The city of Savannah has launched a pilot project to reduce Whitaker Street to one lane from Bay Street to Broughton Street.
The 90-day experiment will make the corridor friendlier to pedestrians and create additional on-street parking — a precious commodity in that heavily commercial portion of downtown.
News of the experiment has been met with consternation in some corners of Savannah social media. I encourage the cynics to take a close look for themselves at the changes and consider the potential advantages.
Those who just want to drive fast around downtown aren’t ever going to be happy about the new configuration, of course. Neither are those who fear even simple changes to the built environment, nor are those who assume that city officials are incompetent on every level.
I also think that some folks have more fundamental objections that stem from growing up in a car-centric culture. Over the last 18 years, I have often argued strenuously in this column for the maximization of vehicular connectivity and on-street parking, but if I write about road diets, traffic calming, pedestrian safety or alternative transportation, some readers assume that I’m a crazed anti-car zealot
Perhaps reasonable experiments like the one on Whitaker Street would be met with less hostility if advocates of better urban design found new avenues to explain their reasoning for changes that might seem foreign but that would, on balance, improve quality of life.
Whitaker Street at afternoon rush hour
For the purposes of this column, I drove on that stretch of Whitaker Street on two days last week during the afternoon rush hour.
About 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday, I turned off Bay onto Whitaker and proceeded without interruption to the stop sign at West Congress Street. Then I pulled forward and easily got through the light at Broughton Street as soon as it turned green.
The trip seemed too easy, so I drove around the block twice more only to have the same experience.
I drove that stretch several more times on Wednesday afternoon between 5:30 and 5:45. On that day, the green light at Broughton Street wasn’t quite long enough to clear all the cars lined up on Whitaker, and the traffic backed up to the north side of the stop sign at West Congress Street. The delay was minimal, but I found it frustrating.
Of course, it was wet and rainy on Wednesday afternoon, and there were significant delays on key corridors throughout the downtown area. Westbound traffic on Oglethorpe Avenue, for example, was backed up almost to Whitaker Street.
At the busiest times of the day, it seems like the loss of a lane on Whitaker Street might be a mild inconvenience to drivers, although the situation could be improved by slight adjustments to the stoplight timing at Broughton Street.
So far I’ve been writing about that stretch of Whitaker when traffic volume is relatively high, but there are fewer cars through much of the day and night. Drivers frequently turn onto Whitaker, see two empty lanes ahead and hit the gas hard.
What’s wrong with extra wide lanes?
For the city’s current experiment, there is one travel lane down the middle of Whitaker with room for parking on both sides of the street.
I’m not sure the current design is the best choice for the future, but the new alignment shows just how wide the lanes have been for decades. On some stretches, Drayton and Whitaker streets have 15-foot lanes.
Many citizens have the impression that wider lanes make streets safer, but that’s not true. According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, “Lane widths of 10 feet are appropriate in urban areas and have a positive impact on a street’s safety without impacting traffic operations.”
Overly wide travel lanes encourage drivers to go faster while also increasing the time needed for pedestrians to cross the street.
In our increasingly busy downtown area, those unnecessarily wide lanes preempt any number of viable uses that bring demonstrated economic benefits, including on-street parking, bike lanes, street trees and expanded sidewalks.
Even if this experiment ultimately fails, we could still expand the sidewalks as money becomes available. City officials have committed to making Bay and Broughton streets more pedestrian friendly, and it would be a simple matter to narrow the lanes on Whitaker and widen the sidewalks there, too.
City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via email@example.com. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.