College is a first taste of independence for many of us. Mobility is undoubtedly part of that independence, though many who come to Savannah will be experiencing it without a car. Whether that choice is a commitment to reduce individual environmental impact, or one of economic necessity, it can be a challenge in a system set up with cars and not much else in mind.
Still, we are fortunate to live in such a beautiful city - historic buildings, majestic oaks, and a marvelous system of small parks downtown. Not only are these great places to walk, but their traffic calming effects set the downtown area as a perfect grid for non-motorized mobility on foot or, to extend your range and increase your speed, on a bike.
Driving your bike
Most people treat bicycling like walking at higher speed, but that's not the best strategy for safety. As noted by Eve Seibert, a certified League Cycling Instructor, "As a rule, cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as operators of vehicles. So, be predictable and visible. Vehicles belong in the street. Don't drive your bike on sidewalks - not only does it endanger pedestrians, but cars won't be looking for you as they turn into driveways and side streets."
Other tips seem obvious written down, but surprisingly few use these simple tools to keep themselves safer:
• Obey traffic signals including red lights, one-way streets, and stop signs.
• Use hand signals to tell motorists when you turn.
• If you are riding between dusk and dawn, use a white headlight and rear red light so you are visible.
• Stay to the right, but give yourself 3 feet from parallel-parked cars to avoid a sudden door opening that could send you to the pavement.
Finally, according to Eve, "One of the most important concepts for safe vehicular cycling is taking the lane." The concept is this: If the lane is too narrow for you and a car to share with a 3 foot buffer, usually less than 14 feet wide, cyclists are permitted by law to ride in the middle of the lane to let cars know it is not safe to pass unless they can use the other lane.
One of the most difficult things about getting around by bike is knowing where to ride so you do not have to "take the lane" very often. Following some general principles about travel routes in Savannah will probably do more than anything to keep you safer.
• North of Gaston Street, our landmark Historic District is home to the network of squares for which Savannah is famous. This is an ideal location for setting out on your bike. When you go, use north-south streets that have squares for natural traffic calming. When driving your bike downtown, though, as noted above, sidewalks are off-limits.
As noted by commuter cyclist Sean Brandon, the City of Savannah's Parking and Mobility Director, "The prohibition against riding on the sidewalks in the squares or Broughton Street comes as a surprise to many, an unwelcome one at over $100 per offense."
The squares work like traffic circles - yield to traffic on the square. You will find these streets mostly avoided by locals in cars, allowing you to navigate the squares quicker on a bike than you would in a car. In the historic district, the best routes avoid the north-south streets without squares - i.e., East Broad, Price, Drayton, Whitaker, Montgomery, and MLK - because of their higher traffic speeds.
• From Gaston to Victory, in the Streetcar and Victorian districts, we have left behind the traffic calming of the squares. Forsyth Park does, however, block through-traffic on Bull Street, one of the most bike-friendly streets in Savannah north of Victory.
The northbound bike lane on Lincoln Street has low traffic, though it's strangely positioned on the left side of this one-way street. Your best bet riding Lincoln north is to use the center of the travel lane, temporarily moving left into the bike lane should a car approach from behind.
And please don't contribute to Savannah's salmon infestation - cycling southbound against the flow in the bike lane on Lincoln increases your chance of a crash with a car and serious injury. Traveling east and west is best on one way streets Anderson and Henry, going the direction of traffic and taking care to give a buffer for the door zone.
• Between Victory to Stephenson, the north-south route is Habersham, which has a striped bike lane. The biggest worry here is the intersections, so assume motorists are not looking for bicycles and be predictable. Take additional care approaching stoplights with waiting cars to avoid a quick right turn into your path. The best east-west corridors are Washington, Columbus, and 63rd, as you will not be forced to stop so often at stop signs.
• In the great beyond south of Stephenson, street-marked lanes are few and far between. There is a signed north-south bike route that travels Hodgson Memorial southbound through neighborhoods south of Montgomery Cross Road. However, if your destination is a big box shop on Abercorn, or one of the malls, you may be better off on the bus.
The good news for you is that CAT (Chatham Area Transit) buses have bike racks that allow two bikes per bus. When the bus stops, pull the rack down, place your bike in the tray and raise the lever over your front wheel to secure it in place. When you exit the bus, always let the driver know you are retrieving your bike so he knows to wait.
Many who try getting around by bike are foiled by thieves. "Savannah has added many new on-street bike racks with more on the way," notes Sean Brandon. Still, street signs or railings are the only option in other areas.
Test the stability of any sign in the ground before using it to lock up. Secure your rear wheel and frame always with a strong U-lock. If you lock your rear wheel inside the rear triangle, this protects these two most expensive parts of a bike.
Taking the additional step of securing your front wheel with a separate cable, the so called "belt and suspenders" approach, will keep your front wheel secure as well.
Excellent local resources are available to help, notably from the Savannah Bicycle Campaign (bicyclecampaign.org). Every first Friday, SBC members and others gather to ride from Habersham Village to downtown on the 2Wheels 2Work bike convoy. The experienced leaders of this ride can give you tips to increase your comfort level on the streets of Savannah.