MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — Myrtle Beach is the perfect spot for walking along the beach, sand between toes, enjoying a sunrise or a sunset.
Outside of the beach, however, things get a little more difficult. With disconnected sidewalks, unmarked or nonexistent bicycle lanes and fast-moving traffic, it can be a safety hazard to people who either bike recreationally, or use it as their main mode of transportation.
“There are a lot of people who can’t afford a car, but will do anything to get a car because they are terrified to ride or to walk in this area, frankly, where there are so few sidewalks or crosswalks,” said Matt O’Toole, a bike activist who lives in Myrtle Beach.
The Myrtle Beach area ranks as a car-dependent city, according to Walk Score, which gives it a walkability score of 43 out of 100. It ranks higher in bikeability, at 55 out of 100, marking it as “somewhat bikeable.”
But as the area grows and traffic congestion increases, groups are pointing to adding trails, sidewalks and bicycle lanes as a healthy way to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, boost the economy and create a thriving place to live.
O’Toole, who has advocated for cycling infrastructure in Virginia and California, said the top concern for bicyclists is traffic speed.
“Nobody wants to get buzzed by people going 70 miles an hour,” he said.
There’s also a need for a space buffer on the roads.
“Most people, they’d rather have a bike lane and be separated by traffic,” O’Toole said.
Some streets in the area are wide enough to have a bike lane, and were built with that in mind, he said, but markings were never completed.
He said one of the reasons why bikeability is low is because the city essentially didn’t exist before cars. Therefore, everything was built to be car-oriented.
Another contributor, he said, is that the city itself is such a small part of the Myrtle Beach metro area.
“The city does a good job,” he said. “Outside of the city, I would give it a D-.”
He points to the Market Common as a place where it’s easy to walk or bike to restaurants. However, places like that exist as a silo because of a lack of connectivity.
The Myrtle Beach Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Committee receives a monthly report on pedestrian and bicycle crashes. With hotel and restaurant employees, and J-1 students, primarily walking and cycling to work, there is a need for better infrastructure, according to Mike Snow, the chair of the committee.
“We have to have a safe way for them to get around,” he said.
The committee’s goal is to educate the public and serve as an advisory branch to the city government. Lately, it’s been shifting its focus to planning rides and events. It also is working on creating an adopt a path or an adopt a trail program.
Snow said creating connections between existing cycling and pedestrian infrastructure will help as Myrtle Beach moves toward a more diversified, year-round economy and people continue to move away from suburbs into downtown areas.
Snow said the Myrtle Beach City Council supports marking bike lanes on Ocean Boulevard, but adding resources to create connections between existing infrastructure takes funds.
“It is getting better,” he said. “There is still a long way to go on it.”
While O’Toole said the Market Common area has existing infrastructure, a drainage ditch cutting through a frontage road means that people looking to bike to the mall have to take a five-mile detour around the airport.
There’s also neighborhoods that are adjacent, but not connected by sidewalks, which means children have to be driven to visit a friend who lives fairly close by as the crow flies.
“It is little connections like that that make a big difference,” he said.
Myrtle Beach was the first municipality on the East Coast to complete its section of the East Coast Greenway, a path that runs 3,000 miles from Maine to Florida.
The Greenway has the goal of using 15 states and 450 communities to create a walking and cycling route that’ll be used for transportation, tourism and to improve the environment.
Myrtle Beach leveraged existing transportation funds and right of ways five years ago to complete its section, according to Brent Buice, who leads the East Coast Greenway’s development in South Carolina in Georgia.
The Greenway cuts through the hearts of cities, becoming a critical part of transportation infrastructure within them.
“If you only need to go a mile to work, you can do that safely and in a fun way through biking or walking on one of these trails,” Buice said. “If you want to ride from Boston to Key West, this trail gives people the ability to do that in a fun and accessible way.”
To the average eye, Myrtle Beach’s section looks like an extra-wide sidewalk. It can accommodate two people on bicycles, plus one person walking.
Buice doesn’t have a firm count on how many people Myrtle Beach’s section draws, but said that it is heavily used, especially during the pandemic.
He said the paths don’t collect litter and are low-impact on communities.
“This is infrastructure that is relatively cheap to build, but absolutely draws tourists, and tourists are really attracted to communities,” he said.
He stresses that cities who get involved should have their paths separated from traffic instead of using road shoulders.
Murrells Inlet has since added its path, Surfside Beach held a ribbon cutting for its in 2019 and Buice said North Myrtle Beach has a plan for its portion.
“We are hopeful and there are signs of progress towards connecting some paths,” Buice said.
The desire for walkability exists, according to a 2020 study from the National Association of Realtors.
Overall, 75% of those who took the survey said that being within an easy walk of shops and parks was important, and 85% said it was important to live in a place that had sidewalks and places to take walks.
People who are able to walk to stores and restaurants are more likely to spend money at local businesses, according to Becky Ryon, the north coast office director for the Coastal Conservation League.
“It is really a win-win to have walkability,” she said.
Ryon said that most trips are less than two miles, and that creating walking and biking paths creates twice as many jobs as roads. There are also benefits to health and the environment.
“Walking is really the best form of transportation in terms of emissions, our emissions, and cleaning up the atmosphere,” Ryon said. “It uses basically no carbon emissions at all.”
Creating a walkable environment starts with the beginning of development, she said.
“We love having bike paths and sidewalks, but if they are not connected to other sidewalks where people want to go, then it is not as useful as it could be,” she said.
She said widening roads actually increases traffic congestion, while bike lanes and walking paths help to reduce it. Like O’Toole, she points to the Market Common as a perfect example of what an area can become.
“I’d like to see that all over the place,” she said.
O’Toole has seen firsthand how cycling has helped Myrtle Beach’s economy. There’s tourists in his cycling group who join their rides when they’re on vacation, and then return because they know there’s already a group. A handful have even moved to the area because of it.
He said the city and the bicycling and pedestrian committee does a good job and looks for opportunities to improve when a road is being renovated, but are limited by funding.
He wants to see more bike paths. Other nations and areas, he said, have used drainage canals and powerline corridors for their infrastructure projects.
He praises bike racks on buses, and encourages the public to get involved. Snow said there’s openings on the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Committee, and O’Toole encourages people to join in on the meetings.
People can also support the Palmetto Cycling Coalition and buy their specialty license plate.
But the easiest way to get involved is simple — ride a bike.
“The more of us there are out there, the more visible we are to drivers, and the more we are accepted, and the more we will ultimately be accommodated,” O’Toole said.