Even as pedestrian deaths rise in Charleston area, sidewalks remain low priority

Editor’s note: This story was produced in partnership with Columbia University’s data journalism program. Student journalists Vivian Liu and Defang Zhang assisted with data gathering, analysis and interviews.

NORTH CHARLESTON — When her four dogs need a walk, Esther Price drives them about 5 miles from her home to a neighborhood where sidewalks offer them safe passage.

Price, 68, strolls her pups along the concrete paths that surround the heart of Park Circle. The route passes trendy eateries with outdoor dining, a disc golf course, gift shops, breweries and a small pond where geese dip in the water.

Price goes there because most of the streets in her own neighborhood, Glyn Terrace, don’t have sidewalks. There, grass from the lawns of low-slung brick ranch homes crawls right up to the street, forcing Price and other pedestrians to walk in the roadway and share space with passing vehicles.

“I feel safer over there,” she said of Park Circle to the north.

As the Charleston region’s population and development has exploded in recent years, demand for sidewalks has intensified amid rising concerns over public safety and equity in resources.

More people means more cars crowding roadways and more dangers for pedestrians, particularly in low-income and minority communities where many depend on walking or biking to get around. That’s led to difficult questions about which neighborhoods get sidewalks — and why.

A recent study by the nonprofit Smart Growth America ranked the tri-county Charleston metropolitan area fifth-worst in the nation per capita for pedestrian deaths from 2016 to 2020. The Charleston metro area accounted for more than a sixth of the 811 walkers killed statewide during that period.

A dozen people have already perished in Charleston County this year while walking or biking, including Alexander “AJ” Jennings — a stand-in cast member on the Netflix series “Outer Banks.” He died after being struck by two vehicles in succession while walking July 5 on a James Island roadway with no sidewalks.

Government officials say they are working to address the problem and expand sidewalk access, in part thanks to an infusion of millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act. But the demand is great and far outpaces available funds.

Complicating matters is that no comprehensive inventory exists at the city, county or state level to identify where sidewalks are currently located and where they are needed, a Post and Courier investigation found.

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Esther Price checks for traffic as she turns the corner while taking her daily walk with her dog Rex in the Glyn Terrace neighborhood on July 25, 2022, in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Reporters teamed with journalism students from Columbia University to contact more than two dozen government officials, transportation experts, residents and activists in an attempt to better define the problem. They scoured piles of reports and planning documents. In the end, they found surprisingly scant data and little indication that the region’s sidewalk needs are being addressed in any coordinated or strategic way.

Most local governments have extensive, long-range plans for building and widening roads. But when it comes to sidewalks, it’s more a case of loose, unfunded wish lists where projects are accomplished whenever spare money happens to come along.

Sidewalks often dwell at the bottom of transportation priority lists, with roads hogging most of the attention. Sidewalks are more of an afterthought despite the rising dangers faced by pedestrians, The Post and Courier found.

“Something as simple as sidewalks, and which communities have them and which don’t, a lot of that falls along racial and income lines,” said state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston. “Whether it’s intentional or incidental, the result is still the same.

“With all the infrastructure money that’s coming into South Carolina there’s really no excuse for us to not do more,” he said.

Across America on an average day in 2021 more than 20 people were struck and killed by vehicles. It was the most deadly year for pedestrians in at least four decades, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

In South Carolina it was even worse.

The state was one of the most dangerous places to be a pedestrian last year, accounting for nearly four deaths out of every 100,000 people. South Carolina ranked fourth-deadliest in the nation behind New Mexico, Florida and Louisiana.

And the trend has been going in the wrong direction.

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A pedestrian crosses Napoleon Drive with a bag of groceries in the North Pointe neighborhood of North Charleston on June 15, 2022. Henry Taylor/Staff

A S.C. Department of Transportation study released in May found that from 2009 to 2019, pedestrian fatalities in the state increased by 80 percent, and bicycle fatalities doubled.

“The roadways are not designed to accommodate people moving around locally. They are designed to accommodate people going from one community to another,” said Beth Osborne, a transportation expert with Smart Growth America. “And if you are not doing that, then you are in the way.”

