My latest column in the Gainesville Sun:
University cities are laboratories for urbanism. And we can learn as much from their failures as successes.
So what can we learn from the bridge that fell and the little Uber that couldn’t?
First the bridge:
Last month a concrete span intended to get pedestrians safely across Miami’s busy SW 8th Street to Florida International University collapsed while undergoing “accelerated” construction. Six people died.
That $14 million structure was built because, in recent years, SW 8th had seen more than 2,200 crashes and 12 fatalities. And it was going up at a faster than usual pace so as to minimize traffic delays.
But, really, was the bridge designed to be a life saver or just one more car expediter?
Pedestrian bridges “are not really about providing safety..,” Victor Dover, a Coral Gables-based town planning consultant, writes in Miami Community Newspapers. Rather this bridge’s purpose was to “reduce the pesky crosswalks and speed up traffic, to minimize signal phases when motorists would have to wait for people to cross on foot.” It did “nothing to solve the situation at ground level at all the multiple other crossing locations where pedestrians are being killed.” (Check this City Lab conception of a more rational approach to traffic taming.)
If Dover’s name rings a bell it may be because, some years ago, his firm proposed a controversial redesign of University Avenue with the objective of “calming” traffic (narrower traffic lanes, wider sidewalks, etc) so as to make Gainesville’s main east-west car expediter more business and people friendly.
You can probably still find that study in some round file down at city hall.
Oh, and about Uber’s renegade robo-car:
Three days after the bridge fell, an Uber autonomous vehicle (AV) hit and killed a woman who was wheeling her bike across the street in the Arizona State University city of Tempe. Neither the car’s anti-collision system nor the presence of a just-in-case driver on board worked as expected.
The “accident” scene: Six wide traffic lanes 500 feet away from the nearest intersection.
Tempe police quickly blamed the victim for “coming out of nowhere” and thereby putting herself in harm’s way. And never mind that the AV was doing nearly 40 mph and likely couldn’t have stopped on time even if its programmed mind-of-its-own wanted to.
Forget posted speed limits and just consider the laws of physics.
If you are a pedestrian knocked down by a car doing 20 mph you have a 95 percent chance of surviving the encounter. If that car is doing 30, your chance of staying alive is a coin toss – about 50-50.
At 40 mph your chances of living are one in five.
The negative publicity of the Uber crash has, temporarily, put a halt to Arizona’s love affair with AV’s. And it may even help delay Gainesville’s pending deployment of our own robo-ride in the form of an autonomous mini-bus.
So what lessons might our university city learn from the bridge that fell and the little Uber that couldn’t?
First, the fact that two of Gainesville’s most pedestrian-hostile streets define the eastern and northern edges of its most pedestrian-rich environment (UF) shows just how horribly off-kilter our transportation/public safety priorities are.
And second, that neither expensive infrastructure “solutions,” like ped bridges, nor autonomous vehicles are likely to rescue us from the deadly consequences of our own traffic-first policies.
Dover describes Miami’s SW 8th St. as a “rushing river of cars.” Likewise University and 13th Street.
Gainesville: Don’t raise the bridge, lower the river.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.