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Tales from the tent

IF YOU work for a nonprofit, you may frequently find yourself standing under a 10 x 10 tent in Forsyth Park. That’s where I was last Saturday, along with my colleagues representing dozens of organizations and causes, at the City of Savannah’s annual Earth Day Festival.

Not that I’m complaining. The weather was delightful, especially compared to the damp and chilly conditions that have accompanied the festival in recent years.

The sunny skies had a positive effect on attitudes, because almost everyone I spoke with was enthusiastic about bicycling. That’s not always been the case.

I’ve often felt compelled to check if, while my back was turned, someone attached a “air your grievances about bicyclists here” sign to the front of my tent. Folks would tell me tales of misbehavior by people on bikes and demand to know what I planned to do about it.

(I’ve often wondered if people from AAA are bombarded with reports of speeding, texting, road rage, and other deadly transgressions. Are they challenged to “do something about those crazy drivers” when they set up tents at events?)

I usually nod, agree the cyclists in the stories were not operating their vehicles in the most responsible manner, tell them about the Savannah Bicycle Campaign’s education programs, and gently remind them that the public safety threat posed by scofflaw cycling is miniscule compared to the daily carnage caused by motor vehicle crashes.

After almost a decade of these types of exchanges, I don’t especially enjoy them. However, I must admit I was a little disappointed that no one complained about people riding without lights at night. I’d eagerly tell them SBC is giving away 1,000 bike lights to people who need them.

When we distribute the lights we ask recipients a few questions and the responses are — wait for it — illuminating.

People who are on bikes at night without lights are not the joyriding ninjas some believe them to be. Most are travelling to and from their jobs.

Why don’t they have lights? The majority tell us their lights had been stolen or damaged. They are grateful to get new ones.

Festival attendees were similarly grateful for the free bike valet parking service staffed by SBC volunteers. Instead of trying to lock their bikes to the already jammed racks on Park Avenue or walk their bikes through the festival crowds, they left them at the valet and enjoyed the day.

When people dropped off and claimed their bikes, we talked about cycling in Savannah. A couple from Florida mentioned the 16-mile trail that runs from Tallahassee down to the Gulf of Mexico at St. Marks. They imagined a similar trail from Savannah to Tybee Island would be very popular.

A woman from New York raved about how easy it is to ride in Savannah because we don’t have hills. I assured her we would continue working hard to keep our topography flat.

An older gentleman talked about his electric bicycle and how it had allowed him to ride further and ascend bridges, the closest things we have to hills.

Almost everyone, however, asked the same question: When will Savannah get more bicycle facilities?

There’s no doubt about it, people want more and better bike lanes and trails. And you don’t have to take the word of a guy who stands under a 10 x 10 tent.

A poll of citizens in five Georgia cities (including Savannah) revealed overwhelming support for better infrastructure. The poll, commissioned by Georgia Bikes! and conducted in February by Public Opinion Strategies, found 87 percent of likely voters polled in Savannah favor investment in street improvements that make biking and walking safer and 88 percent favor implementation of the city’s Complete Streets ordinance.

On Saturday people told me the Lincoln Street bike lane is one facility, in particular, that desperately needs improvement. It’s one of the most heavily travelled bicycle corridors in the city, but suffers from a trio of serious problems.

The bike lane is on the wrong side of the street. The pavement, though recently patched in some places, is badly degraded. And it is often occupied by parked cars.

The City’s Traffic Engineering and Streets Maintenance departments hint improvements are coming, but a timetable has not been set.

Earlier in the week I watched a man approach a truck parked in the bike lane. He steered his bike around it, only to have “get in the bike lane!” yelled at him by a guy in a different truck.

Someone recently described the Lincoln Street bike lane as a farce. When I see encounters like this, I can’t say I disagree.