Who gets priority: Cars, bikes or pedestrians? (A letter to our officials)

The following letter was sent from Complete Streets Athens to the acting city manager, mayor and commission in response to a letter sent to Commissions Link regarding crosswalk changes at Old West Broad Street and Pulaski/Hancock.


Dear Madam Mayor and Commissioners:

Thank you for last night’s vote on Dougherty restriping. We applaud everyone involved in the process. While this is a giant step in the right direction, we are still compelled to respond to Acting Manager Williams’ response to Commissioner Link’s request for information about the installation of “beg buttons” at Pulaski and Hancock.

It is unfortunate that our analysis of the change at Pulaski and Hancock is being interpreted as emotional or critical of staff. We do not believe staff has a covert agenda to favor cars.

We do believe, however, that that when traffic management decisions are made without basis in a strong and comprehensive Complete Streets Policy, cars receive first priority. In this case, we believe that the decision to install “beg buttons” at Pulaski and Hancock favors autos at the expense of pedestrians in an area — the Central Business District (CBD) — where we should be working to encourage pedestrian traffic.

As Acting Manager Williams pointed out in his response, “the Mayor and Commission certainly have the prerogative to develop other policies to direct staff actions, should you so desire.”

We agree that a robust discussion of goals and traffic management plans for the CBD and neighborhoods near commercial nodes, in the context of our Complete Streets Policy, is warranted. We welcome the opportunity to do so. Our email series Death by 1,000 Cuts is intended to advance and inform that discussion by illustrating how seemingly minor traffic management decisions affect Athenians every day. This is a bigger issue than beg buttons and the discussion should be more comprehensive as well.

Three specific points raised in Acting Manager Williams’ response to our most recent installment warrant further consideration:

“Actuated [weight activated] traffic signals became the Georgia standard for traffic signal operation in the late 1960s with the advent of in-pavement loop detectors. More recently, video detection has been integrated into actuated traffic signal operations and has become more reliable.”

Actuated traffic signals serve one purpose — to promote efficient vehicle traffic — and are best suited to suburban and rural areas. The National Association of City Transportation Officials states that actuated signals are NOT appropriate for urban areas. They write, “Fixed-time signals are recommended in all downtown areas, central business districts, and urban areas in which pedestrians are anticipated or desired…Use of semi- or fully-actuated signal operations should mainly be restricted to suburban arterials and rural roads.”

“congestion…has a negative effect on all users – vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians.”

Current literature doesn’t support this assertion. Congestion slows traffic, which makes drivers more aware of their surroundings and therefore roads much safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

“Nevertheless, traffic congestion is not always a bad corridor feature. Vehicular congestion motivates users to select different modes and routes. Congestion can also be an indicator of activity and urban vitality” (Prince Avenue Corridor Study p. 61). The University of California Transportation Center recently released a report, “Rethinking Traffic Congestion,” which outlines similar thoughts based on contemporary urban traffic management principles.

“Pulaski Street, along with Broad Street, Dougherty Street, and Thomas Street, are Central Business District (CBD) boundary streets…”

Why do we want to construct an artificial boundary to our CBD? In fact, isn’t expanding the formally designated CBD a priority for the ADDA? Fast-moving streets, like Dougherty, have served as a literal barrier to people wanting to walk or bike downtown from nearby areas for decades. Your vote last night shows your willingness to address this type of issue.

With a robust Complete Streets policy, maybe we don’t get Pulaski/Hancock “beg buttons”, the suburban-style driveway at Wendy’s on Prince Avenue, the inadequate bike lanes on Baxter and the (thankfully abandoned) plan to repave Chase Street as is, despite changing demographics and the reintroduction of neighborhood school zones.

Ultimately this is a decision about priorities: Do we want to enhance our CBD and neighborhoods near commercial hubs by making them more pedestrian friendly? Or do we want to provide “efficient” roads so that people can get out of town quickly? ACC has commissioned study after study (Atlanta Highway, Lexington Road, Workforce Housing, Oconee/Oak and several on Prince Avenue), all suggesting that the latter option isn’t working.

We have the studies showing the need, we have the evidence that Complete Streets work, and apparently, we have SPLOST funds earmarked for pedestrian safety in the bank. It’s time to make the move to fully implement our Complete Streets policy, creating a vibrant and safer Athens for everyone.

Complete Streets Athens