IN JULY 2005, I decided to conduct an experiment on myself. And on my city. I resolved to see how often I could use a bicycle for trips that I would normally make by car.
I eased into it at first, riding from my house in Chatham Crescent to Habersham Village shopping center or the Bull Street library. Before long I became more adventurous and started commuting to work downtown and riding to destinations I previously thought to be unreachable by bike. Eventually I found myself going weeks without driving.
Looking back on my first year as a “utility cyclist” (a term that I had learned sometime earlier in 2005), I am reminded how much has changed.
Most striking, in retrospect, was how seldom I encountered other people using their bikes in the same way I was. Instead, my riding companions were people I met on the Internet — an academic in Minneapolis who published a blog called “Oil is for Sissies,” a cargo bike pioneer in San Francisco, a veteran commuter in Traverse City, Michigan — who offered me encouragement and guidance.
When I crossed paths with another bicycle commuter in real life, I was like a beginning birder excitedly recording a painted bunting sighting on my life list. Seeing another bike parked at the Twelve Oaks Publix store caused me to speculate on who the owner might be. Another customer like me? Someone who works there? Did this person get here via the same route I’d recently discovered?
By contrast, last Sunday afternoon I rode from my house to the National Landmark Historic District and along the way I saw plenty of people using bikes for their daily travels. I knew quite a few of them by name.
The bike I used to begin my experiment was an entry-level hybrid I bought at a yard sale for $20. It required modifications. I installed a rear rack and panniers to carry cargo, and fenders, lights, and new handlebars to provide a more upright riding posture.
In essence I created what’s now marketed as a “city bike.” Today bicycles in this category are available from Savannah bike shops, but back in 2005 if you wanted a city bike you pretty much had to make your own.
These days there are many more places to park a bicycle, compared to 2005 when public bike parking locations were scarce. The City of Savannah’s bike rack program has dramatically increased bicycle parking opportunities at desirable locations.
Last week I talked with a local business owner who marveled at how quickly his request for a bike rack was handled by City staff. When’s the last time you heard someone in the business community raving about the efficiency and effectiveness of a government program?
It’s not just locals who are powering the popularity of bicycling in our city. Savannah’s growing reputation as a bicycle-friendly travel destination is attracting demographically desirable visitors to our city.
People who make bikes the focus of their vacations are generally well educated, affluent and spend plenty of money in the communities they visit. Two national bike tour companies are operating regularly in Savannah and another will likely enter the market soon.
Chatham Area Transit’s CAT Bike program, launched this year, has been popular with tourists as well. The debut of the public bicycle sharing system — the first in Georgia —was covered by a New York Times travel writer. Back in 2005, bike sharing was still largely a European phenomenon.
Unfortunately, some things have not changed for the better over the last nine years. In 2005 Chatham County received $1,008,000 in federal funding for construction of the Truman Linear Park Trail-Phase II.
Today the Truman Greenway, a multiuse trail that would link Daffin Park with Lake Mayer Park, is caught in a disagreement between the city and county over local matching funds. Communities in other parts of the state have completed popular trails, while Savannah’s signature trail project has languished for nearly a decade.
The good news is the number of people who use bicycles for transportation and recreation in Savannah will continue to grow. And so will their expectations. Sensible people recognize the advantages of a more bicycle friendly city and will support government officials who advance programs and policies that make Savannah better for bicycling.
As more people choose to make bicycling a healthy part of their daily lives, our streets become safer for everyone who uses them, including people for whom bicycling is a necessity, not a choice.