When I was out walking on Sept. 12 — the day after the storm moved through the area — I ran into one downtown business owner on his bicycle near Forsyth Park. We noted how empty and oddly pleasant the city was.
The low level of traffic and noise reminded him of downtown 25 years ago.
Savannah has certainly changed dramatically over the past generation. I would argue that most of those changes have been positive ones, but the quiet downtown of the late 20th century sure had its charms.
As it turned out, lots of others who stayed behind decided to take advantage of the empty streets before the traffic picked up again.
Many folks who live south of Victory Drive bicycled downtown on the Tuesday and Wednesday after the storm. I even saw a lone adult with a herd of six kids of varying ages — all on bicycles — making their way south on Bull Street on the day after the storm.
I saw some regular bicycle commuters, but for the most part all the faces were new.
Think about that for a second. Groups of people who normally don’t bicycle into town — including an adult riding with six kids — felt safer and more comfortable bicycling on the day after a major storm than they do on an ordinary day with ordinary traffic.
There are obviously more important stories from Hurricane Irma, but the storm provided yet more evidence that residents would like to ride bicycles more often if we had streets that better accommodated them.
I know many drivers get angry at the mere mention of the increasing demand for bicycling infrastructure, but higher rates of bicycle use have broadly positive impacts — for traffic congestion, parking demand, public health, retail sales, pollution, noise and more.
I also know that I am setting myself up for a flurry of angry emails and comments. Sure, some bicyclists break traffic laws, but have you ever counted the number of cars that don’t come to full stops at stop signs in this town?
And I will also be accused of being some anti-car zealot. Far from it. I plan to continue commuting via car to Armstrong where I teach, and I have long advocated for maximizing on-street parking and vehicular connectivity throughout the downtown area.
To their credit, Savannah city officials clearly understand the growing public demand for alternate forms of transportation. Just before the storm, City Council approved a new strategic plan that calls for “improved and safe multi-modal mobility and neighborhood connectivity” by 2023 and for a significant increase in sidewalks on high-traffic roads.
Bring it on.
City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.