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Clocking neighborhood speed – and opinion
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John Bennett is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.

IT'S TOO late for this year, but I'm already thinking ahead to next Christmas. If you're wondering what to give me, Santa, I'd like a radar gun.

I know it’s an unusual request from someone who is neither a traffic cop nor a baseball scout, so let me explain.

The posted speed limit on my usually quiet street is 25 miles per hour, but from my front porch vantage point I often see cars travelling at what appears to be twice that speed. They are definitely going fast — way too fast for a residential street — but exactly how fast I can only guess.

What I am sure of is that neighborhood cats have fallen victim to speeders and parked cars have been sideswiped.

The radar gun wouldn’t solve the problem, of course, but it would help me document its severity. In order to reduce speeding on my street, I’d need to organize a neighborhood committee and work with city officials to develop and implement a plan.

My neighbor who hollers, “slow down!” at passing cars (I admit I’ve done this, too) would be up for it, I’m certain. Pretty straightforward, right?

In truth, solving the problem through street design modifications collectively known as “traffic calming,” will certainly take years. Possibly decades. If it ever happens at all.

Even after a neighborhood committee and traffic engineers come to a consensus on what to do — and that takes time — city policy requires another hurdle must be overcome.

“The neighborhood committee is responsible for securing the support of more than half of the residents in the neighborhood,” explained Michelle Strickland, the city’s traffic engineering coordinator, at a Dec. 11 city council work session.

This is when traffic calming efforts usually come to a screeching halt. The signatures are required even to install inexpensive temporary treatments, designed to demonstrate the intended effects and identify problems, before permanent modifications are put in place.

Collecting signatures for an entire neighborhood, not just from residents on affected streets, can be a “nightmare” for neighborhood leaders and city officials according to Alderman Mary Ellen Sprague.

During the work session, she said she hears from residents who, “put in all this time and effort developing these fantastic plans, then they get stuck. They are asking us to change the policy or do something to get them unstuck.”

Part of the problem is the open ended nature of the process. City Manager Stephanie Cutter suggested the sequence of events in the process could be tweaked to prompt citizen input. She recommended that the installation of temporary measures should be deployed before signatures are collected, followed by direct mail to residents asking for their input.

Several council members and Mayor Edna Jackson signaled their support for the idea. This could make the process easier.

Still, even to earn a place on the city’s list of areas that need traffic calming, a street must survive the city’s “Traffic Calming Score Matrix.”

The matrix determines the need for traffic calming based on measurable data, rather than the decibel level of squeaky wheels like me.

“We did not want traffic calming to happen only in neighborhoods with strong neighborhood associations,” Sprague said, explaining the function of the matrix, which assigns points based on the prevalence of speeding, traffic volume, crash history, roadway geometry, and the presence of parks, schools, stores and other facilities that attract pedestrians.

If a street scores high enough, it will be ranked on a list with other candidates for the six step Traffic Calming Engagement process that is intended to conclude with the installation of permanent traffic calming measures, but more often ends when residents give up trying.

So what about less complicated solutions such as stop signs? Director of Traffic Engineering Michael Weiner began his traffic calming presentation to council with an emphatic declaration that this and similar quick fixes are not effective.

Speed enforcement by police? Even in school zones this doesn’t offer consistent results.

“In our discussions with parents and teachers, speeding is identified as a major factor that prevents students from walking or riding their bikes to school,” said Paula Kreissler of Healthy Savannah.

She and her colleagues have met with PTAs at schools throughout the city to identify ways to encourage active transportation, which research links not only to better health but improved academic performance.

And there is much more to be gained by using traffic calming to make neighborhoods more walkable. A study just published in Cities, the international journal of urban policy and planning, affirmed that walkability increases property values, while also reducing crime and lowering foreclosure rates.

Who wouldn’t sign on for results like that?