Letters to the EditorNews

Speak Out on Sidewalks

Athens-Clarke County staff is considering two initiatives that will affect almost every neighborhood in Athens: prioritization of sidewalk construction and improvements to ACC roadways with high incidences of bike and pedestrian versus car crashes. These two impending changes provide unique opportunities to create a cultural shift in the way our local government addresses transportation infrastructure. We are asking for your help to make sure you and your neighbors have a say in these decision-making processes.

ACC’s sidewalk construction relies to a large extent on citizen requests, with new sidewalks prioritized using a rigid 11-point assessment that, as the city’s own policies state, “tends to favor sidewalk sections along major thoroughfares and not within neighborhoods.” ACC funds just over one mile of new sidewalk construction per year. At current funding levels, it will take about 20 years just to get through the backlog, assuming nobody makes a new request.

With funds becoming available from SPLOST 2011 and other sources, staff is reconsidering how those funds should be allocated. We propose the following be considered to shift the focus of our sidewalk construction policy:

• Set goals: ACC should set goals not only for sidewalk-miles built each year, but also where community priorities lie.

• Provide a mechanism for meaningful public input: Sidewalks, like neighborhood traffic management, should be driven from the ground up whenever possible, through residents and our elected officials. This may require that staff assist less-organized neighborhoods to understand and participate in the process, while advocating on behalf of streets for which no obvious neighborhood ownership exists, such as Lexington Road.

• Define “need” in more flexible terms: Understanding that safety, growth pressures and connectivity are all issues to be considered.

• Streamline our code: Address regulations where inconsistencies create or exacerbate bike/pedestrian safety issues, including minimum parking requirements and commercial developments that push traffic to neighborhood streets.

• Allow flexibility: Not all sidewalks need to be the same. Some can be more like pathways. Others can use easements instead of buying a right-of-way. Each street has its own characteristics. So should its sidewalks.

• Create incentives for business to help: How can we encourage builders to go above and beyond in sidewalk construction?

As for improvements to the roads with the highest bike/pedestrian-versus-car crashes, ACC Manager Blaine Williams has suggested a “road safety audit” (RSA) for each segment of the city’s most dangerous roads. Road safety audits can be a powerful tool. For example, Complete Streets Athens and BikeAthens had representation on the Georgia Department of Transportation’s RSA of Prince Avenue. We only wish that the numerous recommendations had received more of a public vetting.

Williams proposes that the teams who conduct the road safety audits be “…made up [of] staff from: Traffic Engineering, Engineering, Streets and Drainage, ACC Police Department, Transit, T&PW Administration.” Unfortunately this list of participants doesn’t include residents or advocacy groups such as Complete Streets Athens, BikeAthens or Safe Routes to School. We believe that road safety audit teams should include all three, in addition to staff, and that members should be appointed by the affected district’s commissioner. Including citizen appointments brings the process closer to ground level and brings elected officials into the mix.

We are proud of the work that Athens-Clarke County staff does, but we also believe that citizens should have more opportunity to participate in the process, at the very least to assist in defining problem areas. We welcome the opportunity road safety audits can provide in identifying needs, reducing crash rates and increasing citizen involvement in shaping neighborhood streets. We encourage you to speak up to make it happen. Please, call or write your commissioner today.