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Prioritizing our priorities about transportation and quality of life

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EARLIER THIS month the Savannah City Council held a two-day retreat to process citizen comments from the Savannah Forward public meetings and begin developing a strategic plan for the city aimed at "charting a new direction for our community through year 2025," according to a June 3 press release.

I attended many of the Savannah Forward meetings in person and received play-by-play from others via Tweets and texts from people who were present at the meetings I could not attend. Streets that are safe and welcoming for people of all ages and abilities are clearly a priority for citizens across aldermanic districts.

City Council heard residents’ concerns and among the “measurable strategic results” is a “commitment to construct sidewalks on all high-traffic roadways and school routes.”

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While Savannah is known as a walking city, the fact is only 27 percent of streets have sidewalks on one side or the other and more than 90 percent of streets within a half mile of some schools have no sidewalks at all. Sidewalk construction is indeed measurable, and it will be easy to gauge the progress made toward this goal, down to the inch if we want to be that precise.

While the explicit mention of sidewalks is heartening, as was some indication that concern over speeding and the need for traffic calming had also appeared on council’s radar, the five priorities identified at the retreat — public safety, infrastructure, poverty reduction/economic strength, neighborhood revitalization, and good government — can also be achieved by placing a focus on walkable, bikeable streets, and well-connected neighborhoods. Here’s how:

Public Safety. While most people think of crime when they hear this phrase, it’s important to note traffic crashes are a threat to public safety as well. Indeed, a person who is killed by a bullet is exactly the same amount of dead as a person who is killed by a car. It’s well-established that consistent implementation of Complete Street designs dramatically improves safety for all members of the traveling public. That means people who walk, people who use wheelchairs and other assistive devices, people who ride bikes, people who use transit, and people who drive. But safer, more appealing streets also have a role to play in crime reduction by putting more eyes and ears on the street.

Infrastructure. The public safety, public health, economic, environmental, and social benefits of investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure has been documented conclusively. Research is now focused on the impacts of infrastructure quality, with one study finding that separated bike lanes, which place a physical barrier between bikes and cars, deliver a 24 to 1 return on investment via reductions in health care costs and traffic congestion. That means shared lane pavement markings, also known as sharrows, aren’t going to cut it. The safety benefits of sharrows are suspect, but unfortunately, they’re the only type of bicycle infrastructure — and it’s questionable whether they should be considered infrastructure at all — provided for the thousands of people who travel by bike in Savannah in more than five years. We must do better.

Poverty Reduction/Economic Strength. A 2016 study by the Pew Charitable Trust found lower income families spend “much more as a share of their income, on transportation than did those in the middle- or upper-income groups. Further, transportation costs increased in recent years for households at the bottom.” For many working people in Savannah, driving is a financial impossibility. For others, attempting to maintain a car can lead into a cycle of crushing debt. Implementing Complete Streets would allow people who walk, ride their bikes, or take the bus to reach their jobs safely and with dignity.

Neighborhood Revitalization. One word: Trails. Examples from around the country and here in Georgia prove that investing in multiuse trails have undeniable positive impacts on neighborhoods and entire cities. Sadly, Savannah has been absolutely left behind. I’m often contacted by people who are planning to visit or are thinking about moving to Savannah, and want to know about trails and multi-use paths in the city. They are shocked when I tell them we gave virtually nothing to offer. It’s not an exaggeration to say that trail projects provide the biggest possible bang for the buck, when it comes to improving neighborhoods. That’s why completion of the Truman Linear Park Trail and development of a city-wide trail network must be priorities if we are serious about neighborhood revitalization.

Good Government. While the Savannah Forward meetings were taking place, Governing magazine released the results of a benchmark study it commissioned to answer the question, “What is good government and which cities practice it?” “High performing cities,” the report finds, are “dynamically planned, broadly partnered, resident-involved, race-informed, smartly resourced, employee-engaged, and data-driven.” The Savannah Forward meetings could be regarded as a foray into dynamic planning, which casts city governments as “learning organizations.” According to the report, in cities where dynamic planning is adopted, “progress is tracked and reported with the use of targets and measures; adjustments to programs are made in response to data; and activities are relayed to residents through multiple channels.”

Citizens have demanded safe, family-friendly places to walk and ride bikes, both for transportation and recreation. A dynamic planning effort could be the best way to deliver what the city clearly needs.

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Speaking of Savannah Forward, Savannah Bicycle Campaign

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