New national recognition shows power of bicycling

Beaufort County's latest national honor is a true breath of fresh air.

Hilton Head Island has been certified as a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists. It is the only community in South Carolina and one of five in the Southeast to earn the league's silver level award, reflecting the degree to which the community accommodates bicyclists and encourages people to bike for transportation and recreation.

The designation follows decades of activism and hard work, primarily by volunteers doggedly pursuing a network of safe leisure pathways throughout the community. The town now boasts 50 miles of pathways, and at least that much in the private communities.

The designation should be a major promotional device for a community hungry to renew and enhance its reputation as a beautiful place to enjoy an active, outdoor, healthy lifestyle. Many people vacation and retire with that in mind. Bicycle tourism is big business nationally, and bicycling is an expected part of a vacation here.

The designation is a breath of fresh air because bicycling instead of driving improves air quality. At the same time, it offers cyclists an enjoyable way to get in the 30 minutes of daily physical activity that doctors urge. This can in turn reduce heart disease, obesity and other threats to good health.

Many Lowcountry residents have found bicycling to be a healthy social outlet as well, with active bicycling clubs located throughout Beaufort County. It is a great way to meet people, really see a community and explore the Lowcountry.

We thank bicyclists for pushing for this new designation, and the Town of Hilton Head Island staff for making it a priority. This spring, Hilton Head joined bustling Boston and tiny Sisters, Ore., as the nation's only newly designated silver-level Bicycle Friendly Communities.

Now we have a benchmark and a nationally proven blueprint for advancement to the gold and platinum levels.

Islander Frank Babel, founder of the Squeaky Wheels Cycling Advocacy Group, sees the designation as a "tremendous accomplishment" that rewards years of investments in pathways and safety initiatives to support residents "and the nearly 1 million people who bike yearly on our island."

But everyone involved knows there is room for improvement in each of the five categories the national league scores: engineering, education, enforcement, evaluation and planning.

Advocates say the island needs more bike racks, bike access into gated communities, a connection to the bike pathways in Bluffton, and better ways to tell visitors about tourist destinations that can be reached on bike.

All of this can add to the quality of life that home buyers, vacationers and businesses demand.

May is National Bike Month and a number of local activities will celebrate it, including Bike to Work (or Play!) Day on Friday.

But this year we really have something to celebrate. We now have a significant community recognition. And we have a clear path to even higher recognition as a vibrant, healthy community.