BRAG, a Savannah tragedy, and hope for better streets

Last week, I participated in the annual Bicycle Ride Across Georgia, a challenging but enjoyable tour of (mostly) country roads and small towns. Georgia has so much potential to be a major bicycle tourism destination. Our state is beautiful, our towns and cities are filled with history, interesting architecture, and good food. 

This was my second BRAG, and I’m glad I did it. I hope to do it again, and I encourage anyone interested in a unique, healthy experience to try bicycle touring, even if only for an overnight trip to a nearby state or national park.

I write this now with a heavy heart, however, and my experience of the ride is deeply bittersweet. When my wife, a friend and I rode into downtown Savannah, we were elated, exhausted, and intensely proud of what we had just accomplished, but our emotions quickly soured and our hearts sank as we learned the horrifying news of what had happened only an hour earlier. Just blocks from the finish line, after riding over 350 miles, some of it in driving rain and among hostile, indifferent motorists, Judy Grossman, a 61 year old BRAG participant from Florida, crashed and was run over by a dump truck. She died later that day from her injuries.

What should have been a joyous moment of celebration with friends and family was turned upside down. Why? How did this happen? By all accounts, the truck driver was obeying the law and cannot be faulted for what happened. But why is a major trucking route situated in the very heart of one of the most walked parts of one of the state’s most walked cities? Savannah is certainly aware of the safety issues on Bay St and is thankfully working on solutions. That will come as small consolation to Ms. Grossman’s family, and the families of others who have been hit, injured or killed on Bay St.

Bad road design, design that ignores the safety and access of human beings, is largely to blame for this and similar fatal crashes throughout the state. For too long, we have prioritized the high-speed movement of cars and trucks and ignored the safety of families just trying to cross the street or ride to school. Our streets are dangerous by design, and it’s way past time to change that.

In a timely coincidence, we hosted a day-long workshop on Monday, June 13th, on how to change and improve our streets. Peter Koonce, a traffic engineer from Portland, OR and a national expert on urban mobility and street design, led the workshop for over thirty traffic engineers and city officials from eleven municpalities and two coastal counties. Half the participants were employeed by the city of Savannah. Attendees were engaged, attentive, and they learned a great deal about safe intersectionsprotected bike lanes, and other engineering treatments for bicyclist and pedestrian safety. I sincerely hope the lessons learned will help cities like Savannah, Brunswick, Statesboro and Valdosta start improving their streets for the safe movement of people, not just heavy machines.

As Mr. Koonce pointed out, a safe, sensible, and sane transportation netowrk in a city prioritizes people walking and bicycling first, and single-occupancy motor vehicles should be catered to last. Georgia’s cities have a long way to go to achieve the safety and quality of life improvements enjoyed by Portlanders, but the design guidance is well known, it’s mainstream, and now it’s just up to our city leaders to have the vision and leadership to do what desperately needs to be done.

If you are tired of high speed motor vehicle traffic in your city or neighborhood, let your state and local elected officials know it. Talk to your mayor, your city council members, and your state senators and representatives. Demand funding for safe streets for all, no matter their age, ability or means of travel. Insist on robust enforcement of Georgia’s three feet safe passing law, and make it known that, as a voter and taxpayer, you support the prioritization of people walking and bicycling.

Keep up the great local advocacy efforts, and stay safe out there.

– Brent Buice, Executive Director