‘Fixing’ Hwy 80 isn’t the same as four-laning it

I REGULARLY receive calls from people, who are planning to visit or move to Savannah. "What's the best way to get from Savannah to Tybee Island on a bicycle?" they want to know.

"With a police escort," I tell them.

That's how Bob Frick and Len Holmes made it to the beach back in July. They'd ridden their bikes all the way from San Francisco to Savannah to raise money for Habitat for Humanity, but had to complete the final portion of their cross-continental journey sandwiched between two Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department vehicles.

It's long been known to locals that the bridges and road to Tybee are dangerous for people on bikes. That's why I'm excited about a meeting on Nov. 17 at which the Georgia Department of Transportation will provide information and collect public feedback on a project that would, "replace the bridges at Lazaretto Creek and Bull River with a two-lane bridge that includes bike and pedestrian improvements."

And there's more.

"Additionally, it would improve the roadway from Johnny Mercer Boulevard to Old US 80 on Tybee with paved shoulders and turn lanes," according to the meeting announcement.

The tragic Oct. 8 crash on the Bull River Bridge that claimed the life of Susan Allen Bartoletti has renewed calls to improve safety on Tybee road. Some people have suggested lower speed limits and increased police presence.

However, one idea that's been floated might make the situation worse. Widening the entire route—including the road and both bridges—to four lanes would almost certainly increase motor vehicle speeds and make the trip more dangerous for everyone, no matter how they reach the beach.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the national bestseller "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)," explained the effect of more lanes this way: "If there is an 'iron law' of traffic engineering, it is that wider roads lead to higher speeds."

Dr. Daniel Piatkowski, a Savannah State University professor who studies travel behavior and transportation, agreed.

"The research is clear: Widening lanes increases speeds, causing more crashes," he said. "And more of those crashes will be fatal due to higher speeds."

Even if speed limit signs are planted every 50 feet, sending the message that we should slow down, the design of a road itself often tells us something completely different.

"It does not matter what the posted speed, people will travel at the speed they perceive to be 'right,'" Vanderbilt said.

"I use an analogy from nutrition research, called 'portion distortion,' which shows that people—no matter how hungry they are—will eat more food when it is served to them in a larger container. Wide roads are typically built under the rationale of safety, and drivers simply 'consume' the extras with more speed."

The idea of setting the cruise control at 75 mph at the foot of the Bull River Bridge and not tapping the brakes until your tires touch Tybee Island is no doubt attractive to many people, so the idea of additional lanes will find support.

But folks with four-lane fever may be disappointed in the long run.

"What happens is that more people use the road because it's wider, newer, and for the first couple months is less congested," Piatkowski said. As more drivers are attracted to make the trip to Tybee, the promised benefit of extra lanes is negated.

On rainy Tuesdays in November, a four lane road will be made more dangerous, its unnecessary capacity encouraging drivers to speed, yet it will become congested due to induced traffic on sunny Saturdays in July.

The problems won't end after the four lane road reaches Tybee, either, Vanderbilt said. "What happens to the island itself, when you've doubled the arrivals?"

Those who sincerely want a safer route to Tybee should be wary of the four-lane solution for another reason. According to estimates it would triple the cost of the project. It could also delay construction indefinitely.

If the stars align (and funding is secured), work on the project—as it's currently proposed—could begin by the end of this decade.

The environmental review required for four laning the entire route would likely still be going on in 2020. And that doesn't even consider the legal challenges that will surely emerge to stop the project, which would require filling in miles of saltmarsh.

Two hashtags, #fixhwy80now and #4lanetybeeroad, are used in conjunction with each other, but they're in fact mutually exclusive.

Insisting on four lanes will likely guarantee that a safety fix won't happen now or at any time in the near future. cs

About The Author

John Bennett

John Bennett is Safety Education Programs Manager at Georgia Bikes.
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