Hilton Head – Bike paradise?

I recently returned from a trip to Hilton Head Island, in South Carolina. Hilton Head is located at the very south part of South Carolina, close to Savannah Georgia, and is a very popular beach vacation location. My parents, who participate in the condo swapping programs that have become popular lately, had a week to spend there and invited us to come down. I’m not usually so big on this kind of vacation, but the beach is really nice on the Island, and the kids love the beach. Plus, the island is populated with tons of bike paths, which make it theoretically easy to get around (more on that later…). So we decided to go for it.

The Electric Madsen was perfect for the beach
The Electric Madsen was perfect for the beach

After a very long and tiring drive, punctuated by changing a flat tire on the side of I-95, in the dark (of course) we arrived at Hilton Head. The island is built up with lots of resorts and expensive homes, grouped into “Plantations” – really just a fancy southern name for parts of the island. Maybe it had to do with the original plantations on the island back in colonial days, I’m not sure. Now, each Plantation has it’s own cache and level on the hierarchy of perceived wealth. The resort where we were staying is owned by the Mariott group, and was located in the exclusive “Sea Pines” Plantation. To access this Plantation, you must go through the guard checkpoint, where the guards collect $5 from you if you are not a “guest” and enforce a cadre of rules designed to enhance the exclusivity of the place at the expense of common sense. I think they just don’t like anything that does not conform to the aura they want to project.

For example, we brought along with us a sit-on-top kayak, in case we wanted to explore some of the area via water (it is an island after all). Well, apparently, the Sea Pines homeowners have a prohibition against any kayaks or surfboards being “displayed” in the open, on top of a car, etc. They are supposed to be kept in a building out of view at all times. The guard at the gate determined by sight that our kayak was too big for our resort to handle, and almost didn’t let us through the gate (what were we supposed to do with the kayak?). But after lengthy argument, he agreed to let us go to our resort and see if they could find a place to store the kayak out of site. They did (fortunately, the Mariott people were very helpful and accomodating) and sure enough, the guard’s supervisor came to check on us 15 minutes later, just in case we decided to ignore this prohibition.

Anyway, I’m digressing, because after that original incident, the rest of the vacation was actually pretty nice.

The island is great for family riding
The island is great for family riding

So, since we had all 3 children with us, we decided to bring the Madsen bike to transport the smaller ones, and my older (5-yr-old) daughter’s kids bike, and a third bike to get everyone around. While the roads on the island are narrow, there is actually a very good network of separated bike paths that run along the sides of the roads, so you can get from your accommodation to the beach and back via bike.

Because of this network of paths, a large industry of rental bikes has been built up, and many people rent bikes for the week. Most of these are beach cruisers with one speed (the island is totally flat, the only hill being the bridge over the inlet) and appear to be fairly low quality bikes. I discovered the reason for this right away, when we rode past a rental place with a sign “$20 rental for one week”. Now, the last time I rented a bike was when I was in Moab, Utah, and rented a mountain bike. It cost me $40 for ONE DAY. Similarly, a bike rental in Boston, to get around the city, cost even more than this. So obviously if you only pay $20 for an entire week, you get what you pay for.

Well, we did quite a bit of riding while we were there, in fact we didn’t use the car at all (except to go to the tire place to buy a new set of tires that is!). My daughter could easily ride safely on the separated bike paths, and we didn’t have to worry about her getting caught up in traffic. She rode over to the Children’s museum and back with her grandparents, rode to the beach, even rode ON the beach. Riding on the beach is very easy and fun when the tide is low. The beach there is very flat, which makes for great sand for riding, and you can go the whole length of the island, several miles.

Enjoying the swings at the playground
Enjoying the swings at the playground

One day we all took the trails and rode up to the harbor, where there are lots of yachts, (many of which are very, very large), a great playground, and some little shops and restaurants. We took a round-about way on the way back, having to stop and examine the bike path signs that are dotted around the intersections here and there. The signs were a good thing, because it was pretty easy to get lost with everything looking the same (the uniformity mantra works!).  In fact, I was not sure we were on a different path until we rode past what appeared to be a heritage vegetable farm, which I didn’t remember from the way out. Hmmmm… well, it was a nice day and we weren’t in a hurry.

Occasionally while riding, we would go past a little “borrow pit”, where we spotted some small alligators. (I wonder where they take them when they get too big?). A borrow pit is where they’ve borrowed some soil to fill in another place, such as where the road is. It’s common in areas that were swamps and wetlands at one time. They just move the dirt around and make them ponds and berms – easier to travel around. The kids all enjoyed seeing the alligators and the herons. We never saw the alligators move much. They have a way of making you wonder if they really are alive….just so you might come a little bit closer….and closer….