Issues of equity

Infrastructure needs in the tri-county Charleston area have often lagged behind growth, and retrofitting older neighborhoods with sidewalks is a goal that can easily slide from municipal priorities even when the need is there for all to see.

In North Charleston, now the state’s third-largest city, the absence of walking paths is strikingly visible.

Many older neighborhoods lack sidewalks because they were built before the city began requiring developers to include sidewalks in construction plans in 2000. Several of these communities are majority-Black.

The sidewalk shortage is apparent in communities such as Deer Park and Northwood Estates, made up of roughly 2,000 homes between U.S. Highway 78 and Rivers Avenue in the city’s northern end. Children heading to school and runners out for exercise often must share the street with cars and trucks whizzing by.

It’s a critical safety issue in North Charleston, where more than 8 percent of households don’t have a vehicle, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of 2020, more than 1,400 city residents walked to work or used public transportation.

Nationally, studies have shown that people of color and low-income residents are more likely to depend on walking and biking to get around on streets without adequate sidewalks and crossings. They also make up a disproportionate share of pedestrian fatalities.

Black people, for instance, were struck and killed by drivers at an 82 percent higher rate than White, non-Hispanic Americans, according to Smart Growth America in its 2021 report.

The lack of sidewalks in low-wealth neighborhoods also speaks to the inequities present in those communities, including limited access to healthy food options, health care providers and more, said Omar Muhammad, president of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities.

Muhammad, also a planner for the city of Charleston, said sidewalks help improve people’s physical well-being by providing a means for outdoor exercise. They also enhance neighborhood connectivity and provide people with safe access to nearby amenities, such as parks and grocery stores.

But it’s not just neighborhood streets that lack sidewalks.

Along the northern end of Rivers Avenue, sections of sidewalk running past fast-food restaurants and auto shops are interrupted by stretches of dirt peppered with empty Gatorade bottles, discarded clothing and flattened pieces of cardboard. Pedestrians, including parents pushing strollers, must carefully straddle the grassy space between the bustling roadway and ditches filled with trash and overgrown weeds.

This, on a main roadway that connects North Charleston to Charleston, South Carolina’s largest city.

Dave Nethken travels this road on foot daily and has twisted his ankles a few times walking along the uneven pathway. He said he’s seen how the spotty presence of sidewalks confuses both pedestrians and commuters, leading to accidents when walkers venture too close to the roadway.

“Nobody knows where to walk,” Nethken said, as he toted a backpack on a scorching July afternoon. “It shouldn’t have to be that way.”

North Charleston resident Tony Aiello agreed. Aiello, who depends on a bicycle for transportation, was struck by a car while biking along Rivers Avenue a few years back and ended up with 10 staples in his head. In the absence of dedicated cycling lanes, he wishes he had a sidewalk to ride on to escape the potential dangers of the road.

“I have to be alert all the time,” he said.

Still, some city residents told The Post and Courier they haven’t pushed for sidewalks because they don’t want to risk being shortchanged on other needs, such as police patrols and code enforcement. Others see installing speed bumps or better street lighting as more pressing needs.

“The way our communities are made up, I know I can’t get everything I would like,” said Elwood Smith, president of North Pointe neighborhood group.

Kwadjo Campbell, a former Charleston city councilman and member of the Lowcountry Black Leadership Coalition, said communities shouldn’t have to choose when it comes to safety. The lack of sidewalks, he said, is a sign that historic inequities persist in the region.

“At the end of the day it’s always about the allocation of money and resources, and where the city prioritizes or doesn’t prioritize, or who they prioritize and don’t prioritize,” he said.

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Priscilla Price runs up the road after her son Nolan-Thomas Price, 3, from one house to another in the Glyn Terrace neighborhood in North Charleston on July 24, 2022. Henry Taylor/Staff

A drop in the bucket

Several North Charleston council members have been sounding the alarm in recent years.

Councilman Jerome Heyward represents the district covering Glyn Terrace and other communities along Dorchester Road, many of which are low-income and predominantly Black. The neighborhood consists of several dozen brick homes and a church situated across the street from a shopping plaza and a Church’s Chicken.

Heyward pressed the issue of sidewalks earlier this year as the city prepared to approve a special tax district to help fund a $45 million redevelopment of public spaces and amenities in prosperous Park Circle.

