Photo Credit: Krysia Haag
In case you haven’t heard, there’s been another study released about Athens-Clarke County.
This time it’s not about a corridor—yet it does touch, indirectly, on Atlanta Highway, Oak/Oconee Street, Prince Avenue and Lexington Road. It’s also not about a specific development—yet, also indirectly, it does involve certain developer-driven issues of late such as downtown student housing, the Eastside’s Aldi or new Kroger and proposed projects along Prince Avenue.
This new addition to our collection of dust-gathering studies deals with our people and where they choose to live. A conclusion of this workforce housing study is something many residents already know, whether you live in town or outside the Loop: People want to live where they are able to walk to things. Right now, the few walkable streets that we do have in Athens-Clarke County are also in some of the most in-demand neighborhoods. Coincidence? Numerous national studies would say no. Demand for walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly communities is on the rise.
So, why should this study be treated any differently? Sure, we can shelve it like the rest. Or, we can use it to start building a community vision to guide our planning process, starting with streets that connect us in more meaningful, equitable, and sustainable ways.
A community vision to guide our planning process is what makes the difference between a city that is constantly wrestling with its residents and a community that is truly moving forward for the betterment of everyone who lives there. One of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to achieve this is to integrate “complete streets” policies into the fabric of community planning. This doesn’t mean adding an occasional bike lane to a road, allowing small groups of homeowners to get together to pay for their own sidewalks or repainting crosswalks when they get faded. This means, as a community, we set clear goals, priorities and guidelines that help city staff choose from a toolbox of options, with the objective of making all our streets safer for everyone who uses them—cars, trucks, cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders.
So, what’s happening right now? Part of the reason it feels as if we are always putting out fires here and there is because we have a piecemeal system of transportation guidelines that doesn’t address our streets in a comprehensive way.
As a result, we lose far more from everyday decisions, usually made at the staff level, than we do by any individual development proposal. We lose in terms of sidewalks not built, traffic calming measures not implemented, paving of roads without consideration of how our kids get to school or how this project adds to a network of transit options. Instead, a comprehensive complete streets policy recognizes that, when it comes to transportation issues, most of these little fires are connected—and solutions should be as well.
Time to Speak
As Athens becomes more densely populated, it will be impossible to pave our way out of traffic problems. Instead, we must address transportation alternatives holistically. While many of our elected officials do care about creating better transportation policy, it’s often hard to make your voice heard. The only regular opportunity for public input is three minutes to speak to the Mayor and Commissioners at agenda-setting or voting meetings (if you can get over your stage fright to do so). These limited options for speaking out are not adequate or effective for generating the types of discussion our community really needs to create, together, a vision for our city’s transportation options.
There are many items on the Mayor and Commission’s agenda over the next several months dealing with transportation issues. What can you do? Stay informed. Get involved. Demand a better vision for our community. Write or call your commissioner and the mayor to tell them you want meaningful public input that will produce better transportation policies and a complete vision for our community that incorporates all transportation options. Come to the Mayor and Commission meetings and tell them your ideas for better policy. In this way, we can begin to dust off the myriad reports that detail the issues Athens-Clarke County faces and work to create a better network of streets that link us to better neighborhoods, better commercial areas and a better way of life.
Tyler Dewey, Tony Eubanks, Jesse Houle, Clint McCrory, Kristen Morales and Jennifer Rice contributed to this column.