Let’s Take Up the U.S. DOT’s Safe Streets Challenge—Starting with Prince

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx recently challenged city mayors to “1) Issue a public statement about the importance of bicycle and pedestrian safety; 2) Form a local action team to advance safety and accessibility goals; 3) Take local action through the Challenge activities.” For those of us who have long-advocated for Complete Streets in Athens, it is heartening to see the DOT champion pedestrian and bicycle safety within cities.

The DOT’s Mayors Challenge lists seven activities to increase safety. Impressively, over the past 12 years, Athens-Clarke County commissioners and staff, working with members of the community, have already completed most DOT challenge activities. The trove of research, analysis, illustrations and recommendations generated during the last decade-plus of community planning makes Prince Avenue the perfect project to meet Foxx’s challenge by applying Complete Streets philosophies to an existing street. With Prince Avenue acting as a bellwether project, we can then apply the same principles to other streets, and make all of Athens safer, whether we are in our cars, on a bus, on our bikes or on our feet.

With most of DOT’s recommended activities completed and Complete Streets near realization, only one checkbox, the most important checkbox, remains: implementation.

Complete Streets

In December of 2012, ACC adopted a commission-defined Complete Streets Policy “[t]o ensure that the safety and convenience of all users of the transportation system are accommodated.” Prince Avenue, with the years of study and analysis supporting proposed changes, provides the opportunity to apply Complete Street solutions without the expense of a major road construction project. By authorizing implementation of extant, safety-focused design recommendations, our Mayor and Commission can powerfully affirm their commitment to the goals of the Complete Streets Policy and make safer streets a reality.

Fix Barriers

Through the 2003 CAPPA process, the ACC Prince Avenue Corridor Study (adopted in 2012) and the recently completed GDOT Prince Avenue Road Safety Audit, we have identified barriers to safe and convenient use of Prince Avenue. Looking at the street from the planner’s perspective, through an engineer’s loupe and from the adjacent neighborhoods’ point of view have all generated similar results and familiar recommendations. All three studies focused on the need for calmer traffic, safer crossings and increased protection for cyclists. With the barriers clearly and repeatedly identified, the same solutions have been consistently proposed.

Gather Data

The Prince Avenue Corridor Study found that 15.5 percent of people in the surrounding neighborhoods walk to work, and 4.9 percent of people who live along the corridor bicycle to work. Those two rates are well above national, state, and local averages. When ACC Transportation and Public Works manually counted walkers and riders last spring, they also recorded robust figures. These studies highlight that Prince Avenue is popular for everyone, regardless of the form of transportation. They also document the need for more safety improvements.

Design Right

The 2003 CAPPA process, the 2012 Prince Avenue Corridor Study and the Prince Avenue RSA have identified appropriate, context-sensitive safety solutions. Complete Streets design solutions have been proven to work in Athens and other Southern cities. As Prince Avenue winds through Normaltown and curves past the hospital to downtown—indeed becomes downtown on the southeast side of Finley Street—its character changes to reflect those unique places. Driver behavior, however, remains strikingly similar from the Loop to Pulaski Street—people drive on the in-town portions of Prince Avenue much as they do on Jefferson Highway. The high speeds and long, difficult pedestrian crossings do not reflect the change in character, and offer little support for the needs of surrounding neighborhoods and businesses. For the past 13 years, the community, ACC staff and GDOT have worked to identify appropriate solutions. All that remains is for the Mayor and Commission to move forward with implementation of their recommendations.

Create Networks through Maintenance

As highlighted in a recent FHWA report, Complete Street conversions are inexpensive when done in conjunction with regularly scheduled (and budgeted) street repaving. As the USDOT challenges: “Find ways to make facility improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists during resurfacing and other maintenance projects. Expanding and improving existing roads and facilities to build biking and walking networks as part of regular and routine resurfacing and other maintenance programs can be a low cost alternative.” The Federal Highway Administration agrees that simple changes to pavement markings “can be a low-cost safety solution.” When planned during other projects, “the change in cross section allocation can be incorporated at no additional cost” (emphasis mine). Prince Avenue will not be repaved this summer, maybe not even the next. Still, we must have plans in place long before the repaving is scheduled to ensure there are no more lost opportunities.

Improve Laws;  Educate and Enforce

State laws and regulations can make it difficult to improve safety at a local level (flags notwithstanding). Nonetheless, local groups have worked with ACC police to encourage better behavior.  BikeAthens has teamed directly with ACCPD traffic enforcement officers and Complete Streets: Prince Avenue to install free bicycle lights and distribute rules-of-road booklets. Citizen efforts have served to raise awareness of the need to properly use crosswalks and stop for people crossing the street. ACCPD has conducted multiple crosswalk enforcement campaigns. While these education and enforcement campaigns all promote safety along Prince Avenue, engineering and design solutions remain the most effective and long-lasting.

Before the DOT ever threw down the gauntlet, ACC commissioners, staff and citizens have worked long and hard at considerable expense to make our streets safer. We have crossed off item after item before there was even a list. But for all the years of work, for all the beautiful illustrations, for all the expert recommendations, Prince Avenue remains unchanged. The time is now to do more than simply proclaim the importance of bicycle and pedestrian safety. If we truly want to be a vibrant, walkable community, the Mayor and Commission must accept DOT’s challenge and finalize the seven steps by implementing Complete Streets recommendations on Prince Avenue and throughout Athens.

Tyler Dewey is executive director of BikeAthens.