I’m currently at a conference at UGA, located in a town that clearly tries to be walkable, and for the most part fails: for example, it has bike lanes on high-speed arterials and unwalkable streets with share the road signs.
My observations may be colored by the fact that it’s the intersession now rather than the middle of the academic year, but walking is rare. Browse the photostream including the above photos; there aren’t many pedestrians.
Outside campus and a downtown area of about four by seven blocks, walking is downright foreign. Last night while walking back from a dinner at a suburban main street strip, we were accosted by two cops who accused us of jaywalking and kept going on about how unsafe it was and how they could arrest us. They didn’t arrest us – just lectured us about inebriation (I do not drink; the other two people I walked with had drunk a little, but why not harass drunk drivers instead?), common sense, and the danger of walking. In New York it’s routine to harass and intimidate cyclists even for legal behavior, but walking is considered normal; not so in Athens, where it’s apparently only for college students, very poor people, and outsiders.
Another thing to note is that the streets aren’t overly wide, and many have bike lanes. Look those streets up on Google Earth: the Baxter Street roadway is about 12 meters wide, vs. 9-10 for a Manhattan street and 18 for an avenue. The difference with Manhattan is that there’s no street wall, making the streets look wider than they are – see this photo. Building-to-building, Baxter is about 40-50 meters wide, vs. 30 for Manhattan avenues. And unlike on the Manhattan avenues, traffic volumes on Baxter are not high, which means cars can speed on arterials in a way that’s impossible on First Avenue.
As usual in small towns and suburbs, almost all of this space between buildings that isn’t used for cars is not used for pedestrians, either. The nicer off-downtown residential areas in Athens have a meter or two of sidewalk on each side. Sometimes there’s a sidewalk just on one side. The rest is dirt or poorly kept grass, or sometimes parking.
One thing not captured in the photos is the sheer difficulty of crossing the street. This is by far the worst feature I’ve found other than the long distances of walking; the narrow sidewalks are unpleasant, but for the most part usable. A friendly stoplight phasing is possibly the most underrated feature of complete streets. In Manhattan, there are two phases, one permitting all north-south traffic and one permitting all east-west traffic, and each is about 45 seconds. In Athens, the phases are more complex, with different turn lights, and pedestrians only have 10-15 seconds out of a full cycle.
Another thing not captured on camera is the lack of normal amenities even in downtown Athens. The downtown area is full of restaurants and entertainment; it is short on supermarkets and grocery stores. What it tells me is that they’re not thinking of downtown as a place where anyone might live, but rather as a destination for tourists, college students with meal plans, and suburbanites.
There are worse cities than Athens. My last conference, in Worcester, ended in my having to walk about 3.5 kilometers to the train station, on a sidewalk covered with rubble and in the striped median of a grade-separated arterial. The striped bike path on Baxter is more continuous than some bike paths in Chicago. Athens clearly tries, within the general paradigm of a spread-out city with a suburban form. It’s just not enough for real walkability.