Pedestrian Observations from Athens, GA

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.


  1. Matt

    “walking is considered normal; not so in Athens, where it’s apparently only for college students, very poor people, and outsiders.”

    All this because they gave you a hard time for jaywalking? I think you’re overreacting.

    • Alon Levy

      Not just. There are almost no pedestrians on the streets, except downtown and on campus.

      Plus, the cops in New York, who aren’t exactly livable streets proponents, think jaywalking is normal. And it’s much easier not to jaywalk in New York than in Athens, with its screwy pedestrian stoplights. If I jaywalked, there were no cars approaching that had green light – it’s common there because of all the turn signals.

  2. M1EK

    Wow, you New Yorkers are really spoiled – that’s not a large arterial roadway by any stretch – it’s 3 lanes (1 each way, 1 center turn lane) with some marginal bike lanes. Looks like a 30-35 mph design speed too. Quite nice compared to most infrastructure in most towns in this country.

    REAL suburban high-speed major arterials are 3 lanes each way, sometimes more.

    • Alai

      Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m thinking a 30 mph design speed means the average speed is at least 40– and you’re far more likely to be ticketed for jaywalking than for breaking the speed limit.

      • M1EK

        No. Design speed is usually above the speed limit and much closer to the actual speed cars drive. Speed limits are usually underposted due to political reasons (neighborhood pressure against perceived cut-through traffic, etc).

  3. Nathanael

    Come visit Ithaca and then talk about pedestrian light cycles. Oh my God.

    Then come outside the city limits and try walking on shoulder. Just like Worcester….

    At least we have cops who understand that walking is normal. (Because we’re a town of hippie environmentalists, who walk and bike even if the infrastructure is hostile to it.) But the infrastructure, the infrastructure….

    ‘Course the moronic “tax cap” which our Republican governor Cuomo just passed means we won’t get sidewalks unless local millionaires pay for them privately (he thinks to himself). Country going to hell.

  4. Bema

    This reminds me exactly of Tampa, not too far off in the south. Besides having an abysmal public transportation system, there are no requirements for roads to have sidewalks even when constructed newly, and the ones that do hug the street so much that any passing car makes you scared for dear life.

    What I encounter often [would I rather get run over, crushed between a car and a rail, or thrown in the river?]:Sligh Ave

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