As we rode around, we encountered many other people on bikes, some of which probably did not ride a bike except for once a year, at Hilton Head. This was evidenced by several near-crashes I witnessed involving curbs and pilot error. One couple almost colliding with each other while getting started. I thought the fact that these people were even out on bikes was pretty cool though, because here is an opportunity to see that one can actually get around by bike. How great! The side paths really were important in making people feel safe to ride a bike and not have to deal with traffic. It was obvious that the investment the Island had made in bike paths really did help people get around while they were on their vacations, and hopefully relieve some traffic and parking problems at the beach.

But at the same time there were some gaping holes in the infrastructure when it came to actually using the bike to go anywhere except the beach. This was especially true because if you had to go somewhere there wasn’t a bike path, the roads themselves were very busy, narrow, and populated by heavily traffic.

For example, we decided to go one day to get some Gelato at a great little Gelato place called Pino Gelato. The Gelato place is in a strip mall Hilton Head style – that is, the stores are arranged in a semi-circle, and there are trees in the parking lot. It’s on the north side of the main highway that transverses the island. The bike path is on the south side of this highway (no path on the north side). Fortunately, there was a stop light at the entrance. But to cross at this stop light required navigating a 4 lane highway with right and left turn lanes and turn arrows, no crosswalk or pedestrian signals. We had the Madsen bike with the 2 little kids in back, my 5-year old on her little bike, and 3 other bikes. We decided the best strategy was to cross en-masse, so we waited for the cross light to change, and then walked our bikes quickly across 8 lanes, avoiding right and left turning traffic. At least we were a highly visible group all together. It was not an easy crossing, but everyone made it safely and had their gelato. Of course we had to repeat this in the opposite direction.

The thing about it that was most annoying was there was absolutely no provision for any kind of crossing at that light. So if you were a pedestrian, you would also face a pretty big risk just getting across the street. And once across there is no shoulder, sidewalk, or any other way to travel down that side of the street if you needed to go to the next establishment, for example. The way it is set up, the only way to easily access any business on the north side of the road is by car.

More Beach Riding
More Beach Riding

The other time we ran into a similar issue, although this was not quite as bad, was our trip to the grocery store. With the Madsen, we were able to do this easily without the use of the car because it is SO easy to load that bike. (Take grocery sacks out of grocery cart, pile in the bucket, return grocery cart, off you go!). Again, there was no way to access the grocery store strip mall except for traditional car routes, so we negotiated traffic and a convoluted parking lot with a lot of cars backing out of spaces, turning, etc. There was actually a small bike rack at the grocery store (better than I’ve seen in many places!). This traffic negotiation was not a big deal for us, having ridden in traffic a lot and being very comfortable with it. But for these people who can barely negotiate the ramp up the curb to the bike path, there is no way they would ever access this store by bike.

The other strange thing I found about the bike infrastructure was that there was a lack of bicycle racks at the public access points to the beach (also a lack of car parking). As you approach the public access point, there are signs on every fence stating that bikes locked there will be removed. But I didn’t see any actual legitimate place to park your bike. I guess you are supposed to take it with you onto the beach? I think this has more to do with this idea of exclusivity and keeping the “rif-raf” at bay. Don’t provide any parking of any kind, and this discourages beach use except for the people who have actually paid for ocean-front accommodation.

So, overall, my reaction to biking on Hilton Head island was mixed. On the one hand, the island has a great network of paths to get you around most of the places you need to go. There are periodic signs that show you a map of the network and the island so you know where you are. And the paths encourage bike use by many, many people who would otherwise be driving around and clogging up the streets even more than they are.

But on the other hand, the infrastructure falls short when it comes to using the bike as an alternative to the car for practical purposes, such as groceries, or even other shopping. Those parts of the island are still heavily dominated by the car/strip-mall pattern of development, although with a flair to make it seem not so ugly. I found this to be a disappointment, because with just a few changes, it would be possible to greatly expand the way people could get around.

Because you have to have a sunset photo in any discussion of the beach!
Because you have to have a sunset photo in any discussion of the beach!

But at any rate, I still think that most cities could learn a lot from the Hilton Head model and this kind of investment in alternative transportation infrastructure would really pay off with reduced traffic and higher quality of life.

