cooper in particular, as the population grows so does the popularity of cycling. I hear it from friends and acquaintances all the time. To the non-cycling community, the cycling community is a vocal, high-powered special interest group that often seems to have all the privileges of our roadways and few responsibilities. A local radio station general manager told me last year that no other group had been more difficult to deal with or more vocal than they are. It's hard to deny the power of the cycling lobby when you see things like an entire lane of the Ashley River Bridge leading from West Ashley into Charleston being closed to vehicles and becoming a bicycle lane.

That having been said, cyclists can no doubt cite countless incidents of motorists who have been rude, careless and downright dangerous in their bad behavior toward cyclists. There have been fatalities where the motorists are totally at fault, and this is deeply tragic. The law clearly states that cars and bicycles have responsibilities.

Having learned to ride my bicycle on the streets of Mount Pleasant as a boy, I am not one to fuss at others for doing what I have often enjoyed. Nor was my Facebook picture of the cyclists on Isle of Palms last week meant to cause harm, but that incident was indicative of a larger conflict. This conflict will persist as our area grows in population and as more tax money and public resources are dedicated to bicycle paths and lanes. Mount Pleasant has a “Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan” that can be viewed online at the town's website.

In last week's flood of comments in response to my Facebook posting, one lifelong cyclist who lives in the Upstate got everyone's attention by saying that when bike lanes are provided, they remain an option for cyclists – they don't really have to use them. I looked up the law and found that is not actually true. Cyclists are required to use the dedicated lanes set aside as part of a roadway (like the one on the Isle of Palms) but can veer out of them in case of obstructions or any debris that causes the cyclist to feel it is unsafe to ride in the lane. As I read the law, cyclists are not required to use other types of paved pathways that are not actually a lane of an official road. I assume this is why Mathis Ferry Road seems to always have cyclists in it who are not using the paved pathway that runs beside it.

Work is currently underway on the Ben Sawyer Causeway Multi-use Path to expand the existing path from four feet to eight feet in width. It is funded mostly with federal grants earned by Sullivan's Island, Mount Pleasant and Charleston County, but there is a local 20-percent match that we local taxpayers are paying through the Charleston County Transportation Sales Tax. And herein lies the rub: non-cycling taxpayers will not take kindly to this kind of expense and construction if cyclists are able to use the aforementioned section of the law to continue to also use the roadway on Ben Sawyer Boulevard. Let's hope bicycles stay on the path and cars stay on the road.

Meanwhile, the City of Charleston moves forward with plans to close off one lane of the Ashley River Bridge, based on a consultant's estimate that the lane closure will add only 13 seconds to drivers' commute time. Really? While that remains to be seen, I hope I get my wish to see New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as the honored guest when the bridge lane is officially closed. I'd ride my bike to West Ashley to see that.

Will Haynie has published more than 400 op-ed columns as a feature columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Hendersonville (N.C.) Times-News. Find him on Twitter at @willhaynie or at Haynie.will@gmail.com.

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