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Decision on Making Prince Safety Project Permanent Coming Dec. 13

Credit: Suzanne Evans

Love it or hate it, you probably have an opinion on what Athens-Clarke County has done to Prince Avenue.

The 60-day pilot project temporarily adding a center turn lane and protected bike lanes to the locally owned stretch of Prince between Milledge Avenue and Pulaski Street in place of two car lanes is coming to an end, and the ACC Commission is scheduled to vote Tuesday, Dec. 13 on whether to make the changes permanent. 

The ACC government received mixed reviews among the 1,600 public comments on the project. It was popular among those who bike and walk along the corridor but, predictably, less so among drivers, even though traffic data collected during the project showed that it didn’t cause long delays. 

“There were a wide variety of opinions,” Jared Draper, a consultant with Kimley-Horn, said at a Dec. 6 commission work session. That applied to both Prince residents and those who live elsewhere.

In summarizing the public comments, consultants and county officials told commissioners that respondents perceived traffic as calmer, which some considered a positive and some a negative, mainly due to disagreement over whether Prince is a neighborhood street or a highway intended to bring motorists downtown.

“Cycling and walking around here feels much safer than previously,” wrote one commenter. “I would always worry about getting hit or doored by a parked car. Basically I would almost never ride on Prince. Now I ride almost every day.”

Another wrote: “It has always felt like a free-for-all crazy zone. Never felt safe there crossing the street, sitting outside at The Grit or even at Hendershot’s. The pilot layout seems to have created a buffer zone between sidewalk and the traffic, which makes me more comfortable walking. More comfortable as a driver now, there, as well.”

Others favored the view from behind a windshield. “This isn’t some quaint little New England street,” one person wrote. “It’s a major thoroughfare servicing downtown Athens.” Another concluded that, “Athens is not Amsterdam, Netherlands.”

One like-minded commenter wrote that the person who came up with the idea should be demoted to custodian. “Traffic is horrible,” they wrote. “Why would anyone make one of the busiest streets in Athens one lane?”

Asked to rate the project from 0–5, with 0 being “makes the neighborhood much worse” and 5 being “makes the neighborhood much better,” 15% of respondents rated it a 0, about 25% rated it a 1, and about 35% rated it a 5.

The percentage of people who thought Prince was a safe place to drive before the pilot project fell from about 75% to 40% after the project. But only about 25% thought it was safe to bike before, compared to 55% after. Those who felt it was safe to walk fell slightly but stayed around 50%.

The way people traveled on Prince made a difference in their responses. Those who walk felt the pilot made it safer for pedestrians, compared to those who didn’t walk. The difference was even more stark between cyclists and non-cyclists: Almost 90% of respondents who’d actually biked the street felt the pilot project made it safer. The project also became more popular as users got used to it, with more rating it as safer during the last three weeks than the first three weeks.

Traffic data collected before and during the pilot project showed that drivers’ concerns were largely unfounded. Morning commute times actually fell slightly, while the project delayed drivers for less than 30 seconds during lunchtime and afternoon peaks. The data showed a slight decrease in speeds along most of the corridor and only a slight increase in cut-through traffic on surrounding side streets.

“One of the things that stood out to me is that [the] level of service remains largely unaffected or improved at certain points,” Shirelle Hallum, ACC’s newly hired Vision Zero safety specialist charged with reducing deadly crashes, said at a meeting of the transportation advisory committee Athens in Motion last week. “On average, there was really no impact on how quickly cars were able to move through that section of the corridor.”

Some specific concerns included gameday traffic, the sharpness of the turn from Pulaski onto Prince and difficulty getting out of the 100 Prince development in a car. Commenters also asked for a left-turn signal onto Milledge and for the bike lanes to extend further west. However, that’s up to the Georgia Department of Transportation, which owns Prince (aka Highway 129) west of Milledge.

If the commission votes to make the pilot project permanent, ACC will add a flashing beacon at the mid-block crosswalk near the Bottleworks, fix the bike box and remove the transit stop at Pulaski, and repair the temporary “zipper” bike-lane buffers and eventually replace them with concrete, SPLOST project manager Diana Jackson told commissioners. Those would be completed by next summer.

“I’ve really appreciated the transformation,” said Commissioner Melissa Link, who lives in the Buena Vista neighborhood and regularly walks, bikes and drives along Prince. But she raised concerns about drivers running over and dislodging the zippers. The new ones won’t pop up so easily, Jackson said.

“It’s just a testament to how reckless people drive,” Link said. “It’s my hope that a project like this will wake people up to how terrible their driving is.”

Mayor Kelly Girtz put the project in the context of a larger transportation network. An upcoming bike-lane project on Barber Street will connect downtown and Boulevard to the burgeoning entertainment district along Chase Street and Newton Bridge Road, and eventually to Sandy Creek Nature Center and the North Oconee River Greenway, he said.

Commissioner Allison Wright, however, said the narrower vehicle lanes on Prince “are like threading a needle.” She was also concerned about ACC’s liability for damage to vehicles; Jackson said three claims have been filed.