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Clean transit is part of a clean energy plan
Decades spent maximizing convenience for motorists has produced streets that encourage drivers to speed. To make environmentally friendly transportation modes more appealing, safety improvements must be prioritized.

RENEWABLE energy was a hot topic inside the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah Feb. 18 as more than a hundred people gathered to hear panelists — including two City Council members — discuss ways the city of Savannah can use 100 percent clean energy by 2035.

There was quite a bit of energy in the room, too, especially after a rousing call to action by Dr. Mildred McClain, executive director of Harambee House/Citizens for Environmental Justice.

The event was organized by a coalition of environmental groups, churches, businesses, civic groups, non-profit organizations, and citizens who believe the City of Savannah should pass a resolution to transition to clean energy.

Residential and commercial solar, offshore wind farms, and energy efficient lightbulbs were all offered as tools to reach the 100 percent clean energy goal.

The transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States (29 percent) according to the Environmental Protection Agency, so the topic of how we get around town was fair game.

Audience members submitted questions in advance and the first one read was about efforts to increase bicycling, walking, and transit use. While at least one panelist presumed the question had been posed by Bike Walk Savannah Executive Director Caila Brown, it belonged to Scott Anderson.

“We can do better, and unlike most things people ask their government for, this is actually very inexpensive,” Anderson told me after the meeting. 

And he’s right. Compared with other types of transportation infrastructure, bike lanes and similar projects are a bargain.

“As I have been told over the years by transportation planner after transportation planner, few things are as cheaply done as ‘moving paint,’ as they say in the trade,” he said.

Anderson said transit improvements were also critical, especially if we expect people to make environmentally friendly transportation choices. He used his own trip to the meeting as an example.

If he had taken the 14 Abercorn bus, he wouldn’t have arrived back at home for more than an hour after the meeting concluded, even though he lives only three miles from the church.

“We can do a lot better with bus service than what we’re doing now. That will be harder and costlier, but if we’re really serious about reducing our impact on the planet, it has got to be done,” he said.

Or as Vice President Joe Biden would say, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

While the city has upped its investment in bicycle lanes and sidewalks in recent years, and is heading in the right direction with its support of the Tide to Town urban trail system, like most other cities in U.S. it spent almost a century and mountains of money to maximize convenience for those of us who are privileged to drive.

To speed commutes, we’ve created streets that are dangerous to people who travel by foot or on bike. We’ve sacrificed irreplaceable historic structures to make driving quick and parking easy.

And still we are not satisfied. Our driving and parking habits are hard to break.

Outcry over the loss of even a few on-street parking spots can scuttle bike lane projects. Adding even a minute to average commute times can doom street calming initiatives. Street designs that discourage speeding can derail efforts to improve safety.

Again, these are not Savannah-specific scenarios. These challenges are faced everywhere by people who are trying to capture the public health, public safety, economic, and environmental benefits of expanding transportation choices.

The good news for us is even modest progress will deliver significant results. That’s because when it comes to walkability and bikeability, we are miles ahead of many communities in Georgia.

I was reminded of that earlier this month when I presented at a conference organized by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety to “promote education and awareness to young adults about highway safety issues, including underage drinking, impaired driving, distracted driving, and other high-risk behaviors, in order to decrease crashes, injuries, and fatalities.”

Some of the attendees were a bit puzzled by my presence and unsure what a bicycle safety presentation had to do with reducing traffic crashes. One struggled to recall if she had ever even seen a person riding a bicycle on the streets of her town.

Many were surprised when I described the number of people who commute by bike in Savannah and other cities. Several seemed resigned that they had a long way to go to catch up with us.

A college student from a suburb north of Atlanta saw little hope for her community, which she described as being trapped in cars, trapped in traffic, and trapped in old ways of thinking.