NewsNews Features

Are Athens’ Streets Safe Enough for Walkers and Cyclists?

A local artist clipped by an allegedly drunk driver as she rode her bike at night. A high school student hit as she crossed busy Milledge Avenue. A young visitor struck by a man who police say was leaving downtown after a night of drinking. Three recent high-profile incidents illustrate yet again why it may not be as safe to walk or bike in Athens as it should be. 

It’s hard to know what might have prevented a likely drunk driver from mowing down a pedestrian in mid-February, then ditching his truck and running away, according to police. At 3 a.m. the victim was walking on Oak Street’s shoulder because there is no sidewalk on that side of the road. Pedestrians have beaten a clear path beside the busy four-lane road, but Athens-Clarke County Transportation and Public Works Director David Clark points out that, “if there were a sidewalk there, the car probably would have hit her on the sidewalk.”

The victim, 19-year-old Emily Bowman of Woodstock, only came out of a coma last week. After a weeks-long investigation, police arrested William Wilson Heaton, 22, of Cartersville, and accused him of DUI, leaving the scene of an accident and other charges.  

James Barlament, a researcher at the University of Georgia College of Public Health, sifts state statistics on bike and pedestrian accidents. Clarke County averages more than 55 pedestrian accidents a year, he says.  Broad Street, Lumpkin Street, Prince Avenue, Baxter Street and Lexington Road are statistically the most dangerous. While most injuries are not very serious, there were 16 deaths between 2006 and 2010. Drinking is often an issue, and so is night visibility, Barlament says. Most pedestrians die while crossing a street—usually not at a crosswalk—and most die after dark.

That’s how Grace Byrne, a Clarke Central High School student, suffered a traumatic brain injury—crossing Milledge Avenue on foot mid-block Jan. 11. Police have charged Joseph Potash, 22, with driving illegally in the center turn lane and driving on a suspended license. Meanwhile, Byrne is undergoing rehabilitation after weeks in intensive care.

Three weeks earlier, just before Christmas, Stacey-Marie Piotrowski was riding her bike along Talmadge Drive when she was hit by a car, suffering severe leg and hip injuries (Matthew Bryan Andrews, 29, faces a DUI charge). Statistically, for bicyclists, Lumpkin Street is the most dangerous, especially at Baxter street, Barlament says. Athens averages about one bike fatality per year.

Overall, 15 people died in motor vehicle collisions in Athens in 2011 and 10 in 2012; 13 of those deaths were related to alcohol, according to Fred Stephens, assistant chief of the ACC Police Department. “We believe that our continued focus enforcement efforts which include extra patrols, vehicle check points and saturation patrols are making a difference,” Stephens says. “Officers are also attentive to school zones and conduct public service child car seat safety restraint checks.”

Jeff Montgomery of ACC’s public information office says his office has “talked in the past” about doing a pedestrian safety campaign but has never undertaken one. Barlament thinks “there probably needs to be a sidewalk” on Oak Street, where Bowman was hit.

Athens-Clarke county is playing catchup on building sidewalks. Most older, intown streets were built with sidewalks, but beginning in the early 1960s, many subdivisions did not include them. In recent years, ACC (with the support of BikeAthens as well Clark) has increased funding for sidewalks to unprecedented levels—about $4 million over the next seven years, funded by a 1 percent local sales tax voters approved in 2010. But Oak Street, like other numbered state and federal highways, seems to have fallen through the cracks.  

“It’s on the list, but we don’t actively fund those at this time,” Clark says. “It’s on the state highway system,” so it’s up to the state to fund it. But the state is unlikely to do so, he adds. “In the past, GDOT has not funded a sidewalk-only project. They build sidewalks when they’re part of a larger road project.”  

Department of Transportation spokeswoman Teri Pope notes that long stretches of U.S. Highway 78—Lexington Road, Oak, Oconee and Broad streets and Atlanta Highway—have sidewalks already, but the right-of-way is very narrow on some stretches. The department’s policy is to build sidewalks only as part of other construction projects and only on roads where the speed limit is 45 miles per hour or less; any faster, and it’s a safety hazard to mix pedestrians and cars, she says.

If they chose to, ACC commissioners could spend local sidewalk money on state roads, but they have deferred to a points system devised by Clark to decide where to build them. That system gives points for “evidence of pedestrian traffic,” proximity to schools and businesses, transit accessibility, and to a lesser extent eight other factors (but not accident history) to whittle down a list of over 100 sidewalk proposals that have been suggested by citizens and county staffers  In practice, the sidewalk projects chosen have often been along suburban roads like Timothy and Whit Davis roads. Clark doesn’t know how many points Oak Street would get, because it’s a state road and hasn’t been evaluated.

The ACC Planning Department recommended “enhanced pedestrian facilities including midblock crosswalks”—perhaps with “refuge islands” for pedestrians in the middle of the street—in the Oak/Oconee street corridor study completed last January. No action has been taken yet on that year-old report, but Oak/Oconee will likely be the first Athens corridor to “test” the recently passed “complete streets” policy, ACC Senior Planner Bruce Lonnee says. The Complete Streets policy makes official an intent to “accommodate all users” (including pedestrians, the elderly, bicyclists, disabled persons, and transit users) by providing “accessible sidewalks, curb ramps, crosswalks, countdown pedestrian signals, signs, median refuges, curb extensions, pedestrian-scale lighting, bike lanes, shoulders and bus shelters” when designing street changes.  

The policy’s only specific requirement is that “paved shoulders or a multiâ€use path” will be added whenever rural roads are repaved, but ACC commissioners have asked the Planning Department to apply the policy to making specific plans for the Oak/Oconee street corridor, Lonnee says. 

“The Mayor and Commission have asked staff to look at Oak/Oconee street as the first corridor to test the [complete streets] policy,” he says.   

That could include streetscape changes like trees, sidewalks and bicycle lanes, plus lighting and signage, zoning and other issues suggested in the corridor study. It’s complicated by the fact that any street changes will require the cooperation of GDOT, not just local government. And it won’t happen until perhaps next winter because planners are presently working out a new zoning category for Prince Avenue to limit large developments.

Proposals like bike lanes have long been a political hot potato on Prince Avenue, the subject of another recent corridor study. “I was hit by a car two years ago 100 yards from here. The driver was negligent, but it was because of Prince’s design,” BikeAthens board member Hunter Garrison said last week at a neighborhood forum in the old firehall occupied by the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation.