Bicycle infrastructure isn’t just about bicycles!

PEOPLE WHO ride bikes on Lincoln Street are used to seeing other wheeled conveyances in the bike lane. No, I’m not talking about the cars that are regularly parked there.

People who use wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, and other mobility aids travel in the bike lane every day. The bike lane is critical infrastructure that permits them to safely reach important destinations.

So ubiquitous are these “other users” of the bike lane, that it’s easy to forget what they tell us about our city. I’m glad a tweet from a man in Winnipeg reminded me.

Anders Swanson, a multi-disciplinary designer and chair of the Canada Bikes board of directors, shared a short video of a man using a powered wheel chair in a protected bike lane.

Swanson tweeted: “It’s far more than just #cycling. Politicians: unless you plan to never grow old, bike #infrastructure should be your no.1 priority. #freedom.”

This is an important reminder that bicycle infrastructure isn’t just about bicycles. For older people, who use assistive devices to get around, the Lincoln Street bike lane is essential to daily life, especially on blocks where the sidewalks are in such disrepair that they are largely impassible.

On one block near the southern end of the street, the sidewalk is missing entirely, which is a more common situation than one might think. In Savannah, 76 percent of streets lack sidewalks.

It is, as Savannah Development and Renewal Authority Executive Director Kevin Klinkenberg described in a 2016 post on the Strong Towns blog, “a tale of two cities.”

Savannah is lauded as a walkable city, but in many neighborhoods the absence of infrastructure makes walking unpleasant and hazardous.

The bike lane on Lincoln Street also helps calm traffic, improving safety and the comfort level for people who use mobility aids. Bike lanes benefit the most able among us as well.

Visit Washington Avenue on a Saturday morning and you’ll find so many runners in the bike lanes, you could be forgiven for thinking a spontaneous 5K is underway.

The hashtags in Swanson’s tweet, #freedom and #infrastructure, are inseparable. Too often, when talking about making our streets safe for all modes of travel, the discussion degenerates into to complaints about what will be “taken” from those of us who drive.

For older people, who use assistive devices to get around, the Lincoln Street bike lane is essential to daily life, especially on blocks where the sidewalks are in such disrepair that they are largely impassible.

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In fact, making streets safe and accessible provides freedom of choice for those who are privileged to have options, and basic freedom of travel for people who don’t.

The Lincoln Street bike lane allows people like me to ride a bike to work instead of driving. And it makes it possible for a person in a wheelchair to shop for groceries at Kroger.

Let’s be clear: When people argue against bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and other traffic calming measures, what they are truly afraid of losing is the ability to speed. The consequences of prioritizing convenience of motorists over safety are dire, especially for seniors.

People 65 and older account for 19 percent of pedestrian fatalities. Consider that a 30-year-old person has only a three percent chance of being killed if hit by a car travelling at 20 mph. For a 70-year-old the mortality rate is 23 percent.

As speeds increase, the likelihood of death climbs dramatically.

When cars are travelling at 45 mph — a speed not uncommon on many Savannah streets, no matter the posted speed limit — a 30-year-old has a 50/50 chance of survival. For 70 year olds, the risk of death is 83 percent.

I often joke that although our city has not undertaken any significant bicycle infrastructure projects in more than 5 years, we have done a great job of keeping the ground flat. That’s my way of pointing our advantage over cities like Macon or Athens, where hilly terrain makes active transportation impossible for many residents.

Our level topography is a blessing when it comes to making our city a place where people of all ages and abilities can get where they need to go under their own power or with assistance from a small electric motor.

But this does not exempt us from the necessary task of making our streets safe for people who walk and ride bikes. Just as bike lanes, trails and multiuse paths benefit people who don’t (or can’t) ride bikes, making streets safe for older adults benefits people of all ages.

A statement from the AARP makes this clear: “For too many years, transportation policies have mostly served people using fast-moving vehicles rather than public transit, bicycles or their own feet. But a street that’s safe for a 70-year-old to cross to shop is safe for a seven-year-old walking to school or a worker heading to the office.”

In much of our city, we have failed the 70-year-old, the seven-year-old, and everyone in between.