Whenever I drive through Ocala I am reminded of urbanist Andres Duany’s declaration that “the Department of Transportation, in its single-minded pursuit of traffic flow, has destroyed more American towns than General Sherman.”
The first thing you see upon approaching the city proper headed south on U.S. 441/301 is a sign stating that you are entering Ocala’s business district and that, henceforth, the speed limit will be 35 mph.
Which is very sensible because most of the length of 441/301 between Gainesville and Ocala is 65 mph, and nobody needs to drive that fast through an urban business district.
The second thing you notice upon entering Ocala’s business district (aka Pine Avenue) is that almost nobody actually drives 35 mph. Most traffic moves in the 45-50 mph range right through the heart of the city.
And, really you can’t blame drivers. Never mind what the tiny speed limit signs say, all of the visual signals motorists get tell them that this is a corridor designed for speedy transit.
We’re talking six broad traffic lanes, seven counting the middle turn lanes. We’re talking few roadside obstructions – trees for instance – that might caution motorists to ease up a bit. Yes, there are sidewalks but the pedestrian environment through the middle of Ocala is so sterile, so hostile that walking anywhere is clearly a last resort.
Ocala loses an average of 10 pedestrians a year to traffic. It would probably be more but, really, who would want to walk on these mean streets?
Getting back to the DOT’s culpability, driving through the heart of Ocala is an unpleasant experience precisely because the character, width and configuration of U.S. 441/301 changes not at all as it makes its transition from rural to suburban to urban.
It is simply a broad, multi-laned expedient specifically designed to funnel as much traffic as possible as quickly as possible.
I bring this up not to especially pick on Ocala – which is a perfectly lovely city in some respects – but rather because the traffic funnel that slices through the middle of the city is the very definition of a “stroad.”
A sort of transportation mutation that works well as neither a road nor a street.
“Roads and streets are two separate things,” Charles Morhan writes in his recent Strong Town blog which argues that road-obsessed traffic engineers should not be allowed to design urban streets.
“The function of a road is to connect productive places.” Say, to connect a university city like Gainesville to a retirement community like Ocala. He compares functional roads to railroads “where people board in one place, depart in another and there is a high speed connection between the two
“In contrast, the function of a street is to serve as a platform for building wealth…In these environments, people are the indicator species of success…with a street we’re trying to create environments where humans, and human interaction, flourish.”
In Ocala most of the human interaction occurs in traffic, and with predictable results: Ocala’s traffic-facilitating business district is the usual auto-American-bland collection of fast-food outlets, strip shopping centers, car dealerships, drive-through banks and what not.
And Ocala’s certainly not alone in this regard. Many auto-American cities have seen their once vital economic centers reduced to drive-by convenience strips as a result of some traffic engineer’s vision of mobility paradise. It is the same vision that enables thousands of drivers a day to pass through, say, nearby Palatka’s commercial strip hell on their way two and from the beach without ever seeing the charming neighborhoods and quirky riverside downtown hidden on either side of traffic-facilitating U.S. 17.
In Gainesville we are trying to work our way out of our stroad dilemma. Main Street, which runs north and south the length of the city, continues to be redesigned with human interaction and local economic vitality in mind. Traffic lanes are being reduced and narrowed, bike lanes added, sidewalks improved attractive streetscaping added. And the result is a more people-friendly downtown and an amazing urban renaissance on a strip of South Main Street that was once given over to warehouses and empty storefronts. Now we’re seeing parks, artist studios, breweries, entertainment venues and small business incubators popping up all along that still-being redesigned stretch of South Main.
Which is not to say that Gainesville doesn’t still have work to do. University Avenue continues to be more a mass traffic facilitator than the university city signature street it ought to be. And 13th Street, which connects to Ocala via U.S. 441, is still a malfunctioning stroad that surrenders urban quality of life to the fast and efficient movement of cars.
I think that will change, eventually, because 13th Street and University are, for all practical purposes the University of Florida’s front doors. And with 50,000-plus students concentrated in one small area and in need of more personal mobility choices, traffic calming changes are inevitable.
It is people, not cars, that make or break a city. Gainesville’s is moving ahead, while Ocala stalls in traffic.
(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun and former executive director of Bike Florida.)