Thoughts on cycling’s place in a social-distancing, lower-traffic world

I SPENT the early part of this year developing a new interactive calendar for the Georgia Bikes website. Not to brag, but I’m pretty sure I created the most comprehensive listing of bicycling events in the state.

Bike rodeos for kids, volunteer orientations at bicycle co-ops, public input sessions on transportation projects, mountain bike trail clean-up days, advocacy organization meetings, safe cycling classes, and charity rides that attract thousands of participants and boost local economies — they were all over Georgia, in communities big and small.

It was shaping up to be a huge season for cycling in our state.

On March 16 I began removing events, one by one. Some of the registration pages and Facebook events are still up, but they lag behind a reality that seems to change by the moment.

As I write this on March 21, I’m preparing to cull even more. I just don’t know how many months into the future the calendar should be preemptively emptied.

Yet as cycling events are canceled — or in the case of more optimistic organizers, postponed — bicycling by individuals continues and is even increasing.

On March 20 the Bicycling Coalition of Greater Philadelphia noted that automated counters on the city’s Kelly Drive Trail had recorded a 471 percent increase in bicycle traffic and that the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission reported, “on average, bicycling is up 151 percent, compared to the same period in 2019.”

Riding a bike and social distancing are not mutually exclusive, at least for now. Still, it’s critically important for people to stay at least 6 feet away from others when exercising.

Troubling images of people, who should know better, doing something healthy (exercising) in a very unhealthy way (grouped tightly together) could trigger the closure of public spaces. You may have seen such photos from Savannah posted on Facebook.

Wherever we are, we would do well — as Alderman Nick Palumbo has suggested — to follow Gen. James Oglethorpe’s motto: Non sibi sed aliis.

“Not for self, but for others.”

This is especially important guidance for those of us who drive. As motor vehicle traffic declines, we may be tempted to speed, creating additional risk for people who walk, bike, and roll.

The commissioner of the Atlanta Department of Transportation tweeted on March 17, “I fear many drivers are using these reduced traffic volumes as a reason to speed. At a time when our healthcare system is strained, please SLOW DOWN.”

The Twitter account of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway safety began pushing social media messages reminding drivers of the three-foot-passing law.

If you’re not aware, the law stipulates that “the operator of a motor vehicle, when overtaking and passing a bicycle that is proceeding in the same direction on the roadway, shall leave a safe distance between such vehicle and the bicycle and shall maintain such clearance until safely past the overtaken bicycle.”

The term “safe distance” means not less than three feet. Even better, unless you absolutely have to, don’t drive. Staying home (if your circumstances permit) and spending time outside in a socially responsible fashion is the way to be for now.

In my own neighborhood, I’ve seen plenty of people out on bikes. And running, walking, and gardening. It’s encouraging to see, but I also realize that I, along with most of the folks out enjoying the neighborhood, are people of privilege.

While the medical impacts of our situation are still, for most of us, just numbers on a chart in the twice-daily updates from the Georgia Department of Public Health, the economic and other miseries are well underway for many Savannahians.

For now, I’m seeking solace in the small ways that we are trying to cope with something so terrifying.

I’ve seen lawn chairs set up in opposite corners of front yards so neighbors can come over and visit, but still keep spatially distant.

And I’ve pondered the protocols we initiate when we see a neighbor coming our way on the sidewalk. What will become our custom for deciding who crosses over to the other side of the street?

Do younger folks yield to their elders? People pushing strollers will have the right of way, I presume.

These are silly things to think about at such a serious time, obviously. But they have provided a welcome distraction for me. As has spending time outside, walking and biking, while at least six feet away from others at all times.

I’ve written this column for nearly nine years and I’ve rarely had to worry how much of it will be still be relevant by the time it’s published.

Now, however, everything has changed. Thank you for reading. Stay safe!



John Bennett

John Bennett is Safety Education Programs Manager at Georgia Bikes.
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