When my wife, Ella, and I moved to Athens in 1989, we immediately saw the bicycling potential of the city and became active in the local movement to create a progressive transport community. The Athens-Clarke Safe Cycling Association (a precursor to BikeAthens) was fanned back to life by a grand town-and-gown coalition, and became a consistent and persistent voice to install bike lanes on the main commuter routes of Prince and Milledge avenues and Baxter and Lumpkin streets. Thanks to R.E.M.’s generosity, we were able to print out 5,000 Athens bike maps, and the disruption caused by Critical Mass events forced the decision-makers to recognize that many Athenians wanted to be able to cycle, rather than drive around town. At the end of the 1990s, it looked like these efforts were about to pay off. Bike lanes were eventually added to Lumpkin and Baxter streets, and a transportation plan was funded.
After I completed my doctorate in 2000, Ella and I left Athens for career purposes, subsequently living in London, Portland, OR, New York and New Zealand. Last year, after being gone for nearly two decades, we returned with excitement, looking forward to seeing how Athens’ cycling-friendly plan had evolved.
Sad to say, we were more than disappointed by what we witnessed. It was quickly apparent that fewer cyclists are commuting. Prince Avenue has become even more dangerous. This vital artery now boasts a busy Wendy’s, more traffic and distracted drivers on phones. (To those who argue that cyclists can and should avoid Prince, please try it.) I have conducted informal counts of bicyclists on Prince Avenue. In a typical hour, there are around five cyclists on the road, and slightly more cyclists illegally cycling on the sidewalk.
I used to enjoy going for leisure rides on Jefferson Road. Prince was never a joy to bike on, but was not too scary. Now cyclists have to traverse the Hugh Logan Interchange, which is not for the faint-hearted. So dangerous is Prince Avenue that today leisure cycling groups typically meet beyond the interchange, driving to cycle rather than being able to start from home. For Athens to realize its transportation potential, bike infrastructure on Prince Avenue is essential, as well as well-designed bike lanes from Dougherty Street to Oglethorpe Avenue and ideally across the infamous interchange.
In November, you can help make this happen. The T-SPLOST referendum is your chance.
The proposed 1 percent Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax allots $4 million for the Prince Avenue corridor that could be dedicated to bike infrastructure, as well as other projects that could become alternative transportation hubs. Design it right, and it will result in an explosion of commuter cycling to downtown and campus from the communities alongside vital arteries. I have seen this happen in numerous cities worldwide. Build it, and they will come—happier and healthier.
Also included in the referendum are $10 million for the the North Oconee River Greenway, $16 million for the Firefly Trail and $6 million for bike infrastructure anywhere in the city. With this investment, the dream can finally be realized. In November, your vote is arguably the most influential one you will make.
Yes, local sales taxes typically hit poorer people harder. However, this transportation SPLOST is the most progressive regressive tax I have seen. Cycling provides poorer people a low-cost transportation alternative. Owning a car costs about $10,000 a year; a bike costs a few hundred dollars. This tax will give the less well-off a safe, convenient way to get to work.
Students will not have to worry about parking. And it will be a welcome change for those of us who need exercise. I know I miss it. For the first time in my adult life, I have been unable to feel safe cycling to work, and it’s a sad statement on the development of Athens when London and New York are safer cycling cities.
A few thousand people will decide if Athens grasps the moment to join the rapidly growing number of bike-friendly cities. You really can make a big difference in November. Please vote “yes” in the referendum.
Ben and Ella Salt are both teachers at Coile Middle School in Athens.
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