Save the swans Lakeland.
And the people too.
The lovely waterfowl that glide gracefully across Lake Morgan are living symbols of the city. But apparently that matters little to at least some of the thousands of motorists who drive by the lake every day.
In the space of just three weeks, six of the stately birds have been run over by cars. Five did not survive the encounter.
On the heels of this avian slaughter, public officials and local residents have begun to talk about what can be done to improve traffic safety in the area. The swans are Lakeland’s mascots, and if saving them means cracking down on speeding or distracted driving, then so be it.
But let’s be honest, Lakeland’s traffic safety dilemma ranges far beyond Lake Morgan.
In 2013, when I was executive director of Bike Florida, we brought several hundred cyclists from all over the country to Lakeland for our Orange Blossom Express spring tour. Bike Florida is a nonprofit organization that promotes cycle tourism while raising public awareness about safe cycling. As route coordinator for our spring tours I can tell you that we spend a great deal of time – literally months before the actual event – working to ensure that our cyclists can ride safely from point A to point B while at the same time showing them the best that scenic Florida has to offer.
Naturally Lake Morton was on our tour route that spring. We wanted our riders to see and appreciate the royal swans. And finding a way to get them safely into downtown from our host site by the airport – in and out of Lakeland’s intensive traffic patterns – caused staffers more than a few sleepless nights.
Fortunately we pulled it off, thanks largely to the high visibility signs we posted along the route – to both guide cyclists and alert motorists – the off-duty police officers we stationed at troublesome intersections and other proactive safety measures we implemented.
Unfortunately, people who try to get around Lakeland day to day on foot or by bike do not enjoy the kind of route support we provided our riders. Just two years ago Smart Growth America’s annual “Dangerous By Design” survey listed Lakeland-Winter Haven as America’s sixth most dangerous metro for pedestrians – more dangerous than Miami, Tampa or Phoenix.
The Ledger has reported that in the last two years alone cyclists and pedestrians have been involved in nearly 500 crashes locally. And 33 of them died.
“They’re much too small to compete with a 2,000-pound vehicle,” veterinarian Patricia Mattson told the Ledger in reference to the city’s traffic-endangered swans.
Same goes for the human beings who routinely brave city streets on foot or by bike…they are much too small and vulnerable. And their lives are just as precious, even if their injuries and deaths do not attract as much publicity.
I don’t really mean to pick on Lakeland. In truth it’s not much different from many auto-American cities that, over the past half century, have squandered tax dollars, downtown economic vitality and, yes, human lives in the single-minded pursuit of enabling motorists to drive in and out of town as quickly and efficiently as possible.
It is a measure of just how successful our national experiment in moving traffic at all costs has been that congestion is as bad, or worse, as it’s ever been, traffic fatalities remain at epidemic levels and pedestrian and cycling deaths are on the rise.
It’s time to try something different. In Lakeland. In Gainesville. In every city that wants to improve its quality of life and protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents.
We know how to calm urban traffic. It’s become something of a science. Mainly it involves slowing down cars by street design, enforcement and education, and there are any number of techniques to do it. The Project for Public Spaces is one of the organizations that offer traffic calming “toolboxes” for communities that want to reclaim their streets and public spaces.
As a society we have spent decades designing streets that put pedestrians, cyclists and, yes, in Lakeland’s case, even swans at mortal risk in order to keep traffic moving at peak efficiency.
City leaders who want to change that dangerous status quo can choose to put cars in their place and save lives. All it takes is the will to do so and the realization that the public streets belong to all of us.
Save the swans, Lakeland, and the people too.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of the Gainesville Sun and served as Executive Director of Bike Florida for five years. He continues to design tour routes for Bike Florida.