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Like It or Not, People Will Drive Downtown, and We Have to Deal With It

This is the eighth installment in a series of articles by University of Georgia College of Environment and Design professor Jack Crowley. In this series, Crowley explains the downtown Athens master plan effort that his team has generated to guide development downtown.

Contrary to the thinking that gas-guzzling cars and trucks are going away anytime soon, downtown Athens will have them (and welcome them) for years to come. In fact, with urban development trending back toward city centers, a good plan needs to include an appropriate accommodation of the auto. That doesn’t mean at the expense of dramatically improving other forms of transportation including pedestrian. Remember, if you arrive by car, you will become a pedestrian, and if the downtown is designed well, you’ll remain a pedestrian until all of your errands and fun are done. 

Plan or not, the downtown will grow considerably in the next 20 years. The question is, will it be with quality, beauty and economic resilience? Building an excellent network of other forms of transportation allows those living near the downtown to get there without a car. Doing so will free up street and parking spaces for those wanting to come from farther away. 

Then there are those who will live in the downtown and leave their cars at home. Residential development presently proposed or under construction will double the population of the downtown to about 4,000. It will easily double again in the next 10 years, barring another crisis on Wall Street. That’s about 6,000 more people downtown.


Photo Credit: Jack Crowley

The streets element of the plan is to make it easier for the visitor in a car to quickly find a parking space, get out and enjoy walking. The bicycle hasn’t been mentioned here, because the plan’s goal is to get riders to and from the downtown, allowing them to mix on the streets, with all vehicles generally traveling at similar speeds.

To comfortably accommodate the car, downtown lane widths of 11 feet are recommended everywhere. Whenever street reconstruction projects such as Clayton are scheduled, their designs should capture excess street widths for wider sidewalks, medians and landscaped areas. With the exception of narrow streets like Hull and Lumpkin, it is surprising how much space can be repurposed for quality pedestrian space without sacrificing auto access.

If you are walking around downtown, you will see many places where streets have islands painted in the middle or at intersections, where parking is prohibited to protect traffic sight lines. These islands and intersections can be curbed and planted to form “corner bump-out” and middle-of-the-street pedestrian refuges, just like the Broad Street crossing at the Arch. In fact, the opportunity exists to mirror the Broad Street crossing at the Arch by beginning another one at Starbucks. This crossing, with a center refuge, also creates a new opportunity to build a sloping sidewalk entry to the North Quad that bypasses the steps at the Arch and meets Americans with Disabilities Act standards. This second crossing would not affect the traffic light or turning movements from College Avenue.

The plan also recommends a very important new auto and pedestrian access point to the downtown in connecting the southern end of Pulaski Street (at Broad Street) to the northern end of Florida Street (at Waddell). The new connection involves acquiring a tract of land on Broad, moving a UGA residential/office structure and the replacement of two Parkview Homes residential structures when the Athens Housing Authority is ready to renovate or upgrade that facility. The roadway, which would include a wide bicycle/pedestrian path, will serve to connect thousands of dormitory residents on Baxter Hill, as well as the rapidly expanding UGA West Campus, to the west end of downtown. It also completes a downtown-North Campus perimeter road system that includes Pulaski, Dougherty Street/North Avenue, Thomas Street/East Campus Road and Broad Street. It also provides an important chance to extend the Pulaski Street designation south all the way to Baxter Street, thus ridding UGA of a short, one-block long, troublesome road named Florida!

Washington, a dead-end street only five blocks in length, does not need three lanes. Two lanes are more than enough, and it should be a two-way street as well. Those are two different decisions that should follow a detailed design study when the street is scheduled for major repairs. 

Someone will worry about where the delivery trucks will park. If you remove the middle driving lane and add all of its width to the sidewalk space along the south side of the street (as the plan generally recommends) and you don’t clutter the added space with planting or furniture, it can continue to serve as a delivery space during designated times. At other times, it’s a nice, clear pedestrian space that can accommodate festivals and licensed street vendors. 

While the space can accommodate today’s delivery vehicles, we must transition our delivery system to smaller vehicles, as they’ve done elsewhere in the world for years. We’ll talk later about transferring large loads to smaller vehicles under the Classic Center parking deck, but we simply have to transition away from delivery trucks the size of earth movers in the middle of downtown streets.

There is a very viable improvement that can be made on the Dougherty Street corridor. Public lands along the north side can be added to the street width to allow for landscaped medians. There is space to convert the North Avenue and Thomas Street intersection to a traffic circle that will also serve as a significant gateway at the downtown’s northeast corner. 

Artists will salivate over the prospects of their creations being featured in the circle’s center. I think that it should be reserved for a large statue of whoever is the sitting mayor. That way, each morning we will get a good political poll based on the ratios of positive to negative graffiti placed there the night before.