John Bennett is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.
We're No. 24! We're No. 24! Doesn't really have a ring to it, but that's where we are in the League of American Bicyclists 2013 Bicycle Friendly States ranking, released last week.
Ranking criteria include enforcement and legislation along with infrastructure and funding. More specific indicators examine the percentage of the state population that commutes by bike and the existence of particular programs. Each state receives feedback in the form of a state report card.
As recently as 2011, Georgia was ranked way down at No. 40. Last year the Peach State was ranked No. 23, but this year's tick down is probably not the beginning of a slide back into bike unfriendliness.
Brent Buice, executive director of the advocacy group Georgia Bikes!, suggested our state, "has made significant strides toward improving bicycling conditions in the past year," which places it in the No. 4 position among Southern states. Virginia is No. 1 in the region and ranked 16th nationally.
The improvements cited by Buice include the Georgia Department of Transportation's adoption of a "Complete Streets" policy that "integrates bicycle and pedestrian accommodations into most state and federally-funded transportation projects."
The passage of HB101, the "three foot passing law," is also a recent positive development. It codifies the minimum distance between cars and bikes when motorists are overtaking or following cyclists. And that's something to brag about. Even this year's most bicycle friendly state, Washington, is not among the 21 states that have similar laws.
Still, the report card warned that Georgia is "spending a low amount of federal funding on bicyclists and pedestrians." In addition LAB urged the state to, "Dedicate state funding for bicycle projects and programs, especially those focused on safety and eliminating gaps and increasing access for bicycle networks."
Buice identified two major areas the state should focus on to improve cycling in Georgia. The first is adoption of Complete Streets policies at the local level. GDOT's embrace of the concept is monumental, no doubt. "It's a 180 degree change in their approach to transportation," Buice said. However, it's important to remember that transportation planning and investment is "a long range game," he said. "We won't see changes immediately, but they will show up as big projects begin construction."
That's great for projects that fall under the purview of GDOT, but does nothing for transportation improvements undertaken independently by counties and cities. Neighborhood streets are where the rubber meets the road for many cyclists who use their bicycles for transportation and recreation, which is why these policies are vital at the municipal level. Savannah and Chatham County do not have Complete Streets policies.
Comprehensive data collection is another area the state must prioritize, according to Buice. While we do have basic statistics on the number of trips taken by bicycle in the state, we don't know much more about why these trips are taken, their origination and destination points, and other information that would allow Georgia to better accommodate the needs of citizens who are travelling by bike in increasing numbers. Consistent bicycle counts in urban areas is necessary because it, "should drive planning and infrastructure development," he said.
The state's report card also recommended the collection of data "regarding enforcement actions against motorists based on incidents with bicycles, such as traffic tickets issued, prosecutions, or convictions."
Buice encouraged the state's residents to contact state and local officials and express the need for a more serious attention to the needs of people who ride bikes. "They should call or write," he said. Communications with state and local leaders need not be overly "technical or wonky," Buice explained. "They just need to hear that cycling is important."
For those whose busy schedules do not permit them to contact state legislators, city council members or county commissioners, Buice recommended an easier way to help: "An individual cyclist who has interest but no time should join and support their local advocacy organization," he said.
The release of the Bicycle Friendly States report in May is not accidental. May is National Bike Month and this week is National Bike Week. The Savannah Bicycle Campaign is offering a variety of events — including National Bike to Work Day on May 17 and the Play Streets Savannah Bicycle Block Party on May 19, both presented in cooperation with the City of Savannah — designed to encourage Savannahians to make cycling a healthy part of their daily lives.
For more details on these and other events, visit bicyclecampaign.org.