LAST YEAR, Telegraph Avenue in Oakland Calif. was reconfigured to include parking-protected bike lanes by repurposing car travel lanes. Had the editorial board of the Savannah Morning News seen fit to comment on the redesign, they would have labeled it an "oddball plan."
That’s what their editorial called a similar proposal for Savannah’s Whitaker and Drayton streets, which was rejected by Savannah City Council on March 30.
How’s that oddball plan working out for Oakland? According to a report released in January by the City of Oakland, The Koreatown-Northgate District, “has seen a 9 percent increase in retail sales and the addition of five new businesses since the Telegraph Avenue project went in.
Another trend in the right direction: We saw a 78 percent increase in people biking and a 100 percent increase in people walking during peak hours.”
Collisions dropped 40 percent.
Oakland officials acknowledge the bump in retail activity is “not directly attributable to the changes on the street,” but I don’t doubt there’s a connection.
Similar projects across the country and here in the Southeast have delivered significant economic benefits along with safety improvements. What’s dismissed as “oddball” in Savannah is embraced as best practice in many communities.
But surely the redesign “choked off traffic” along Telegraph Avenue, right? That’s what our daily newspaper ominously predicted for Whitaker and Drayton. Nope.
“Not too fast, not too slow. Since the change, we’ve seen a significant decrease in cars and trucks speeding and little change in median speed,” the City report concludes.
“Now traffic flows more consistently and more consistently at a safe speed. Why reduced speeding matters: Nine out of 10 pedestrians survive being hit by a vehicle traveling 20 mph, but just five out of 10 survive if the vehicle is going 30 mph. At 40 mph, only one out of 10 pedestrians will survive.”
The Telegraph Avenue project is not completely analogous to the Whitaker and Drayton proposal, so our mileage may vary. That’s why it’s important to note the proposal offered by the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority was a pilot project to measure the results of traffic calming efforts — both intended and unexpected.
If removing one car travel lane from Drayton Street would back up morning traffic all the way to the Ogeechee River, as some folks seemed to think, the pilot project would show that.
Others worried the project would push cars onto other streets. This is a little like complaining that water is flowing through more than one hole in your colander.
The ability to disperse traffic is a feature of our grid pattern, not a bug. Still, monitoring traffic speeds and volumes on nearby streets during the pilot project would reveal the impacts.
Last year City Council approved a demonstration project on Bay Street that many people correctly predicted would increase motor vehicle speeds. Unfortunately, our elected officials, with the exception of Alderman Bill Durrence, seem unwilling to test street designs that reduce speeding on Drayton and Whitaker.
That position earned applause from some Savannah Morning News readers who revealed in their comments why traffic calming is so badly needed. They cheered the news that they can continue speeding through the heart of our city.
I sometimes think merely mentioning the words “bike lanes” generates more controversy locally than any two-word phrase, other than “Orange Crush.”
But here’s the thing: The Savannah Bicycle Campaign would have supported the SDRA proposal — as did a coalition of business groups, advocacy organizations, and neighborhood associations — even if it did not include bike lanes.
We could fill in the space intended for bike lanes with sand to make the world’s longest bocce ball courts. We could deepen the lanes and fill them with water to create the nation’s first protected kayak lanes (with future connections to the Canal District?).
Shoot, we could even erect statues of the mayor and aldermen in the second travel lanes. Or simply widen the sidewalks to achieve the main goal of the project: reversing the alarming increase in car crashes.
The bike lanes, which would be protected from the car travel lanes by on-street parking, would deliver the desired reduction in crashes. They would also divert bicycle through-traffic out of Forsyth Park and provide the first addition to our woefully insufficient bicycle transportation network since the administration of Mayor Otis Johnson. But those are bonus prizes, not the main goal.
Less than two hours after City Council dismissed the SDRA’s proposal, two vehicles collided on Drayton Street and there were at least four crashes last weekend. In 2016 there were 338 crashes on Whitaker and Drayton streets.
The question is not if we will surpass those totals this year, but how soon.