Heyward voted against the multimillion-dollar project, arguing that Park Circle has seen continued investment for decades while other communities struggle to obtain basic pieces of infrastructure, including sidewalks. He doesn’t like the message it sends to residents.

“I think we’ve got to play catch-up in the African American community by way of doing investment,” he said.

North Charleston City Council earlier this year set aside $25 million — proceeds from a bond sale — toward infrastructure improvements in neighborhoods.

Though council members briefly considered the idea of targeting funds toward parts of the city with greater need, they ultimately decided to divide the money evenly among districts. About $20.7 million went toward installing sidewalks in areas that lacked them.

Mayor Keith Summey said the city has invested in older neighborhoods in other ways as well, including community centers and recreational facilities. And he noted the amount designated for sidewalks this year is more than the city had originally anticipated spending.

Still, the funding proved to be only a drop in the bucket for many neighborhoods.

Councilwoman Virginia Jamison said the $2.5 million dedicated toward laying sidewalks in her council district, which includes Deer Park and Northwood Estates, is less than a third of the total amount needed to install walking paths throughout the neighborhoods.

City staff informed her $8.5 million would be needed to properly address the lack of sidewalks, Jamison said.

“We’ve got a long way to go, especially in the older communities within North Charleston,” she added.

Shifting the focus

In 2007, the city of Charleston celebrated the completion of a mile-and-a-half-long bike and pedestrian path in West Ashley along Ashley River Road. The path connected several neighborhoods and provided children with a way to safely walk or bike to Drayton Hall Elementary School.

To get that 1.5-mile path in place cost $530,000 — that’s $755,000 today, adjusted for inflation. It also required small amounts of land from 10 property owners: the city, state, school district, a utility company, a church, a cemetery, a nonprofit preservation group, a subdivision homeowners association, one individual property owner and one development company.

“What a beautiful sight and a dream come true for so many of us here,” said then-Mayor Joe Riley, who joined elementary school students at a ribbon-cutting to open the path. Riley said cities historically built roads and highways to move people but were coming to realize that providing ways to walk and bike should be “equal in terms of our responsibility.”

Fifteen years later, Charleston’s “Plan West Ashley” found that the unmet need remains significant. The plan lists sidewalks or multiuse paths in half of the “community concerns” about transportation, and the 264-page plan mentions sidewalks 83 times.

The Charleston area’s population and its traffic have grown dramatically and once-quiet neighborhoods have become increasingly dangerous for pedestrians particularly when frustrated drivers find shortcuts through residential communities.

It’s nearly impossible to get a clear snapshot of how patchwork the region’s network of sidewalks is with no government inventory. Two students from Columbia University spent months working with The Post and Courier to build a sidewalk inventory using mapping software and about 6,000 street images culled from Google. While illuminating, the data was still insufficient to accomplish the task, even when the goal was pared down to North Charleston alone.

What is clear is that the area is much more urban than it used to be. North Charleston, for instance, didn’t exist as a city until it was incorporated in 1972 and today it’s home to 117,000 residents.

Once-quiet communities that were practically rural, where sidewalks might have seemed out of place, find themselves in the heart of a metropolitan area with more than 800,000 residents. The area’s soaring population came with lots of vehicles, resulting in a seemingly endless series of road-widening and road-building projects with stunning price tags.

Consider the $2.35 billion price tag proposed for extending Interstate 526 from its terminus in West Ashley to James and Johns Island — a distance of less than 8 miles.

The lack of sidewalks is not just a matter of which communities are wealthy.

The barrier island communities of Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms, for example, are home to some of the area’s most expensive homes and most streets don’t have sidewalks. But each island has a sidewalk along the busiest road.

Nearby, some of Mount Pleasant’s older subdivisions and neighborhoods have few or no sidewalks, but newer ones usually have sidewalks or multiuse paths, illustrating how development trends, municipal requirements and the desires of homebuyers have changed.

As in North Charleston, Mount Pleasant’s population has mushroomed and traffic has become a top concern. The once-sleepy coastal village is now the state’s fourth-largest municipality, and the explosion of traffic there has prompted calls for more sidewalks and bike paths.

The challenge for many communities lies in adding sidewalks where none have been, in places where they are needed most, usually at great expense.

