NOW THAT the pedestrian safety demonstration project has concluded, it’s safe to say it was a resounding success.
Wait. Did you think I was talking about Bay Street?
The annual Picnic in the Park concert on Oct. 4 seems like a lifetime ago to me. Everything before Hurricane Matthew does.
Still, it’s worth remembering that the temporary closure of Drayton Street during the event yields excellent results year after year, if we imagine it as a temporary pedestrian safety demonstration project.
After barricades were erected at the corner of Park Avenue and Drayton Street, people with picnic baskets, coolers, and kids in tow weren’t forced to scramble across two lanes of fast moving traffic. It was especially beneficial for people who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices.
The other temporary demonstration project — the one on Bay Street — has also ended. Did deploying “certain measures in an effort to improve traffic flow and increase pedestrian safety” deliver the desired outcomes?
If “improving traffic flow” is regarded as synonymous with increasing vehicle speeds, which seems to have been the case, yes. However, increased vehicle speeds and improved pedestrian safety are mutually exclusive. When cars and trucks go faster, the risk to people who walk (and people who drive) becomes greater.
And that’s what happened on Bay Street, though city officials say the increases in motor vehicle speeds were modest.
Is it realistic to expect Bay Street to function as a public space, used by millions every year, and an expressway? Other municipalities have concluded city streets cannot do both and have acted accordingly.
Last month the Seattle City Council decided to reduce speed limits from 30 to 25 mph on arterials and from 25 to 20 on non-arterial streets. In Boston, 25 mph will become the default speed limit.
Critics have noted, and I agree, simply lowering speed limits does not make streets safer. Human brains have evolved to add 10 or more to the number they see on a speed limit sign. Physical changes are necessary for safety improvements.
This topic is also on people’s minds in Mumbai, according to a recent story in The Hindu newspaper. It turns out India’s most populous city and Savannah have some things in common, including the term “flyover” for what’s called an “overpass” other places. In the article, Madhav Pai and Binoy Mascarenhas describe Mumbai, as “a city that walks, but privileges cars.” Sounds like Savannah to me.
Changing that dynamic, they write, requires understanding that, “street design has changed as a science, from highway-centric designing to building for people.”
Or as local architect Eric Brown writes in his “counter proposal” for Bay Street, “The current scheme is a traffic engineering solution, but what Bay Street needs is a Civic Design solution.”
Despite my deep concerns about the concept tested on Bay Street and the uncertainty over the metrics used to determine if the demonstration was successful, I’m glad Mayor Eddie DeLoach and the Savannah City Council were willing to undertake this sort of experiment. Temporary demonstration projects allow cities to try before they buy.
This approach can be used on a single street, or scaled up to allow communities to imagine truly transformative changes. For instance, last month the largest network of temporary bike lanes in the world was installed in Macon.
Yes, you read that right. Largest in the world. In Macon.
Temporary projects can also dispel myths. They can prove narrowing or even removing a car traffic lane to make room for a bike lane or wider sidewalk won’t usher in a carpocalypse.
Even if such a project added a minute or two to the average driver’s commute, might that be a fair exchange for a safer street, better quality of life for residents, more welcoming places for visitors, and increased economic activity?
The answer to questions like this will reveal a lot about our future.
Now that the orange barrels have been removed and Bay Street returned to its previous configuration, what’s next? How will City officials determine if the experiment was successful?
Will other configurations be tested — such Brown’s — which restores on-street parking, removes one travel lane in each direction, widens sidewalks on the south side of the street, and adds street streets.
I hope the City will try additional approaches on Bay Street and elsewhere, and establish comprehensive and clearly defined criteria for evaluating future demonstration projects.
And I hope we have the wisdom to make thoughtful decisions when presented with the results.
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