John Bennett is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.
A GROUP OF citizens rode bicycles to Savannah City Hall on March 20 to recognize the City's efforts to make our community more bicycle friendly. The event was held the same week as similar rides to city halls around the state and the annual Georgia Rides to the Capitol event in Atlanta.
Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson and Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague slipped out of a pre-council meeting workshop to address the assemble cyclists and media.
Some of the achievements that helped Savannah earn Bicycle Friendly Community status from the League of American Bicyclists last October — the Washington Avenue and Price Street bike lanes, a dramatic increase in bicycle parking locations, and events to encourage cycling — were mentioned in remarks.
These pleasing developments have all occurred during the last five years, but one person who rode her bike to the event has been working to make Savannah safer and friendlier for bicycles for much longer.
Jane Kahn grew up riding bicycles, but “got serious” about cycling in 1985 when she an her husband joined the Coastal Bicycle Touring Club and “started a love affair with cycling.”
“At one of our first CBTC meetings, a request was made for someone to attend a meeting where the topic of improving Stephenson Avenue was on the agenda. We volunteered,” she said.
And when Khan uses the word “volunteered,” she’s talking about more than just showing up for a meeting.
“When I get involved in something, I tend to do it all the way. So, I went into bicycle advocacy, handlebars first,” she said.
Kahn spent more than a decade serving on the Chatham Urban Transportation Study, now known as the Coastal Region Metropolitan Planning organization, where she focused on the inclusion of bicycle facilities in transportation projects. “Whenever road improvements would come up, my question was, ‘What provisions are being made for bicycles?’ I wasn’t even sure I understood the replies, but I knew that they heard the questions and I knew they were anticipating that question from me,” she said.
Kahn also used connections to state elected officials to advocate for bicycling, but was often referred back to bureaucrats who were uninterested accommodating cyclists. It was a frustrating time for Kahn, as she and other advocates found themselves fighting against rumble strips that made road shoulders unrideable and arguing against poorly designed infrastructure.
“Reactionaries, we were,” she said.
But Kahn began to see glimmer of hope.
“Beginning with Mayor Floyd Adams, the City at least gave lip service to bikes. Frequently he would approach me and say, ‘We’re going to do something’.”
Kahn wound up triggering a lasting change when she contacted Mike Weiner at the city’s traffic engineering department and made a simple request: signs marking designated bike routes.
“A that time there were a couple of mapped bike routes. Imagine my shock when a few weeks later Share the Road signs appeared on Habersham Street, from Stephenson to DeRenne Avenue. To this day, I view those signs as my singular accomplishment as a bicycle advocate.” she said.
Kahn has also advocated for laws requiring helmets for children under 16 and with her husband published a book, “25 Bicycle Tours in Savannah and the Carolina Low Country.”
“Because of our advocacy work, at every chance in the book we have stressed bicycle safety,” she said.
Kahn is encouraged by the latest developments in local cycling advocacy.
She said, “When I first noticed bike lanes on Washington Avenue a few years ago, it suddenly occurred to me that things in Savannah were beginning to happen. ‘Someone is doing something right,’ I observed.”
She’s also noted bike racks on buses, “downtown workers, in sports jackets and skirts, riding to work,” “bike racks located throughout the city,” and year round cycling events organized by the Savannah Bicycle Campaign, CBTC and other organizations.
“And finally, Mayor Jackson welcoming cyclists to City Hall, and suggesting more ways to make Savannah hospitable to bicycles, to visitors and to homefolks,” she said.
Kahn is hoping to see more improvements that link back to her work as a bicycle advocate.
“I don’t know how many years ago we pedaled US Highway 17 to check the conditions of roads and bridges, how long ago we begged for bike lanes on that same highway, or when I signed a petition for a Casey Canal Bikeway,” she said.
“Maybe soon that will be coming to fruition with the Truman Greenway. Maybe those are other seeds we helped to sow, so long ago, just maybe...”