FOLKS WHO stayed in Savannah during recent hurricanes may have experienced a familiar feeling last Friday. After Hurricane Matthew, in particular, a sort of quiet camaraderie developed among those who remained.
In the first few days after the storm, the weather was mercifully mild and the streets were mostly devoid of motor vehicle traffic. People were out and about on bicycles, surveying the damage and socializing with neighbors.
But then, Gov. Nathan Deal lifted the evacuation order and cars streamed back into Chatham County on the Sunday following the storm.
I got that Sunday feeling on Friday afternoon while riding my bike in Habersham Village, where car and truck traffic seemed to have increased significantly from only the day before.
A driver passed me with about two feet to spare between his car and my left elbow, then abruptly hit the brakes and swung into a parking spot in front of the Red & White. He was on his phone, of course, just like normal.
It’s clear some residents have interpreted Gov. Brian Kemp’s lifting of the shelter-in-place order on Friday as an all-clear, as if Hurricane Rona encountered a strong high-pressure system and had been steered back out to sea.
Yet just east of the frenetic vibe on Habersham Street, I found an entirely different world. I pedaled north for about a mile on Atlantic Avenue and saw only two cars in motion.
Instead, I encountered dozens of people, walking, running, biking, and rolling. They seemed happy and healthy. They were sociable, but also socially distanced.
I hope we’ll hold on to this. Like everyone else, I’m eager to get back to “normal,” but we must recognize that what was normal before — when it comes to the way we configure and use our streets — was not so good.
In fact, the situation was dangerous and even deadly for too many people and especially for those who walk, bike, and roll for daily transportation. I also recognize the idyllic scenes in my neighborhood are a product of privilege.
Many Savannahians must travel streets that are unsafe and unfriendly every day, pandemic or not.
Still, when there is very little good news to be found, it’s encouraging to see so many people out getting healthy exercise and getting where they need to go under their own power. What’s more, sustaining elevated levels of recreation and active transportation after the pandemic can accelerate an economic recovery.
Some predict a massive infrastructure investment component will be included in a future stimulus package. If the aim is to put people back to work, widening highways is not the way to go.
We’ve known for almost a decade that bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects create significantly more jobs than infrastructure projects for cars alone. According to an oft-quoted 2011 study, these projects create 46 percent more jobs than automobile-only projects.
Investing in bike lanes, sidewalks, trails, and paths also provides much more bang for the buck. Portland, Oregon’s extensive and enviable network of bike lanes and trails was constructed for about the same cost as one mile of urban freeway.
Additional research released last week, “Understanding Economic and Business Impacts of Street Improvements for Bicycle and Pedestrian Mobility - A Multi-City Multi-Approach Exploration,” found adding improvements like bike lanes largely boosted business and employment at shops and restaurants.
“I think that it is very significant that we found that positive business outcomes to the food service and retail industries on these corridors are persistent, even when we looked at different data metrics on employment or sales or when different analytical methods are utilized,” said Jenny Liu, one of the study’s principle investigators.
After the pandemic, will we be content to return to “normal,” or will we want something better for us and better for local businesses?
Mike Maynor thinks people’s attitudes are changing for the better. The owner of Savannah’s Quality Bike Shop said his customers have included, “everyone from kids and families to people who, before the pandemic, never thought about riding bikes.”
“I think people are seeing the connectivity that a bicycle brings to the community and will continue after the pandemic,” he said. “There will be a rise in demand for safe streets and trails because of the increased volume of people participating in not only biking, but running and other outdoor activities.”
On a webinar hosted by the East Coast Greenway Alliance on May 4, Terry Landreth of the Camden Bicycle Center in St. Marys said his bike shop has also been busy serving people of, “all backgrounds and ages.”
He hopes his new customers, who’ve now discovered bicycling for physical and mental health, will become advocates for trails and greenways.
Before the Pandemic, he said, trails and greenways were sometimes regarded as novelties.
“Today and after COVID-19 I hope everyone sees them as a necessity for your community,” Landreth said.