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Looking ahead to good news for mobility options in 2019
Despite ongoing, largely unaddressed issues, there are reasons for hope
This is a hole that consumes most of the Lincoln Street bike lane near Hall Street. The prospect that it and other pavement damage on one of Savannah’s most heavily used bicycle corridors could be repaired in 2019 is reason to welcome the new year.

I OFTEN hear business owners talk about having trouble finding employees who can be counted on to show up on time and ready to work. These laments are usually part of broader concerns over lack of "soft skills," which are particularly important in the hospitality sector.

But there’s another factor involved in workplace punctuality that is not usually mentioned. It’s transportation.

What is a quick and comfortable trip for those of us who commute by car can be a time consuming, unpleasant, unpredictable, and sometimes dangerous slog to work for people who do not have the privilege of driving.

For example, if you live in one of the numerous census tracts in Savannah in which most households do not have consistent access to a dependable car and nearby employment opportunities are scarce, your daily commute may include waiting before dawn at a bus stop that does not have a shelter or even a bench, a long ride through streets congested by single occupant vehicles, then a transfer to another bus accompanied by another wait, followed by a walk of a mile or more through the litter and weeds on the shoulder of a multilane roadway.

After all that, you might have to wait even longer before you’re allowed to clock in.

That’s if you have a shift that begins and ends while the buses are still running. If you’re not so fortunate, you’ll be walking or riding a bike in the early morning or late night darkness on streets that most of us only ever see through our windshields.

While discussions of poverty and unemployment often acknowledge intersections with education, housing, and other factors, we still don’t seem to grasp the link between transportation and economic opportunity.

More useful transit — coupled with safer and more accessible bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure — would allow many more people in our city to find jobs, stay employed, and improve their lives.

If there’s a form of public investment that yields a higher return than expanding mobility options, I’ve yet to find it. It’s discouraging that many people don’t make the connection.

I also become discouraged when I think about the more than 70 percent of streets in Savannah that do not have sidewalks and how long it will take to fill the gaps at the current rate (Hint: It will take more than a century if we don’t pick up the pace).

Or when I take stock of our woefully insufficient bicycle network, which would be an embarrassment in most places but is especially shameful in a city where bikes are the main mode of transportation for so many people.

Yet I’m hopeful that 2019 will be a year of progress. There are multiple opportunities to move in the right direction. Among them:

* Next month Chatham Area Transit will begin a year-long, system-wide redesign of its fixed-route bus network led by Jarrett Walker + Associates. The firm’s work — along with Walker’s blog and his book, “Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives” — have garnered worldwide attention. If there’s anyone who could be credibly described as an international transit planning superstar, it’s probably him.

* While cities around the country have invested heavily in bike lanes and trails, and are reaping the rewards, the City of Savannah has earned the distinct but regrettable status as a city that has done next to nothing for more than six years. The last significant addition to our bicycle transportation network occurred during the administration of Mayor Otis Johnson. It’s true. I’ve checked the calendar. Our long bicycle infrastructure drought could be coming to a close, however, as the city has signaled it’s moving forward with improvements to the Lincoln Street bike lane, which is in terrible condition, and creation of a critically needed east-west bike route on and Liberty and Wheaton streets. Completion of these projects could, at long last, end the city’s neglect of its cycling citizens.

* A group of the smartest and most civically minded people I know has been working for two years on an initiative that will connect neighborhoods, decrease rates of chronic disease, reduce traffic crashes, allow people to travel to work safely and with dignity, and improve quality of life in Savannah from the Southside to River Street. I am not hesitant to predict that if successful, it will become an example used by other cities to expand mobility options, increase connectivity, improve public safety and public health, and make life better for people of all ages, abilities and incomes.

Is that last one cryptic enough for you? Stay tuned for details on what could make 2019 a truly happy new year.