When Alan Clark moved to Aiken in the middle of 2018, he found the city to have that "special charm" he hadn't found anywhere else in his years of travel and fell in love with the town.

Clark is an active bicyclist for more than 30 years – his other love.

But his devotion to Aiken and bikes seems to be, in essence, two paths that do not connect. 

Clark, who is also a member of the Aiken Bicycle Club, found a lack of bike lanes located around the area for cyclists and their safety, putting him, and other cyclists, at odds with the place he feels most at home and his favorite hobby.

He wanted to do more for Aiken, placing much of his focus on exploring different avenues that could be utilized to help the city become a more bicycle-friendly place with the addition of specific safety features for cyclists.

"I really love this community, pretty much everything about it, but there are really no fun, safe designated bicycle routes in the city, " Clark said. "That's tough for someone like me, who really has a passion for bike riding."

This lack of a "bicycle infrastructure" in Aiken led Clark to come up with the idea to organize an advocacy group with other bicyclists in the area, who discuss different topics concerning bicycling in the area once a month.

Karl Odenthal, former Aiken Public Safety officer and bike enthusiast, said adding a better bike infrastructure to Aiken would be a smart move, because this is what "progressive cities" are doing all around the United States.

Al Clark - Aiken Bicycle Advocacy Group

Al Clark has taken it upon himself to start an advocacy group for bicycle riders in Aiken.

"If (we) can turn Aiken into a bike-friendly place, it could be a big pull for our tourist economy," Odenthal said. "I think more bike lanes and more safety for riders is a good thing," Odenthal said. "Once you get used to seeing people riding bikes around – it will become just a part of everyday life."

The Aiken Bicycle Advocacy Group became a reality in April, with the group's first meeting held in downtown Aiken.

The group is "striving to make the City and County of Aiken great places to ride a bike" and they want to "shape the future of Aiken as a bicycle-friendly place," Clark said.

Aside from making the community bicycle-friendly, Clark said the group also hopes "to promote riding bicycles as a great way to improve the quality of life in Aiken."

Bicycle safety issue in Aiken

This year is starting off the wrong way for Aiken County. In the first five months of 2019, there have been three fatal crashes involving people driving cars killing people riding bicycles in Aiken County, according to Amy Johnson, executive director of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition.

Johnson says there were five crashes, that resulted in injury in Aiken County in 2017. However, in 2016 there were 12 injuries and one fatality, and in 2015 there were 12 crashes resulting in injuries and one fatality; two involved riders under the age of 19.

A coalition report from 2009 to 2017 shows Aiken County had 107 bicycle accidents, which is 0.6% of the population.

The three municipalities that report biking accidents are Aiken Department of Public Safety, North Augusta Department of Public Safety and the South Carolina Highway Patrol.

Johnson did not have numbers for 2018 but the Aiken Department of Public Safety reported four accidents in 2017 and 2018, while Lt. Jake Mahoney of ADPS said there has been one so far in 2019. None of those in the city have resulted in fatalities.

South Carolina is among the worst states for cyclists. In 2014, the state ranked 47th in biking and pedestrian fatality rates with 21.2 killed per 10,000 people according to the Alliance for Bicycling and Walking. In 2016, South Carolina was even worse as fatalities were 5.04% per one million people. Only Florida at 6.68% had a higher rate of fatalities.

Based on reports, the numbers of reported accidents involving cyclists may seem small, but Johnson believes all accidents are not reported. 

"I believe accidents involving bicycles is underreported," she said. "When a car hits another car, there is property damage, it's reported to the insurance companies – but at times if a car hits a bike it may not be reported."

Johnson said there are times, when a driver may bump into a bicyclist, check to see if the bicyclist is OK and the two go their separate ways. Or worse, a driver may hit a cyclist and drive away in a hit-and-run.

"If they do get hit and an ambulance has to show up, then they have to report it," Johnson said. 

A bicycle infrastructure in Aiken would create a safer environment for these cyclists, which Clark, along with other local cyclists, believes is a necessary addition for the community. 

Clark has experienced an incident involving him and a vehicle personally, and he has seen firsthand what can happen when bike riders are hit by cars.

"I ran into a car once – I was riding in a bike lane (not in Aiken), when a car pulled out in front of me and I ran into the front of the vehicle – flipping over it," Clark said.

Clark, who moved here from Wisconsin, said there was a three-month period where five cyclists were struck by vehicles while commuting to work.

He hopes the Aiken Bicycle Advocacy Group will play a big part in bringing a bicycle-friendly future to Aiken.

"We are on our way," Clark said. "This is a process that is going to definitely take some time to get completed, but it will get done."

Approved bike route

This new bicycle advocacy group was formed at a good time, at least in the city, as the Aiken City Council has already approved the mapping of a new bike route going from the USC Aiken campus into downtown Aiken.