16 thoughts

  1. Hey … I found this site by mistake. I was looking in Yahoo for Georgia vacations for my family trip when I found your site, I must say your website is pretty cool I just love the theme, its amazing!. I don’t have the time at the moment to totally read your site but I bookmarked it and also signed up for your RSS feeds. I’ll back in a day or two. thanks for a nice site.

  2. We used a fossil fuel vehicle to get it there (a van). I wish that I could have ridden it over to the train station, loaded it onto the train, and taken the train there. But alas, the train service is not really set up for that. I can dream, right?

  3. We love HH for vacations too. We find most things are easy to get to by bikes once you go ROUND and ROUND to get to Coligny Plaza, the Piggly Wiggly, the drugstore, the little restaurants/bars and such. At the main Round-a-bout, there’s the smoothie shop, Starbucks, big grocery store and a few restaurants.

    It’s true a good portion of the island is difficult to reach via bike due to crossing the highway. Even so, the traffic, which is extremely heavy and wreckless during the summer months, is generally tolerant of pedestrians and cyclists. Many car-drivers there are so confused looking for their destination and trying to navigate the traffic-round-abouts, they actually go slower and are more inclined to slam on their brakes to avoid accidents.

    During summer months, especially on days when the timeshares rotate check-in and check-out, moving around by car is more like parking. Bikes are the best way to go, and you can stop right in front of your destination. You could easily spend half an hour looking for a parking spot and then end up walking about as far as if you just walked from the place you’re staying.

    I hope more vacation destinations will shoot at least as high as Hilton Head’s infrastructure. It beats Myrtle Beach by a long shot.

  4. I also went to HH looking for bicycle Nirvana and came away of two minds.

    It took me an hour to find the public parking lot and then the beach access. But boy what a great beach and a wonderful system of bike paths. Just for fun, I went to the bike shops and showed off my electric bike to a very mixed reaction. I did get a couple of the owners to take it for spin, and as is usually the case, they came back with a big smile on their face! I would recommend going in the “shoulder” season when I did. The weather was nice and the Holdiay Inn had a $59.00 weekday rate.

  5. I just got back from a winter trip to HH. It was my first time there, even though I lived in South Carolina for over 10 years. I was drawn there specifically by the bike path discussions I had read on several websites. I came away with mixed feelings as well. While I was extremely thrilled with the rides I took, I was slightly disturbed at the lack of crosswalks and the lack of courtesy of some local drivers. Many barely stopped at red lights while making right turns. I saw other riders have close calls after patiently waiting for the light to change, by cars turning not giving them the right of way. Very few drivers waived me across or acknowledged eye contact from me saying “Hi, you see me, right?”. The drivers here at home are far more courteous at the ATT crossings in my opinion. I feel like actual cross walks and lights would be a great addition in Hilton Head. Trying to cross traffic to get to the other side of Hwy 278 is very much like playing Frogger in December…I cannot imagine how difficult it must be in season.

  6. “there were some gaping holes in the infrastructure when it came to actually using the bike to go anywhere except the beach. This was especially true because if you had to go somewhere there wasn’t a bike path, the roads themselves were very busy, narrow, and populated by heavily traffic.”

    There’s a phrase for this–“transportation apartheid”–and it’s a fundamental flaw of the bikepath-ological model. The motivation for bikepaths is good: lots of folks claim to afraid to bike in traffic, and therefore to be inhibited from biking for transportation (i.e. to accomplish basic needs, e.g. commuting), so let’s build a separate bike transportation system! Unfortunately we know from history that separate rarely tends to be equal. In the case of transportation, one tends to get a recreation-oriented system for bikes (they’re for kids, right ?-), and a practical system for motor vehicles. This is great if you want to substitute bicycling for other forms of recreation, but sucks if you want to substitute human-powered vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) for greenhouse-gas producing VMTs. (The other problem here is that, more often, folks are actually more inhibited from biking by other factors–notably time, status, and comfort–but that’s a separate question.)

    Of course, the bikepathologists have a “solution” to this problem, too: build a separate and parallel system of bike lanes on the same rights of way as “regular” streets. The problem with that is, sooner or later, the smogmobiles want to turn right and the bikes want to turn left.

    Hence the rise of the “shared space” or “shared streets” movement. Instead of building separate-but-inferior bike infrastructure, use the resources to make existing space more bikeable (and walkable, transit-able, etc). Simple ways to do this are to widen outer lanes and improve bike parking and street maintenance. Longer-term, develop for multiple transport modes, and make smogmobilers internalize some of the costs they currently externalize.

