Savannah: Welcoming Squares Amidst Spanish Moss

General James Oglethorpe founded the state of Georgia and designed Savannah’s city plan – a grid of streets punctuated by small parks called squares in 1733.

I often joke that Savannah’s most effective bicycle advocate died more than 225 years ago. General James Oglethorpe founded the state of Georgia and designed Savannah’s city plan – a grid of streets punctuated by small parks called squares, each surrounded by a compact neighborhood unit called a ward – in 1733.

The city’s squares not only make Savannah one of the most beautiful cities in North America, they also have a traffic calming effect in the National Historic Landmark District and in other parts of the city where Oglethorpe’s plan has served as a model and inspiration. Add Savannah’s flat terrain and moderate climate, and the result is a wonderfully bikeable city. More than 12 million people visited Savannah in 2011, and a growing number are bringing their bicycles with them. Once here, they pedal along with local college students, commuters and recreational cyclists.

Oglethorpe’s squares provide excellent traffic calming but will also take some getting used to for bicycle riders. Vehicles approaching a square must yield to vehicles already traveling around the square, and all traffic travels in the same direction. On a bike you’ll share downtown streets with other cyclists, cars, motor scooters, tourist trolleys, Segways, delivery trucks, horse-drawn carriages, pedicabs and even a four-wheeled, fifteen-seated, pedal-powered bicycle tour called the Savannah Slow Ride. The menagerie of vehicles slows the overall pace of traffic, allowing cyclists to comfortably blend in with the flow.

I start my ride at the western end of City Market, an area known for shops, restaurants and nightclubs that is usually teeming with tourists. Here you will find local favorites like Vinnie Van Go-Go’s, a pizza joint that has delivered by bicycle (and only by bicycle) for decades. I pull my 1988 Schwinn Mesa Runner Xtracycle conversion from a bike rack and head east on Congress Street to Ellis Square. This site was previously occupied by a monstrously ugly 1950s-era parking garage, but it has been transformed into a dynamic public space by moving the parking underground – except for bicycle parking, which is conveniently at street level.

I turn right onto Barnard Street and pedal across Broughton Street, downtown’s main commercial thoroughfare, passing by the prominent bike parking at the Telfair Museums’ modern Jepson Center, a Moshe Safdie-designed building on Telfair Square.

Moving further towards the east side of Downtown Savannah, I follow the Price Street bike lane, which provides access to historic neighborhoods to the south. Added in 2011, the Price Street bike lane has helped make the street feel more like the neighborhood street that it is, instead of the racetrack that it was.

Crossing over Victory Drive, I find myself at Guckenheimer Park in the Ardsley Park/ Chatham Crescent Historic District. Guckenheimer and its companion parks are an early 20th Century riff on Oglethorpe’s plan, crossed with a Beaux-Arts “City Beautiful Movement” approach. The grid street pattern persists here too, making it easy to navigate to the Washington Avenue bicycle lane. I turn east on Washington Avenue and ride under a canopy of Spanish moss-draped live oak trees, past stately houses until I reach Daffin Park. I take Waring Drive through the center of the park to historic Grayson Stadium, home of Savannah’s minor league baseball team, the Sand Gnats.

Turning around and heading west, I follow Washington Avenue until it ends at Bull Street, where I turn right and travel north. I pass through the Starland District, named for the dairy that once operated here and is now home to galleries, Back in the Day Bakery, and Graveface Records. In this neighborhood you’ll see a mix of cyclists, from students on single speeds to workers heading to jobsites in reflective vests.

I end my ride today in the Thomas Square Historic District, anchored by the Bull Street Public Library. Foxy Loxy, a café and print gallery that offers bike parking at their front door, is just across the street. More coffee is just down Bull Street at The Sentient Bean. Offering coffee, beer, wine and vegetarian food, “The Bean” also hosts performances and film screenings. Around the corner is American Legion Post 135, where cheap beer and pool tables attract a diverse crowd of civilians. On Saturday mornings, throughout most of the year, the crowds shopping at Forsyth Farmers Market on Bull Street enliven the neighborhood.

In his 2012 book, The Oglethorpe Plan: Enlightenment Design in Savannah and Beyond, Thomas D. Wilson suggests that Oglethorpe’s design “became one of the most important planning innovations in American history.” And, he writes, it’s one that should be examined and emulated today.

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