IN MY line of work, I attend a lot of public meetings about transportation projects. I’m often intrigued by the questions citizens ask government officials and consultants.
At last week’s meeting about Project DeRenne, a man asked a transportation planner if he should have his roof replaced.
The question is not as incongruous as it might seem. If he’s likely to be bought out, he’d simply have it patched. Get a new roof, he was told. His home would not be demolished to make way for the project.
Other comments from citizens can seemed downright existential. The only way to reduce traffic congestion, another person mused at the meeting, is to get people out of their cars.
While this was surely offered as an impossible example, along the lines of, “The only way to prevent jellyfish stings is to drain the ocean,” it’s not an outlandish notion at all.
The city of Vancouver set the ambitious goal of shifting 50 percent of trips to walking, biking, and transit by 2020. It’s now clear that target will not be met in 2020. That’s because the city reached its goal this year, four years ahead of schedule.
How did they do it? By investing in active transportation infrastructure, including protected bike lanes. These separated facilities make bicycling a safe and enjoyable transportation choice for people of all ages and abilities, not just for the fit and fearless.
I can hear the critics now. “Not everyone is going to ride a bike, John,” they’ll say. “Even if you paved the protected bike lanes with gold, some folks will still insist on driving.” This is true.
But to quote a recent tweet from Jennifer Keesmaat, Vancouver’s chief planner, “Not everyone will/should cycle. Just like not everyone drives. But for residents who do choose to cycle, it needs to be safe.”
Protected bike lanes are safe, as confirmed by multiple studies, including a report published in the American Journal of Public Health that shows a 90 percent reduction in injury risk. They also persuade people to ride.
Researchers at Portland State University studied protected bike lanes and found, “A measured increase was observed in ridership on all facilities after the installation of the protected cycling facilities, ranging from +21 percent to +171 percent.”
“But,” the critics interject again, “Protected bike lanes and won’t help people who are commuting into Savannah from other communities, John.”
This is not true.
Let’s return to DeRenne Avenue for an explanation. How does making the DeRenne Avenue corridor safer and friendlier for people who walk and ride bikes impact a healthcare professional who drives from her home in Bloomingdale to her job at a medical office just east of Abercorn Street?
Think about what she does at lunchtime when she wants to buy a sandwich from Lucky’s Market. Today, she’ll make that half mile trip in her car.
If you’ve tried to cross Abercorn Street at DeRenne Avenue, you’ll understand why she chooses to drive, even to a destination that’s within easy walking distance.
Eastbound cars turning right onto Abercorn from DeRenne Avenue never stop moving, even during the brief moment the pedestrian walk signal is activated. Crossing this intersection on foot is not for the faint of heart.
If she could safely walk to lunch, the healthcare professional and thousands of other people who live and work in the area, wouldn’t feel compelled to drive for every single trip. This would have a significant impact on traffic congestion on DeRenne Avenue and Abercorn Street.
If we concede the public health, public safety, environmental, and economic benefits of providing active transportation choices are undeniable (hint: they are undeniable), how do we get started?
Vancouver officials shifted their thinking about bikes in 2008. Previously viewed as a sport or recreational activity, a newly elected mayor and council reappraised bicycling as a viable transportation option that more citizens would choose if they felt safe. And they were right.
Making walking, biking, and using transit more convenient produces desirable results, but unlike automobile centric infrastructure, everyone benefits from active transportation — even people who drive.
Unlike Vancouver, here in Savannah we seem to be resistant to setting precise goals. How many more bike lanes, trails, sidewalks, and transit shelters should we add by, say, 2025? How many car trips should we aim to shift to other modes?
If we want to make Savannah a place where people can live comfortably without owning a car, which was Vancouver’s intent, we have to hang some numbers on it.
After all, we can’t achieve goals we never set.