By Annette Hinkle
If you think there’s not a huge difference between driving a car at 20 mph versus 40 mph, consider this: A pedestrian stuck by a car traveling 40 mph has only a five percent chance of survival. The survival rate of that same pedestrian hit by a car traveling 20 miles per hour?
The statistics are eye opening and just one of the many pieces of information that came from the Sag Harbor Active Transport Workshop held last Saturday at St. Andrew’s parish hall in Sag Harbor. Sponsored by Save Sag Harbor, the workshop was presented by Jonas Hagen and Despacio, a Colombian-based organization whose mission is to devise innovative transportation options.
Hagen, a native of Sag Harbor, is currently pursuing his PhD in Urban Planning at Columbia University in New York City and he explained that Saturday’s session was about defining the specific traffic issues facing Sag Harbor, offering possible solutions and brainstorming both short and long term goals.
Hagen kicked off his presentation by focusing on the notion of traffic calming — visual or physical obstructions that cue drivers to slow down. Hagen showed slides of small towns in Europe where cars must navigate narrow passageways, traverse cobblestone streets, thread their way between trees and planters, and park in non-designated areas. He explained that these sorts of devices trigger a message in drivers that the area is for pedestrians, not cars.
“These things make the driver think, ‘You can be here, but we’re not going to go out of our way to accommodate you. We don’t want you to feel too entitled,’” explained Hagen. “They make it uncomfortable for the cars. A small space forces them to slow down.”
This concept runs counter to the long standing philosophy of road design in this country, where roads are wide, sidewalks few and cars take priority over pedestrians and bicyclists.
While it may be a new idea in some communities, in fact, traffic calming is not a new concept for many Sag Harbor residents (including a majority of those in attendance Saturday). It has been a concept talked about for years in the village, most recently in 2007 as part of the effort to apply for a federal Safe Routes to School grant which would have improved biking and walking routes around Sag Harbor’s schools.
Though that grant application came to naught, from the North Haven roundabout to the bike lanes and bulb outs in front of Sag Harbor Elementary School, Sag Harbor already has some fine examples of traffic calming — devices which were implemented a decade ago when the Department of Transportation redesigned Route 114 (with much vocal input from the community).
But there is still a long way to go and many of those at Saturday’s workshop voiced concern over the village’s other streets — particularly Jermain Avenue from the vicinity of Pierson High School to Mashashimuet Park (where a pedestrian was struck and seriously injured by a car just weeks ago).
“We walk at about 2.5 miles per hour – you see the details, hear the sounds. But when you’re going 125 mph, it’s all a blur,” said Hagen showing slides of how slight increases in speed narrows the vision. “Speed makes you blind — even when you’re going from just 15 to 30 mph.”
If driving speeds have increased, then rates of kids biking and walking to school are down precipitously. Hagen noted that in the 1960s, half of all kids in the United States walked or biked to school. Today, that number is no more than 15 percent.
“This has health effects, including obesity and diabetes,” he said. “It’s not that a lack of walking and biking is the only contributor, but the built environment does have a lot to do with it.”
The solution, said Hagen, is active transportation — the notion of using our own bodies to get around in our daily lives.
“Going to a gym is one thing, but you need discipline,” he said. “If you build it into your daily routine by walking or biking, it’s a better way to do that.”
Then Hagen turned to the workshop participants and asked them for words to describe their vision of Sag Harbor in 15 years — “green,” “sociable,” “egalitarian,” “progressive,” “innovative” and “peaceful” were among the offerings.
“It’s important to know the possibilities so we can imagine what we can do,” said Hagen. “Sag Harbor grew up as a pedestrian village before the car. It’s the reason people come here and like it so much.”
Elizabeth Mendelman, who spearheaded a recent successful Safe Routes to School grant in Springs, shared details of how the district secured $580,000 in funding to be used for improvements — including new sidewalks and upgraded crosswalks — in the vicinity of the school.
“We have 645 students in K-8 and nobody walks to school,” said Mendelman. “You can imagine the congestion and traffic. We mapped every student and the route they could take to school. If I could take 20 cars out of the pickup line at school, it would be great.
But it’s not just about money, she said. Educating residents is a big part of equation — as is encouragement, which can be accomplished by leading biking and walking clubs for kids.
“Encouragement is a piece you have to do,” she said. “A lot of it is changing the culture at our school.”
And change, indeed, was the final portion of Saturday’s workshop which was given over to brainstorming. Participants broke into small groups and working with a map of Sag Harbor, used colored markers to highlight what streets work well in the village, what areas need improvement and which are disasters.
Long Wharf, with it’s massive parking field, was universally panned, as was the Bay Street/Route 114 intersection, the corner of Madison Street and Jermain Avenue, the curve by Pierson High School and the entrance to Mashashimuet Park.
But with the criticism came the vision, and participants offered a list of short, medium and long term goals that could make the village more pedestrian and bike friendly — from speed enforcement and share roads to transforming Long Wharf’s parking into a park.
Hagen will now compile the results in a report to document what came out of the session.
“It’s important you guys stay involved,” said Hagen.
“This is the beginning of something not the end of something,” noted Save Sag Harbor board member John Shaka who spearheaded the workshop. “Anyone who has ideas should contact me as well.”
“And now we need volunteers on the short term stuff,” added fellow board member Susan Mead.