What do you want the Athens transportation network to look like 25 years from now?
I’ve been thinking a lot about that question the past few months as planning has gotten underway for a vote next year on a transportation sales tax, or T-SPLOST. If that referendum passes (and, yes, that’s a big “if”), then somewhere close to $1 billion will be raised over the next 10 years in the 12-county region that includes Athens-Clarke County. In addition to big bucks for so-called “regional” projects, Athens-Clarke stands to benefit from nearly $2 million a year in “local” money – money we can spend however we see fit on our local transportation network. We can pay for not just roads and bridges but also sidewalks, bus routes, greenways and more.
That’s a lot more money to spend on transportation than we’ve ever had before. (By comparison, ACC will spend just under $1 million from our General Fund Capital budget this year on roads, sidewalks and bike facilities, combined.) Which brings us back to the question: How do we spend this money most effectively to build up a transportation network that will take us through the next twenty-five years and beyond?
One thing is for sure. Planning for the next quarter century will have to look a lot different from planning for the last one. In the past, transportation planning was pretty straightforward. You looked at population projections, you calculated how many people will be living and working in a given area in the future, and you assumed that each of those people would be driving a car. Then you simply planned roads that would accommodate that number of cars as efficiently as possible. Left out of the picture were all those people who do not drive, whether by choice or necessity – the old, the young, the poor, and those who just like a good walk or bike ride.
That was then. Today, with rising gas prices, peak oil, an aging population, and an obesity epidemic, we have no choice but to think about our transportation networks differently. For an increasing number of communities around the country, that means planning for and building complete streets. Complete streets are designed to accommodate a variety of transportation modes in comfort and safety. Each complete street is a little different from the others, since they are by definition sensitive to context, but typical features in an urban setting might include shaded sidewalks, grade-separated bike lanes, bus lanes and frequent, well-marked pedestrian crossings, in addition to the more traditional lanes for automobile traffic.
Do complete streets make auto travel less convenient? There is little question that they do, although the concept is still relatively new so research is limited. Also, building transportation networks, including complete-street networks, takes a tremendous amount of money and time. Even if we find a funding source, the pay-off of a well-connected network in Athens is still likely to come long after my bike-riding years are over.
But planning is all about the future. As a Native American proverb says, we don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.