Brackett Smith: Charleston can benefit from good bike infrastructure

By By Brackett Smith

It is a good time to consider the benefits of promoting biking and walking as means of transportation in our car-dominated culture, especially since the popularity of these alternative transportation methods is exploding in cities and towns across the United States.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey, 6.3 percent of working Charlestonians walked to work or used other means, including bikes, and together with the 3.6 percent of working Charlestonians who use public transportation to get to work, nearly 10 percent of working city residents use a method other than a car to get to work. These numbers were better than the average small southern city (populations ranging from 20,000 to 99,000), where walkers were less than 2 percent of the population and bikers less than one-half of 1 percent.

Members of every income class walk, bike and ride public transportation to work, but the Census data indicate that at least nationally, these transportation means are most popular among low-income workers, who are less likely than higher wage earners to be able to afford the costs associated with possessing and maintaining a car.

While ensuring that working people of all incomes levels have an adequate and affordable means of getting to work is important, the best argument for promoting walking, biking and public transportation is that it’s what millennials want. At around 77 million strong, millennials represent the largest segment of the American population, and it’s a group whose membership ranges from 30-somethings starting families to kids beginning high school. A 2013 report by the U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Groups) cited a poll indicating that 44 percent of people ages 18 to 34 are consciously making an effort to use alternative transportation methods to driving, and studies in urban centers around the country are showing that millennials are driving significantly less in favor of alternative forms of transportation.

One city using this information to its advantage is Salt Lake City, Utah. According to a recent article in Time magazine (“Western Union,” May 26), Salt Lake City has invested significantly in its bike infrastructure, expanding its bike lane budget from $50,000 in 2007 to $2 million today. The funding is now being used to support a bike sharing service in the city that helps connect people and neighborhoods.

Salt Lake City is being aggressive about expanding its bike infrastructure because its leaders recognize that it can cater to residents’ desires and manage growth. The city’s mayor, Ralph Becker, is quoted in the Time article, saying, “This is still very much a motorist-driven culture, but it’s changing, particularly with the millennial generation.” Salt Lake City’s population is only around 190,000, but it’s growing and working today to further make itself more attractive for future community and outside investment.

Increased bike and foot traffic has been shown to be a boon to local businesses. Walkers are more likely to stop at several businesses on a given trip, and nightlife aficionados can enjoy the fruits of being able to walk home. The East End is a good example of this effect. Aside from its beautiful homes, the neighborhood’s current popularity is likely partly due to its proximity to downtown and the Capitol. People can easily bike or walk to work, the gym, the ballpark, and the restaurants and bars downtown and near the Capitol. When these local businesses thrive, it encourages further entrepreneurship. People are investing in their own communities, and this in turn shows outside investors why they should invest in Charleston.

The City of Charleston has done a good job promoting alternative transportation. The city’s new comprehensive plan includes bike lanes and some re-imagining of streets to make them more biker friendly. If area residents want Charleston to thrive in the coming years, they need to be open to sharing the streets and engaged in the city’s efforts to make its streets friendlier for bikers and walkers alike. The benefits are obvious, biker- and walker-friendly streets can help low income people save needed money, ensure that Charleston is taking steps to attract young people, and help encourage development that creates jobs and growth here instead of other places. And don’t get me started on the health benefits

Brackett Smith, of Charleston, is a recent graduate of the WVU College of Law.

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