Walking paths on the peninsula

In his State of the City address in January, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg proposed spending $1 million to fix and repair sidewalks throughout the city. The money will come from American Rescue Plan Act federal funds.

Part of the money is expected to go toward grinding down uneven older sidewalks that pose tripping hazards. Some will fund sidewalk ramps for the disabled. And some will pay for new sidewalks, said Jack O’Toole, a spokesman for the city of Charleston.

A final plan still needs approval from Charleston City Council, which will work with the mayor to select projects from recommendations provided by staff.

But progress will be incremental at best. The city’s sidewalk priority list so far stretches 11 pages and includes 189 projects, which is far beyond the scope of the proposed funds.

The city did not have a firm handle on the cost to accomplish the whole list, but O’Toole said it would clearly be “in the millions of dollars.”

Elizabeth Jenkins lives in a rapidly gentrifying part of the Charleston peninsula where new apartment towers and office buildings are rising fast between Morrison Drive and Meeting Street. Her home is on Cedar Street, which is just two blocks long and immediately north of the Ravenel Bridge’s Meeting Street off-ramp.

She’s seen the $675 million Ravenel Bridge built — it’s just hundreds of feet from her home — and watched condos and a microbrewery and a new school arrive within two blocks of her house. What she hasn’t seen is a sidewalk installed on her street. Jenkins wishes there was one, and she believes that improving streets like hers should be tied to the community’s redevelopment.

“See, what happened is they’re letting these investors come in now, and then not making these investors do their part,” said Jenkins, who is president of the East Central Neighborhood Association. “You got to help with sidewalks, and you got to help with dah-dah-dah. See, these investors come with money.”

Opposition to multiuse paths

Not far from Jenkins’ home, the city of Charleston hopes to soon begin work on a walking and biking path along the central spine of the peninsula. The planned walkway along 1½ miles of railroad right of way that runs from Mount Pleasant Street to Woolfe Street, has been dubbed the Lowcountry LowLine.

Like the city’s West Ashley Bikeway and West Ashley Greenway, the LowLine would not run along the side of a street but would be more of a scenic pathway. It’s part of a growing trend toward multiuse paths that serve bicyclists as well as pedestrians and parents pushing baby strollers; a combination that can broaden community support.

These pathways are wider than typical sidewalks, which isn’t a problem when they are built on old railroad rights of way. But alongside a street, some plans have proved unpopular because of the property needed to create room for a path 10 or 12 feet wide.

In the East Cooper area, for example, the nonprofit community group CAGE has long been advocating for a sidewalk along part of Rifle Range Road in the Six Mile community, but they objected to Mount Pleasant’s plan to install a multiuse path. A key concern was that some residents along the road could lose portions of their properties for the wide path.

As a result, Charleston County Council denied $735,630 in funding the town requested from the county’s greenbelt program to acquire land along Rifle Range Road for the project.

“If y’all are going to use condemnation, I’m out,” said Council Chairman Teddie Pryor at a November 2021 meeting. Condemnation is the process in which the government can require property owners to sell part of their land, something that often happens for road-construction projects.

Town officials had assumed the multiuse path would be welcomed along a stretch of road where residents had been calling for a sidewalk. Long ago, Rifle Range Road was a quiet dirt road, but these days it’s a major north-south route through a town of more than 90,000 and safety is an issue.

Some who live along the road, including Six Mile resident Gloria Walker, said a multiuse path used by runners and cyclists would be disruptive.

Like some of her neighbors in the historic Black community she wants a sidewalk, but perceives a multiuse path as more of an amenity for people passing through.

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Danyel Fontaine greets the CARTA bus 31 driver at the Folly Road/Patterson Avenue stop on her ride to work at Subway in North Charleston on July 28, 2022. Henry Taylor/Staff

Finding the funds

South Carolina and its local governments have largely relied upon federal funding to pay for sidewalks. For the state, that’s meant $5 million annually for pedestrian and bicycle safety projects since 2018, an amount that recently doubled to $10 million thanks to the federal infrastructure bill.

That might sound like a lot of money for sidewalks and paths in South Carolina but in 2017 the price tag for building just one bike and pedestrian path along less than 5 miles of Folly Road on James Island came in at $16 million.