  7. Bike paths are a fantastic way for the uninitiated to get their start into bicycling, whether for transportation or recreation. And intelligently designed bike paths can even allow bicyclists to safely – and efficiently – negotiate heavily-used intersections. It sounds like the bike paths on HHI (which, a generation ago, went by another name and was wilderness), are neither intelligently designed nor comprehensive, which is unfortunate, but kudos to those elitist snobs for at least giving it a shot.

  8. I agree that shared spaces and shared streets are a great solution for bike commuters and I regularly use them and encourage them. There is a whole philosophy that I think is very interesting that if you don’t separate uses (e.g. cars go here, bikes go here, pedestrians go there), then it forces everyone to watch out for each other and eliminates the accidents that inevitably happen when one group assumes they have domination over their area.

    However, the shared streets idea is not for everyone, and I firmly believe that having separated facilities will help more people bike. Many people ARE afraid of traffic and thus don’t bike, and many people just don’t have the biking skills necessary to take to the streets confidently (think beginning riders, children, etc). I also have had the pleasure of living in Madison, Wisconsin, which has done a good job of integrating bike paths into its transportation infrastructure. Sure, there are walkers and roller bladers on the bike paths sometimes, which slow a commuter down. At those times of day, it might be better to take the street. But there are some paths that were converted from old railroad track, that are incredible resources for bikers because they are direct and you can travel quite a distance on them to get where you need to go. Sure, you have to slow down for road crossings sometimes, but there are fewer of them than stopping at traffic lights and intersections on the streets. So, there are examples out there of how separated paths can be used IN ADDITION TO shared spaces, on-street bike lanes, and other resources to fulfill a transportation system.

    I think the key is to get decision makers to not consider one option or the other, but to look at it as different riders need different resources. Just as we need residential streets, arterials, and highways for cars, we need different types of resources for bikes.

  9. I live in Hilton Head part time. The beach, the bike paths and the use of bikes is my humble opinion is what makes this area fun and a healthy place. Seeing the joy of people riding bikes to the beach, shopping for groceries and just taking a spin is what Hilton Head life is all about. There are days that go by when my car is never used, I bike for almost all of my errands. If gas where to go to $10.00 a gallon I would might not even notice.

  10. I think the choice of bike paths or not depends on the area and anticipated use. I live in Knoxville, TN and the bike paths that I would travel are not conducive to bike commuting, in my opinion. Although substantial in length, the trails are not well maintained and the paving is pushed up from tree roots. As a result, you can’t travel over around 10 mph or so without excessive jostling of yourself and your cargo. Small bridges go over streams that flood frequently and cover the bridges with mud and debris. The trails are also used frequently by walkers and runners so you need to slow down around them as well. For commuting, you are better off on the roads here. On the roads, I can travel 16-20 mph, which is significant when done every day. If I were only going occasionally, short distance, or for leisure, I’d probably take the “greenway”.

    I’d definitely like to see more work go into making the “for cars” street-system more bike friendly. Seems like a little extra money or attention would go a long way to making the roads more appropropriate for bikes. I usually feel perfectly safe biking but the car folks would appreciate it if I had an extra three feet in the outside lane.

  11. We like the beaches and bike riding at sea pines. Are there any other areas on hilton head or for that matter in the south east region of US that can produce this type of great combination.

  12. As a long-time Hilton Head resident and owner of Hilton Head Bikes To Go, I’m happy to give info to anyone thinking of vacationing and biking in Hilton Head. Contact me anytime!

  13. My family (2 adults & a nine year old son) visit H.H. 2-3 times per year since we are only about 2.5 miles away in N. Augusta, SC. We choose H.H. primarily for the nice beach, great seafood restaurants, and the opportunity to ride our bikes in shaded areas. I like to stay (if possible) within one of the gated communities by renting a villa or staying at an affordable hotel such as the Sonesta in Shipyard. By staying within a gated area (Sea Pines is a great example) it provides one the ability to ride less congested paths and away from the main Hwy. However, I do recommend one travel further south to Jekyll Island near Brunswick if bicycling is your primary interest. The accommodations will be far less extravagant with only a few available restaurants; but, it offers a great place to ride both on pavement and off with the ability to spend much less. Plus, there is a small water park with about 5 slides/tubes to choose from.

  14. Hey..thanks for the well written comments about Hilton Head biking. I have been thinking about spending an extended vacation there b/c of the bike paths but I did not realize the difficulty one might have in riding one’s bike to the beach and securing it. I’ll be better prepared when/if I go, knowing to find that out before I wind up at the beach with no place to legally park my bike. Jo

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