“… the discussion these days is not…a lack of awareness about what needs to be done, but rather a complete disconnect between that awareness and the actions of those responsible for the physical form of our communities.” — Jeff Speck, Walkable City
When you’re walking through downtown Athens, you know to look up at the crosswalks signal for your cue to cross the street. Each intersection will automatically change from “don’t walk” to “walk” as the traffic signals change. And crosswalks with countdowns let you know how long you have to cross safely.
It would make sense, then, that the intersection at Pulaski and Hancock Streets would follow this model — as it has for years. After all, Hancock is a major east-west route through downtown, and many drivers, cyclists and walkers see this as a sort of “gateway” to the downtown core.
ACC transportation and Public Works recently installed new crossing signal push buttons at this intersection, requiring that pedestrians “request” (or, in the industry, “beg”) for a walk signal.
According to David Clark, ACC’s director of transportation and public works, the buttons were installed to shave 10-15 seconds per cycle from the wait time for autos. But those savings come at a direct cost to pedestrians; if you don’t get to the button before the light changes, you’ll have to wait an entire cycle to get a walk signal. With the switch of a button, this intersection now prioritizes the movement of cars over people, which is likely to increase pedestrians crossing at inappropriate times and/or places.
If we weren’t sure that cars had the priority before, this change ends the discussion. Pedestrian safety in Athens-Clarke County is an afterthought to moving cars.
With hundreds more students now living downtown, this is the opposite of what we should be doing. We should be creating a pedestrian-friendly environment that encourages walking. People won’t walk if it’s not safe and comfortable, and installing beg buttons on downtown intersections makes it less safe and less comfortable to do so.
It’s also important to note that as a pedestrian, if you are crossing the street without a “walk” signal and you are hit by a car, you are at fault. We saw this scenario play out recently on Hawthorne Avenue at Old West Broad Street, where a pedestrian was struck and killed while navigating that awkward intersection within the crosswalk. No charges have been filed against the driver because the pedestrian did not have a walk signal.
It is up to our commission to decide if they want a walkable community. And it’s up to you to let them know walkability is important to you — they certainly aren’t going to push for it unless you demand it.