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Making Savannah better for bicycles
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“The businessman rides his bike to work!” a man shouted cheerfully from the sidewalk as I approached the intersection.
He was mostly right: I’m not a businessman, but I was riding to my job just as I have almost every workday for the last several years.

And I’m not alone. Figures from the US Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey reveal that bicycle commuting has increased 43 percent since 2000.

Still, I know that with my necktie flapping in the breeze as I ride to work, I’m something of a curious sight. Strangers, friends and coworkers alike often question my choice of conveyance and I have reasons at the ready.

Cycling is good for my health, it’s an expression of my belief in the importance of protecting our natural environment and preserving our historic places, and it’s fun. In times like these, however, bicycle commuting provides another immediately identifiable benefit.

“I bet you’re really saving on gas,” another stranger recently told me. And he was right.

To use a clichéd phrase popular on TV news, I’m largely unaware of the “pain at the pump” my fellow citizens feel because I drive so infrequently.

I understand that fuel prices affect the cost of almost all goods and services, but since I’m not regularly compelled to report to a gas station and pour money into a hole on the side of my car, I feel somewhat insulated from price fluctuations.

And the financial advantages of bicycling don’t end there. My most expensive bicycle repair bill was still substantially less than my cheapest car repair invoice.

Bicycling has not only helped me save money, it’s changed the way I spend money. I once chided a person by suggesting that he was letting his car tell him where to shop, after he complained that he stopped patronizing a local business because he had difficulty finding a parking space.

I was not only being insufferably smug, but a hypocrite, too.

Truth is I let my bike tell me where to shop. It usually steers away from big box chain stores surrounded by acres of parking lots on bicycle unfriendly streets and toward smaller, locally owned businesses. If a store or restaurant is on a bicycle route or has bicycle parking, I’m even more likely to stop in.

Here too, my behavior is increasingly common. Economic impact studies in cities all over North America confirm that businesses benefit from investments in bicycle infrastructure. Also, research from Toronto published in 2009 shows that people who used bicycles to reach stores on a commercial corridor spent more money there each month than those who drove.

And then there’s the largely untapped market of bicycle tourism, which would have significant economic benefits for Savannah if we became serious about attracting visitors who would rather see Savannah and surrounding areas from behind their handlebars than behind the wheel.

I recognize that many of my fellow citizens don’t have the option to commute or shop by bicycle. Some live in neighborhoods designed so that cars are the only way in or out. I recognize that I’m extremely fortunate to live within bikeable distance of my workplace and other destinations.

And, most importantly, I recognize that what is a choice for me is a necessity for many of my fellow citizens, who rely on their bicycles as their sole means of transportation.

Some resourceful folks combine bicycle use with public transportation to get where they need to go. Yet despite their resourcefulness, these cyclists are some of the most vulnerable road users.

Continued investment in bicycle infrastructure will not only improve their safety, but can also empower them economically by providing better access to employment, while helping them avoid the high costs of car ownership.

The city of Savannah, through its department of mobility and parking, has made great strides in creating new bicycle facilities and parking. The good news is the benefits of investing in bicycling accrue to everyone in the community, not just cyclists.

Local businesses — including the tourism sector — stand to reap the benefits of better bicycle infrastructure, which when properly designed and constructed, does not discriminate. It can be just as useful to the affluent tourist as it is to the working person who’s trying to get to his or her job on time.

Bicycles make Savannah better. But first we need to make Savannah better for bicycles.

John Bennett is vice chairman of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign