In a time of rising gas prices, it’s no surprise that this week’s Earth Day events are mainly focused on the need for more efficient transportation.
This Friday everyone is urged to “Dump the Pump” by using alternate or public transport, with Chatham Area Transit (CAT) doing its part by reducing fares that day to 25 cents.
The focus culminates Saturday in a bike ride through downtown, the inaugural “Savannah Wheelie,” which will include celebrity riders Mayor Otis Johnson and County Commission Chairman Pete Liakakis.
“I’ve talked about this issue in the past, even on city council when I was there,” says Liakakis. “We need to make sure we’ve got lanes for bikes. Bike riding is not only healthy for you, but it reduces pollution and traffic.”
Saturday’s Savannah Wheelie is also a debut of sorts for the Savannah Bicycle Campaign, a local group that seeks to bring bicycle usage into the local mainstream as a viable way to commute.
Drew Wade of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign says the Savannah Wheelie is open to all riders and “probably won’t take more than 30-40 minutes, about four miles.” After that, riders are invited to a ticketed event at the new barbecue joint on MLK, Blowin’ Smoke.
Another group with bikes on their mind is the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority (SDRA), which has partnered with the city, CAT, and the Savannah Bicycle Campaign on the “Dump the Pump” initiative.
Project Manager Kristin Hyser explains how and why SDRA got involved:
“We have various committees, and one is a planning committee that looks at initiatives occurring downtown. And they said their big issues this year were mobility and parking,” says Hyser.
“We set up a task force and realized there’s a lot of momentum around these issues right now. The city’s making great strides in making use of parking resources and we didn’t want to duplicate those efforts,” she says.
“So we decided to look at it from another angle: How can we get people to come downtown using different modes of transportation? The point behind this event is to raise awareness about ways to get downtown instead of jumping in your car and driving there.”
Wade says the Wheelie will follow the historic downtown bikeway, which he wryly says few people actually know about.
“Occasionally you’ll see signs with the old antique bike with the big wheel on the front. They’re on the Metropolitan Planning Commission’s 2000 bikeways plan,” Wade explains. “We used that path for a couple of reasons: One, to show we do have great places to go and ride downtown. And also to point out that we have these bike lanes on the books but nobody really knows what they are.”
SDRA’s Hyser says there’s already an impressive matrix of bike paths — some finished, many not — in the new Downtown Savannah Master Plan, which you can view at the Metropolitan Planning Commission site at thempc.org/.
“One thing the Downtown Master Plan promotes is the Chatham County bikeways plan adopted in 2000 that suggests a variety of bikeways that would be marked throughout the county,” Hyser says. “It also addresses the Coastal Greenway Initiative, which hopes to add bikeways throughout coastal Georgia and beyond.”
Drew Wade of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign is actually a co-chair for the Coastal Georgia Greenway, “which is an idea, mostly,” he says. “It’s a 450-mile network, with not much of it in place right now. There are a few funded projects in Chatham County and those have not really gotten started yet.”
In talking to other cyclists, Wade says it became clear there’s not a single local entity just advocating for bike lanes.
“There are a lot of groups that do rides and have their own interests, but nobody’s bringing all these things together to be one central voice advocating for better facilities – like the Coastal Georgia Greenway, like better parking for bikes downtown, like more bike lanes downtown and everywhere. So that’s what we set out to create,” he says.
While Liakakis admits not all planned bikeways are complete, “we’ve got it in our Capital Improvement Plan for bikeways, and we’ve put money into it in the past. Hopefully the money will be available in the next couple of years to complete those.”
Liakakis points to complete county projects like the McCorkle bike path around Wilmington Island, and says another trail around Lake Mayer might be done by the end of the year.
“It’s important we stay after it and have those trails,” he says. “That’s one of our priorities in the county.”
Indeed, it would seem that connectivity is the key with alternate transportation. It does no good to blanket downtown with bike paths when the people who need them most can’t afford to live downtown, instead having to commute.
“One of the features of the Downtown Master Plan is improving mobility downtown,” says Hyser. “It does talk about connecting downtown to surrounding areas. There are recommendations in the plan that look at mobility and it does mention things like ride-sharing and improving bike amenities.”
Wade says promoting more bike use is something of a no-brainer in terms of bang for the taxpayer’s buck.
“The most efficient way of getting from point A to point B is bikes. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a low impact way to get people where they need to go and yet not tax our infrastructure?” he says.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect to Earth Day is continuing those good habits into future days that aren’t surrounded with feel-good media hoopla. With that in mind, SDRA’s Hyser says this Friday’s “Dump the Pump” initiative is the first of three. On May 16 a similar event coordinates with national “Bike to Work Week,” and in June another “Dump the Pump” event coordinates with a national version.
One thing Savannah has going for it is the vision of its founder, James Oglethorpe, whose original square-oriented town plan is tailor-made for small-scale, sustainable transportation.
“It comes down to Oglethorpe’s original plan that we’ve been so lucky and fortunate to be able to preserve as well as we have,” says Hyser. “You can’t make getting around without a car any more pleasant than what Oglethorpe’s plan provides.”
Still, Oglethorpe didn’t plan for cars. Or buses. Or trolleys. It’s all well and good to have more bike paths, but how does that address the more visceral issue of car vs. bike?
Drew Wade of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign responds:
“I think from the standpoint of that, we are always in the position that bicyclists should follow the law — the law being that bikes don’t go in squares,” he says.
“However, the signage is not adequate right now for that. I’ve seen one of those signs that has a bike in the center and a red circle and arrow through it, but it’s sitting on a one-way sign for the square,” says Wade.
“I’m not sure what message you’re supposed to get from that. Does that mean not to go on the street or on the sidewalks? We need to work with the city to make wayfinding and those types of issues more readily apparent from the signage we use,” he says, pointing out that the fine for riding a bike in a square is a steep one, upwards of $100.
“In as much as bicyclists will follow the law if they understand it, we need to help them know what the rules are.”
1st Annual Savannah WheelieWhat: A bike ride (not a race) around the Historic District, with police escortWhen: 3:30 p.m. Sat. April 19 after Earth Day festivitiesWhere: Forsyth Park; "Post Wheelie Dealie" after the ride is at Blowin' Smoke, 514 MLK Jr. Blvd.Cost: Savannah Wheelie is free and open to bike riders; the Post Wheelie Dealie is $12 at the door, $5 to anyone who joins the Savannah Bicycle Campaign that dayInfo: www.bicyclecampaign.org, www.coastalgeorgiagreenway.org
Dump the Pump DayWhat: Leave your car at home and use public or alternate transport. Chatham Area Transit offers reduced 25 cent fares all day.When: Fri. April 18Info: www.savannahtransit.com