Looking at the pathways in place today, it’s hard to imagine a time when Hilton Head Island was not a bike-friendly town.
The reality is that just 15 years ago, the island – and the Lowcountry in general – was sorely lacking in resources and organization in providing safe passage for the fast-growing group of tourists and locals who want to see the area pedaling with two wheels.
Enter a group of diehard bike enthusiasts that called themselves Squeaky Wheels. Island import Frank Babel, a retired business developer who had rode his bike all over the world, helped start an organization that has become a movement and evolved into the Hilton Head Island Bicycling Advisory Committee.
“I was looking for a cause and I looked around and just said, ‘With all this beautiful land, we just must do more,’” Babel said of the 2006 BAC origins. “The name fit at first, we were more complainers than doers, but now, we’re an important part of the solution.”
The group quickly caught the attention of town staff, who were equally determined to properly service the growing cycling demand. Town officials connected Babel and his crew with the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) advocacy group. The BAC was formed as a partnership with the town and the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
“We were focused on infrastructure, enforcement and education and it just took off,” Babel said. “The goal was to gather advocates and to help the town properly administer the big investment they were making in the pathways.”
The group won the LAB’s Silver Award in 2011, the highest such ranking for a city in South Carolina, recognizing the BAC as a leader in pathway safety and access advocacy.
“The job was to make Hilton Head safer and more fun for the bike-friendly crowd and to maintain the improvements,” Babel said. “The town put in signalized crossings, crosswalks, safety medians. We went from a few of the proper signals to 40-plus in a couple years.”
At the same time, the BAC began working with homeowner associations, identifying needed pathways, how to improve existing paths to eliminate any tree roots that bubbled up on pathways. One by one, Palmetto Dunes, Shipyard and Sea Pines all created bike-friendlier arterials, many going from 6- to 10-foot-wide bike pathways.
The group then focused on the RBC Heritage golf tournament.
“People couldn’t get bikes inside Sea Pines to go to the tourney,” Babel said. “We wanted the access for bikers, but also to help alleviate transportation congestion.”
Once Sea Pines approved a bike plan, the BAC partnered with Kiwanis, Sea Pines and groups like the Eagle Scouts to build and place vertical bike racks on the tennis courts near the main gate and another area around Harbour Town’s 15th green. The program began with 500 bikes eight years again and expanded to 5,000 bikes parked during the 2019 tournament.
“We will have a much smaller presence this year, but we’re just happy fans will be let in and we’ll be ready to help them park,” Babel said. “We’re told we have more bikes parked at The Heritage than all other PGA Tour events combined.”
The Hilton Head Island Rotary then helped build 29 map kiosks and helped fund the BAC’s safety vest program. Groups like La Isla Magazine and the Beaufort County Sheriffs Office helped the BAC distribute the vests to island residents who leave for work before sunrise and/or return home after dark.
The group also started an Ambassador program to be a rolling concierge for riding and walking tourists alike.
“We have about 60 or 70 folks trained to patrol resorts and pathways during peak season. They have assigned routes and split up the town to help people find beaches and playgrounds, fix their bikes, find good restaurants or report and assist with any health-related issues,” Babel said. “I think there’s comfort in knowing there are expert bikers there to assist.”
The group became a nationally recognized and consulted bike safety champion, even hosting symposiums for communities looking to up their pathway game.
All the work led to a gold ranking from the LAB in 2015, as Hilton Head Island joined Boston as the only East Coast municipalities to earn the highest ranking. The island won its second gold award in 2019.
The group recently rebranded to also include pedestrians, with a new website, bikewalkhiltonhead.com.
Babel and the BAC ensured a 10-foot-wide pathway on the U.S. 278 bridge projects, and he now sits on a Beaufort County task force task force that is identifying pathways across the county that need to be built or improved.
“We wanted to identify all the Hilton Head issues ahead of buildout and now we’re working on doing the same thing countywide,” he said. “We’re seeing improvements and attention to bicycling in Bluffton, Hardeeville and beyond now. It’s so exciting and so needed.”
Babel is also working with the local coordinator for the East Coast Greenway, a bike pathway project aiming to have safe bike paths from Maine to Florida – including the path that is set to pass through Beaufort and Hardeeville.
“This all serves bikers and pedestrians, tourists and residents alike, whether you’re using your bike for transportation or recreation,” he said. “Last year was the busiest year ever for biking. We had 25,000 bikes for rent on the island with 30 shops or resorts renting them. The pandemic made folks appreciate bikes and the outdoors even more.”
Bikes are now the No. 1 requested amenity on the island, according to TripAdvisor. The beaches have fallen to No. 2.
Bike usage is up 315% over the past five years, car-bike accidents down 26% last year alone and an average of 23% per year over the past 13 years.
“It’s great to see the usage go up and the accidents down. It means we’re all doing the work,” Babel said. “There’s so many people to thank in all this. The town staff, the resorts, all the organizations that have joined in this coordination. It’s so rewarding to see the community come together to succeed.”
There is always more work to be done. The BAC and the town are coordinating a 1-, 3- and 10-year action plan on continuous improvement, which is leading to things like the Chaplin Linear Trail, a pathway being built out from Shelter Cove Park to Burkes Beach.
“From Shelter Cove to Northridge to the parkway to Pope Avenue, we’re making improvements but there’s always more work to be done.”
The town contracted for close to 100,000 square feet of rebuilt parkways last year, with just as much a commitment ahead in years to come. Meanwhile, with demand so high, the cost of renting bikes remains near $20 per week compared to $20 per hour in big cities.
“And the resorts will deliver them and pick them up for you,” Babel said. “When the light gets shined on what’s needed, you increase supply and demand and everyone wins. And I know our group will never give up in this passionate fight.”
To learn more about the Bicycling Advisory Committee or to help donate to the group’s Community Foundation of The Lowcountry-supported endowment to help fund future improvements, visit bikewalkhiltonheadisland.com.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.