"THIS CAN’T be real."
That’s a recent reaction to a proposed ordinance, which would ban everyone 12 and older from riding bicycles in Forsyth Park.
Knowing a little about the origin of the ordinance and having talked with some of its most ardent supporters, I can confirm it is indeed real. And it’s not the first dispute about what kinds of activities should be permitted in the park.
In 1894 City Council passed an ordinance “prohibiting baseball, football and other games” in Forsyth Park. Violators were subject to a $20 fine and up to 10 days in jail.
In the early 1980s a citizen wrote to city officials urging them to restrict the areas in which “jogging,” as running was then known, was allowed.
Around that same time, the installation of basketball and tennis courts at the south end of the park caused some to voice concerns about the noise generated by bouncing basketballs and bongo drums, according to a 1980 Savannah Evening Press story. Yes, bongo drums.
Bicycles, the focus of the latest proposed prohibition, aren’t exactly new on the scene in Savannah. An 1893 New York Times article reported 2,500 spectators turned out for a bike race in our city, which “occasioned much enthusiasm for bicycling in the South.”
There is much enthusiasm for bicycling in Savannah today. We have the highest rate of bicycle commuting in the state and are No. 8 in the South. National bicycle touring companies, including industry giant VBT, are operating in our city almost year round.
Visit Savannah has used an image of people riding bikes in — you guessed it — Forsyth Park in promotional campaigns.
Other cities in Georgia and around the country are spending millions on bicycle infrastructure and programs to reap the considerable public health, public safety, environmental and economic benefits we enjoy in Savannah.
Annual bicycle counts coordinated by the Coastal Region Metropolitan Planning Organization reveal thousands of people on bikes travel the Bull Street corridor each week and many of them, seeking to avoid speeding cars and trucks on Whitaker and Drayton streets, cautiously and courteously pedal through Forsyth Park.
The area around the edge of the park is designated as a “shared use perimeter path” in the CORE MPO Non-motorized Transportation Plan. The middle of the park, which is sometimes described as an “avenue” in historic photo captions, functions as a multiuse path and doesn’t conform to the definition of a sidewalk under state law (“’Sidewalk’ means that portion of a street between the curb lines, or the lateral lines of a railway, and the adjacent property lines...”).
Along with people on bikes, it’s used by people pushing baby carriages (Shout out to the Stroller Strong Moms!), skaters (Skateboarding is a crime under the proposed ordinance), city-owned Ford F-350 Super Duty dump trucks (They always seem to travel in pairs) and dogs at the very end of 25-foot long retractable leashes (Other cities have considered banning these in public parks).
It’s a dynamic situation, but one that is desirable. In her classic work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs lists this diversity of uses as one of the ingredients necessary for appealing, vibrant and safe public spaces.
What can we do to encourage a mix of people in the park at different times of day, while reducing potential conflicts?
Pavement markings to designate preferred positions for different users. Design features to discourage riding too fast. An ordinance focused on reckless cyclists. Bike facilities elsewhere in the park or on Whitaker and Drayton streets.
All have been offered as potential solutions, but apparently have not yet been given serious consideration by City officials. Instead, the proposed ordinance will treat every person on a bike, including the majority who are responsible and careful, as threats to public safety.
And it would most definitely threaten their safety by pushing them onto Drayton and Whitaker.
Just as bikes in the park are not a recent development, neither are dangerous conditions on nearby streets. A 1921 Savannah Evening Press article reports city leaders where concerned with the “constant danger of collisions between automobiles and other vehicles on Drayton and Whitaker” near the park. The “other vehicles” would have included the horse-drawn variety along with bicycles.
One proponent of the ordinance alleged I don’t understand that “banning bikes from Forsyth may be the fastest way to force the city to create new bike lanes.” That’s a little like urging someone to jump off the high dive by suggesting it may be the fastest way to get the pool filled with water.
Before moving forward on the proposed ordinance, the city should launch an inclusive, yet urgent effort to find better solutions. I’m not talking about a drawn-out study. We need a calm, critical and comprehensive examination of what is happening in the park.
Anecdotal reports of collisions and near misses, such as those offered by city officials and bike ban supporters can be part of the conversation, but verifiable data should drive decision making.
If a collision between a person on foot and a person on a bike is serious enough to cause injury, a police report should exist and that’s a good place to start seeking a clearer picture.
Where are conflicts occurring? What are the contributing factors? What types of injuries have been sustained? We need to know the facts.
Such an effort must not treat Forsyth Park as if it exists in a vacuum and the questions above should also be asked about surrounding streets. Crash and other data, such as average motor vehicle speeds, has to be a part of the discussion.
This type of analysis is not just helpful, it’s crucial. Our city deserves a reasonable approach that deals with irresponsible vehicle operators, whether on bikes or in cars, while preserving access and improving safety for all.
The bike ban ordinance is a blunt instrument for a job that requires precision tools. We can and must do better for the sake of residents and visitors who use Savannah’s streets and most iconic park. cs
The City of Savannah is accepting comments on the proposed bike ban through Jan. 5 online:
John Bennett is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.