That’s why area residents could still be spotted on a recent afternoon hauling groceries and hoofing through the grassy shoulders along Folly Road that sidewalks have yet to reach.

Some large cities have used Community Development Block Grant money for sidewalks, and more recently have tapped American Rescue Plan Act funding, as the city of Charleston plans to do.

Charleston County sets aside $1 million yearly for bicycle and pedestrian projects from the proceeds of its transportation sales tax. During the budget year that ended in June, 2021, the county reported installing 2,300 feet of new sidewalk — less than half a mile.

With limited money, Charleston and North Charleston are particularly focusing on areas where there are some sidewalks, but they aren’t all connected, resulting in sidewalks that abruptly end. That can happen when a new community with sidewalks is developed next to an older community without them.

Patchwork sidewalk networks serve pedestrians poorly, and “walkable” communities are a goal of most municipal planning departments — a goal shared by the public, as reflected in community surveys incorporated in Charleston’s Plan West Ashley.

“Sidewalks on Ashley River Road are limited, disconnected, and constrained by the rail viaduct and the Church Creek Bridge,” says the plan, offering one example. One of the longer-term projects in that plan is “the installation of sidewalks and/or shared-use paths throughout West Ashley along streets where sidewalks do not exist.”

Across the Cooper River, Mount Pleasant has developed a long-term $60 million plan to knit together a network of sidewalks and multiuse paths. That’s less than half the cost of a plan to ease traffic on 4 miles of S.C. Highway 41 but it’s still a big-ticket item for the town and it’s mostly unfunded.

A small portion of the sidewalk and path network dubbed “Mount Pleasant Way” could be funded if voters approve a tax-raising referendum in November. The referendum aims to raise $50 million for park and recreation projects, and Mount Pleasant Way could get $1.7 million of the money.

Part of the financial challenge is that sidewalks often compete with roads and mass-transit projects for funding. In the fall of 2021 South Carolina’s 21 municipal planning organizations received $230 million for regional mobility programs — $100 million more than usual — but there are no requirements for bicycle or pedestrian plans tied to that federal money.

That’s a challenge for stand-alone sidewalk projects and the crucial work of closing gaps between existing sidewalks. It’s a different story when road projects are involved.

The good news is that when roads are built or widened, those plans usually now include sidewalks or multiuse paths.

“If we are managing a project, we are typically installing them,” said Brent Rewis, S.C. Department of Transportation deputy secretary for intermodal planning.

He said DOT is working with regional planning organizations to develop more bike and pedestrian plans and, eventually, a statewide plan.

Katie Zimmerman is the executive director of Charleston Moves, the only local activist group dedicated to improving pedestrian and bicyclist safety. She said it’s crucial that DOT policies have shifted to include the needs of bike riders and pedestrians, because so many roads throughout towns and cities are owned by the state.

“So, it’s a nice change in the sort of wonky policy side of things,” she said. “Now we have all of these agencies that are working together to figure out safe solutions for people-oriented access, which is really important.”

Transit systems are also more engaged in sidewalk projects now, understanding that people who rely on buses also need to be able to safely walk to bus stops.

“The walking and bicycling network immediately surrounding a transit station presents vital opportunities for connecting housing, employment, and other services,” said the plan for the $360 million Lowcountry Rapid Transit system.

That plan, to create a higher-speed bus line from Ladson to downtown Charleston, includes 8.5 miles of new or reconstructed sidewalks and nearly 18 miles of multiuse paths, plus 38 new pedestrian crossings.

“Basically, we’re adding sidewalks from Mount Pleasant Street in Charleston all the way to Trident (Medical Center),” said Daniel Brock, spokesman for the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments.

Each construction project that includes sidewalks and paths helps to close gaps and improve safety, mostly along busy roads. New or widened roads are now expected to have sidewalks or multiuse paths, but that still leaves a large and unmet need in many existing neighborhoods.

“Everyone’s always about ‘who is going to pay for it?’ and that is always a question,” said Pendarvis, the lawmaker from North Charleston. “We have to have the will to recognize that, from a safety standpoint and civic standpoint, this is a public good.”

Still, for those older communities where residents wish they had a safe place to walk, it’s not clear how many years it will take to get to the top of the funding list. If there’s a list at all.

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