Cities walk the walk and bike the path

Trekking from the car to the canned food aisle of a big box superstore can actually be more of a hike than walking across a city's downtown.

A few years ago, Randy Wilson, president of Community Design Solutions in Columbia, worked on a master plan in the City of Conway and superimposed the outline of a Walmart Superstore and its parking lot over the city's downtown. The result: The drawing of the giant retailer covered almost the entire downtown core of Conway.

"There was almost no place in downtown Conway that would be farther to walk than an experience at a Walmart," said Wilson. "And yet, it feels like it's such an inconvenience to walk."

Travelers Rest Mayor Wayne McCall explained how the beloved Swamp Rabbit Trail, a multiuse greenway that connects Travelers Rest and Greenville, was a very divisive idea when it was first discussed about 10 years ago.

City of Greenville Swamp Rabbit Trail
The cities of Greenville and Travelers Rest, along with Greenville
maintain the 19.5-mile Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail.

"It actually split the community almost in half — the folks that supported it and the folks that opposed it," McCall said, during a panel discussion at the Mayor's Bike & Walk Summit in Columbia in May. "The folks that opposed it, (said) 'Well, that has always been a railroad, and it might bring a railroad back. … We don't want change.' Well, I can tell you about change — Change is going to happen. And it's up to us to make it happen in a positive way."

The Swamp Rabbit Trail runs almost 20 miles and now annually draws more than 500,000 users, who have easy access to shops and restaurants from the trail in both Greenville and Travelers Rest.

Cities and towns across South Carolina are laying the groundwork for streets and downtowns that invite walkers and cyclists. The objectives are clear: Improve residents' quality of life, appeal to visitors, manage traffic and parking pressures that come with growth, and bolster the local and regional economy.

But encouraging walking and cycling often calls for more than just making physical changes to streets and infrastructure. Often it means changing people's perceptions and attitudes.

New mindset
"People are so accustomed to driving to the mall or Walmart and parking in this big open parking lot that they consider to be convenient, that they never calculate the fact the distance they walked from their car to the Walmart is equivalent of one or two city blocks," said Wilson.

Changing the public's mindset is part of the process.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin led a community ride to celebrate Bike Month in May.

"The burden is on us," said Wilson. Ideally, where someone parks should not be a major factor.

"It doesn't matter, because everything you pass going from B to A is intriguing and oftentimes leads to discovery — 'Wow, I had no idea that new bar, that new entertainment venue had opened.' Otherwise, we get really frustrated. Not only did we not park in front of where we're going to, but the walk there was unenjoyable."

He said the City of Columbia's parking garage off Main Street shows how creating attractive and well-designed spaces around the structure to connect the garage with where people are going appeals to the public.

"Sometimes we'll have parking garages, but we don't want to park there, because we have to walk through a scary, sketchy alley," said Wilson. "For lots of communities, the experience to walk between parking garages is incredibly uncomfortable."

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin pointed to another example of how changes to existing city spaces may face skepticism initially but can ultimately prove their worth in terms of greater foot and bike traffic.

Benjamin said there were only a handful of people a few years ago who agreed the Lincoln Street Tunnel project — repurposing an old train tunnel downtown into a bike and pedestrian way — was a good idea.

"'Who would want to go down into that tunnel? It's not safe, it's not clean,'" Benjamin recalled of the doubts that surfaced at the start of the effort.

Vista Greenway in Columbia, SC
The new Vista Greenway in Columbia connects downtown to nearby neighborhoods.

But perseverance paid off with a "huge psychological win," when the high-visibility tunnel area in a vibrant entertainment district was transformed, said Benjamin during the mayor's summit panel discussion.

Map it out
Sometimes, things are already built and just need to be linked together conceptually for the pedestrian or cyclist. Officials in the City of York have increased walkability by highlighting existing places of interest and by encouraging and showing residents and visitors how to enjoy them on foot.

York officials recently created a downtown walking tour map that notes a dozen historical markers. It was created as part of the Eat Smart Move More York County program. The 2.5-mile loop also marks points of interest, such as the county library and York Bike Trail. Additionally, it offers safety tips for walkers and bikers, such as to make eye contact with automobile drivers, to carry a flashlight while out at night, and to avoid headphones and cell phone usage when in a crossing.

Eat Smart Move More York County awarded the City of York a $1,400 grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield to design and print the walking map of the historic district.

Additional funding from ESMMYC has allowed the city to make other improvements downtown.

"These include painting and improving crosswalks and installing wayfinding and other directional signs that will help make York safer and more attractive for pedestrians," said Carolyn Leake, York recreation director. "Hopefully we will be able to extend these improvements to other areas of the community in the future."

A similar mission of boosting walking and cycling is taking shape among local government officials in all parts of the state. For a cluster of Midlands cities, the push made sense as a team effort.

The Central Midlands Council of Governments, the cities of West Columbia and Cayce, and Town of Springdale are working together on the West Metro Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan to develop a comprehensive plan for active transportation.

The group is also undertaking a bike share feasibility study and adding a bike lane to a major thoroughfare in West Columbia, which was selected due to its sufficient right-of-way width for cyclists. The new lane will be funded by state and federal dollars, said Tara Greenwood, director of grants and special projects for the City of West Columbia. The city hopes the lane, to be designed and constructed by the SC Department of Transportation, will be ready to use by next year.

In the Town of Blythewood, officials are planning and building a pedestrian and bicyclist friendly city, Town Administrator Gary Parker said. It's a central feature of the town's master plan. The county penny tax project of widening Blythewood Road, which is currently being engineered, will feature a bike-pedestrian multiuse trail in the right of way.

"All this is now in its infancy," said Parker. "But we hope to see it accomplished in the years ahead."

Reprinted from the July issue of Cities Mean Business magazine.