Bicycling: Cycling Around the Lowcountry - HILTON HEAD ISLAND WORKS TOWARD RECOGNITION AS A BICYCLE FRIENDLY COMMUNITY
Author: Frank Babel and David Zunker | Photographer: Matt Anderson
Hilton Head Island is a terrific place to visit and a fantastic place to ride a bicycle. One hundred-seventeen miles of public and private shared-use pathways connect to virtually anywhere on this beautiful island. And don’t forget the 12 miles of bike-able hard packed beaches. If you need a rental bike, no problem; choose from the nearly 20,000 bikes available from one of two dozen commercial firms and it will be delivered directly to your door.
During the height of our tourist season, all these bikes are rented and join the thousands conveyed onto the island and those ridden by residents and local service workers. Locals ask, “How have we suddenly been discovered as a great place for recreational and practical bicycling and how will this impact our island?”
Well, actually it hasn’t been so sudden. Since the 1980s, the Town of Hilton Head Island has been committed to building and maintaining new pathways, in part, to provide an environmentally friendly alternative to motor vehicles. As this infrastructure grew, new challenges arose. We discovered that pathway maintenance in our island environment wasn’t easy; and providing maps and addressing safety issues for our guests was a daunting task especially for inexperienced or careless riders. So, a cycling advocacy group named Squeaky Wheels came into being and began to work with the Town to address those issues.
With record-high gas prices, a slumping economy and key new pathways built, cycling gained popularity. Visitors realized that once they parked their cars, they could take a complete vacation on bike or foot. The challenge then became how to handle this crush of walkers and mostly recreational cyclists of all ages and abilities and do this safely while providing a great experience for all those who visit and live here.
Fortunately, other resources were available to help. The Palmetto Cycling Coalition, a statewide advocacy group, helped steer Squeaky Wheels to the League of American Bicyclists, which has a Bicycle Friendly Community certification program to recognize municipalities that actively support and encourage safe cycling. Eventually, with sponsorship from the Town, the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, and the Greater Island Council, these organizations facilitated a self-assessment workshop in October 2010. Attendees voted unanimously to pursue the designation.
Since then, the Bicycle Friendly Communication application process has been a true community effort. It has brought together bicycling advocates, bike shop owners, bike rental companies, the business community, a wide range of volunteers and the Chamber of Commerce to work together and collaborate with Town staff. The rigorous self-assessment application asks, “Why, is your community applying for the Bicycle Friendly Community designation status?”
Our answer: First, it is a tangible way to recognize the decades-long investments and efforts of those who had the vision to plan, build and maintain a world-class, shared-use pathways system, unique to the East Coast. Second, it will help the Chamber attract more visitors to the island and enhance their experience while they’re here. It also is consistent with proven “quality of life” reasons why people want to retire here. And, just as important, it has enabled us to assess the safety of our multi-use pathway system and determine ways it can be made safer. Finally, it has given us a proven framework to address other cycling-related challenges going forward, consistent with the Town’s future direction.
If successful (and the Town will have the answer this spring), Hilton Head Island will join only 130 other municipalities around the country who have been so recognized.
At the end of the day, it is useful to think about Charles Fraser’s vision for this island. Charles developed Sea Pines 40-plus years ago, but had an influence far beyond Hilton Head Island. Many of his philosophies, including respect for nature, resonate today and are reflected in bicycle pathways that meander through beautiful canopies of tall pines and live oaks. It’s his legacy and a piece of our heritage.
We look forward to working together to help enable that vision.
Frank Babel is a Sea Pines resident, founder and president of Squeaky Wheels and a member of the board of directors for the Palmetto Cycling Coalition.
David Zunker is associate director of sales and marketing for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.