Stuart Bedenbaugh, city manager, said signs will be erected along the route.

The route would start on the USCA campus and meander down Medical Park Drive down mostly side streets in an effort to stay off busier roads, yet encompass USCA, Aiken Regional Medical Center and Eustis Park before going into downtown. 

"I think this is an amazing route," Johnson said. "You're looking at a route from the university to downtown. Students are likely to take their bikes and this route will take cars off the street."

Also, there would be some bicycle-friendly additions added on Hampton Ave. 

"It's going to basically just be signs posted up along the route for cyclists, and there will also be some 'sharrows' added on Hampton Avenue from the six points area to Vaucluse," Bedenbaugh said.

A sharrow is a road marking in the form of two inverted V-shapes above a bicycle, indicating which part of a road should be used by cyclists when the roadway is also being shared with motor vehicles, Clark explained.

The six points area is the intersection where Hampton Avenue turns into Trolley Line Road and they meet Vaucluse Road, which runs between them.

City Council has to approve the signs and sharrows, which will be installed using taxpayer money that will be directed toward finishing the bike route, Bedenbaugh said.

The council members are scheduled to talk about the bike route signs this month.

Some residents may recall this planned route is not the first time the City of Aiken has attempted a bike route from the USCA campus to downtown.

Aiken bike lanes (copy)

Sharrows, or shared bike lane markings, like this file photo on Hayne Avenue in Aiken, may be possible on a route along Hampton Ave. 

The original bike route mapped out and approved by the city several years ago ended abandoned after they received a number of complaints from residents living along the route, Odenthal said.

"Someone argued that the bike lane was street litter and decreasing the property value," he said.

Tom Lex, who has promoted bicycle safety for riders in Aiken for years, believes this new route is the city's second chance to try to create something bicyclists in the community will really be able to enjoy.

Lex also said many proposed bike routes in the past never panned out because many of the main streets in downtown Aiken need road improvements before any kind of bike route can be added.

"Over the years, we managed to get bike paths, connected by additional sidewalks, added to any future road improvement projects in Aiken," Lex said. 

This means any road improvement plans approved for certain roadways within the City of Aiken will already have specified bike routes attached to the project. 

"It could take years before the city has enough funds available to approve some of these improvement plans, but at least we know many of these plans will already have additional bike routes and sharrows added," he said. "It's unknown when any of this will happen, but, even so, it's better than nothing."

Local cyclists for safer bike routes

Odenthal was a former member of Aiken Public Safety's Bike Patrol, which had their own beat in downtown Aiken.

"I loved it, because if there was a call, I could ride straight up to the door on my bike – while officers in their patrol cars had to stop in the street or driveway," Odenthal said. "I could pull right up to the action."

The Bike Patrol is no longer active, but Odenthal, who retired from the department in 2018, continues to ride his bike regularly.

After years of bike-riding around Aiken, Odenthal has area knowledge from a vantage point most don't experience. Taking his local experience into account, he expressed the bike path he would like to see implemented in downtown Aiken.

Odenthal Retires 000.JPG

Lt. Karl Odenthal retired on Sept. 14 from Aiken Public Safety. He was one of the most recognizable faces from the department. He now has taken a job as a City of Aiken code enforcer.

"Personally, I think a route down Abbeville Avenue would be great and really fun for riders," Odenthal said. "There isn't much traffic down that roadway and it's mainly flat, which is good for families who are looking for that kind of experience when riding their bikes together."

Many ride bikes as a hobby, usually with family or friends, and these kinds of riders tend to look for safe bike paths, Odenthal explained.

Mike Labacte, 39, another local bike rider in Aiken, also agrees a better bicycle infrastructure in Aiken is something he would like to see in the future.

"I've rode bikes all my life," Labacte said. "I'm certainly used to not having a designated bike lane to ride in around here, and I am comfortable with that – but, it would be awesome to see the city add some bike lanes. I think it would be much appreciated by local cyclist. I also definitely think that would make it much safer to ride."

Lacbacte also said he believes more people would likely start riding bicycles around Aiken if there were routes.

A good example of how effective bike routes would be is the 12-mile North Augusta Greeneway Trail, which has become one of the area's most popular recreational amenities.

The Greeneway has allowed many cyclists in North Augusta to stay off the busy roadways – making it safer for the community and families.

"They really did a good job promoting that as a safe spot for bike riders," Odenthal said. "Families want fun, safe activities they can do altogether without having to worry too much about safety."

In the future, the City of Aiken could also look into Rails-to-Trails Conservation, which is where multipurpose public paths are created from former railroad corridors. These paths are ideal because they are flat or gently sloping, making them easily accessible.

Currently the only trails for those in Aiken are Boyd Pond Park's 5-mile trail and Citizen's Park's 3-mile trail, according to sctrails.net.

Tripp Girardeau is the crime and courts reporter with the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter at @trippgirardeau.