Exploring the pent-up demand for bike lanes and their usage

Back in 1997 when I wrote this column for the Georgia Guardian newspaper, being an advocate for bicycling and walking in Savannah was a lonely business. Today there’s wider public support. But there’s still much to be done.

A DISCUSSION during a public meeting for the City of Savannah’s West Bay Street initiative on Dec. 19 prompted one person to offer a theory about bicyclists and their attitude toward bike lanes.

“They don’t use them!” she proclaimed.

I could feel eyes in the room turning toward me, waiting for my response. I remained silent. A younger version of me would have risen to the bait.

After two decades as an advocate for people who walk and ride bikes in Savannah, I’m happy to say such demonstrably untrue statements don’t carry the credence they once did. The tide has turned.

Most people are now aware of the high rates of bicycling in Savannah and understand the public safety, public health, economic, environmental, and quality of life benefits that accrue to all citizens when our city is made safer and friendlier for people who walk and ride bikes.

I used to go to public meetings braced for anti-bicycling comments, not just from other citizens, but from city officials and outside consultants. When people scoffed at the need for sidewalks, bike lanes, and trails, they could find plenty of people to nod in agreement.

That’s no longer the case.

Elected officials, government agency staff members, and everyday people who care enough about their community to stand up and make comments at public meetings, are more often in agreement on the need for safe, family-friendly streets. That’s because demand for better infrastructure is so apparent, and the positive effects other cities have derived from investments in bike lanes, sidewalks, and trails are increasingly difficult to dismiss.

Those who do so once had plenty of company. Now they are outliers.

While this trend is pleasing, we are a long way from unfurling the mission accomplished banner.

In his book, “Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives,” Jarrett Walker observes, “...in many urban regions, support for public transit is wide, but shallow. In his work, he’s found that people “want better transit for themselves or their communities, but they don’t know how to make it happen.”

This describes the current moment in our community, when it comes to walking and bicycling. There is wide support, but a deeper commitment will be necessary to make it happen. We seem stuck in limbo.

To see a physical manifestation, follow me down to Lincoln Street.

I’ve ridden, walked, or driven on Lincoln Street between Victory Drive and Henry Street almost every day for the last three and a half years. When I arrive at work, I can see the street from my office window.

I know Lincoln Street, and can say this for certain: People on bikes often outnumber people in cars. If we include people walking and using wheelchairs or other mobility assistance devices, motorists become an even smaller minority.

“They do use it.”

However, the majority of the street is still devoted almost entirely to cars, both in motion and at rest. That doesn’t stop the steady stream of people on bikes from claiming the tiny sliver of street allotted to them.

They often share it with people walking and using wheelchairs in areas where sidewalks are too narrow or damaged to allow safe passage. And they use the bike lane despite these reasons not to:

• It is on the wrong side of the street.

• The pavement markings have been worn in many places by car tires.

• People regularly park their cars in the bike lane because they know it’s unlikely that they will get a parking ticket. They can also be confident they will never, ever be towed.

• Damaged pavement that makes it uncomfortable and even hazardous to people on bikes.

• Residents regularly pile yard debris in it.

The fact that so many people travel in the Lincoln Street bike lane every day, even when they are certain to encounter a litany of obstacles and frustrations, suggests how many more people would do so if these deterrents were removed and our bicycle network expanded.

Again, there is now wide public support for investing in better infrastructure and increasing mobility options, even among people who don’t ride bikes.

The benefits are indisputable. Want to increase retail sales? Add bike lanes and bike parking in retail districts. Want to lift more households out of poverty? Provide affordable commuting options so that a car is not required to get and keep a job.

To deliver these desirable outcomes, from healthier children to more vibrant neighborhoods to a more prosperous community, we must go deep.


About The Author

John Bennett

John Bennett is Safety Education Programs Manager at Georgia Bikes.

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