Fast driving and the city

 

Lately the county has been conducting an experiment in traffic calming on the highway that borders my neighborhood.

Well, they don’t call it an experiment. They call it road work. 

And they don’t call NW 16 Avenue a highway. But that four-lane divided stroad is built to expedite fast driving just like a highway.

Anyway, the not-experiment consists of temporarily closing a length of the outside westbound lane where 16th crosses Hogtown Creek.

The speed limit is 40 mph. But that stretch runs down a hill where vehicles tend to pick up velocity.  

So it is not unusual for drivers to be going 45 mph, 50 or faster by the time they reach the bottom. 

But now it’s been reduced to a single narrow lane, and motorists, feeling hemmed in, seem to have calmed down a bit. When I drove it recently the line of cars heading west was moving at just over 30 mph. 

At least until they got to the bottom of the hill and got that second lane back. Then the race was on again. 

I only bring this up to make an obvious point about city driving.

Northwest 16th divides neighborhoods, parks, schools and churches – places unprotected human beings frequently need to cross the street to connect with. Some years ago the son of my childrens’ kindergarten teacher was killed on this strode while riding his bike to school.

How is it even remotely in the public interest to enable fast driving – 40, 50 mph or more – through the heart of a city? Wouldn’t 35, 30 or even slower be prudent?

Because we know all about the deadly physics of speeding. 

(Bullet) A pedestrian struck by a vehicle traveling 20 mph has a 90 percent chance of staying alive.

(Bullet) The survival rate drops to 50 percent when the vehicle is doing 30 mph.

(Bullet) At 40 mph the pedestrian death rate is 90 percent.

A National Transportation Safety Board study last year found that speeding was a factor in more than 112,580 traffic deaths between 2005 and 2014.

That’s nearly the same number of people killed by drunken drivers over that period. 

But while our society, rightfully, stigmatizes driving under the influence, fast driving is still considered as autoAmerican as apple pie. 

“People don’t think of speeding the way that they think about some other hazardous driving behaviors,” NTSB Chair Robert L. Sumwalt said upon the study’s release. “Unlike other crash factors such as alcohol impairment…speeding has few negative social consequences associated with it…”

And there’s a reason for that. I can imagine the outcry if the county decided to narrow or reduce lanes on NW 16th for the sake of public safety. A “prescription for gridlock!” angry voters would cry, as they tossed commissioners out of office.

But Gainesville has already narrowed Main Street from NW 8th Ave through downtown, and is continuing to do so nearly all the way to SE 16th Ave. Not only has that slowed traffic and made life safer for pedestrians, cyclists and other living things, but we are seeing a resurgence in business activity up and down Main Street.

What we are not seeing is the dreaded gridlock many predicted. Cars are moving, just more slowly.

Urban streets should not be built like highways. The convenience of fast driving should not take precedence over the human-scale factors that define a city’s quality of life – walkability, economic vitality, connectivity, safety.

And given what we know the deadly physics of speeding, shouldn’t we take fast driving at least as seriously as drunk driving?

Published in the Gainesville Sun 2/24/19.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.)

Waiving the orange flag

Dispatches from the front: The War On Cars is flagging.

The cars are winning.

Oh, I know, it’s been a grueling, grinding, soul-and-body crushing campaign. But steel and velocity ultimately prevail over mere flesh and bones. 

The phrase “War On Cars” reportedly arose in Toronto as a handy rallying cry to mobilize concerned commuters against local efforts to give pedestrians, bicyclists and other living things a fighting chance of survival in a city dominated by traffic.

““The city’s undeclared but very active war on cars is really a war on people,” the Toronto Star fumed in a 2009 editorial that sounded the alarm against misguided traffic calming efforts.

Oh the humanity!

From there the War On Cars spread to Seattle, where misguided liberals conspired to make cycling, walking and transit viable forms of personal mobility. And then to London, which dared to deploy the nuclear option – congestion pricing – to reclaim its central city. Next the Heritage Foundation accused Washington, D.C. of waging a “war against cars and suburbia.” And pretty soon the Wall Street Journal, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institution, Fox News and other reliable conservative warriors were all piling on in a blitzkriegian effort to protect vulnerable cars against the cruel tyranny threatened by the insidious forces of walking, cycling and…well, living. 

I only bring this up as a faithful war correspondent to let you know that the Freedom Of The Road forces are prevailing. 

Pedestrians are taking a pasting: Inching upwards toward 5,000 deaths a year.

Cyclists are on the ropes: A death rate of 800 annually. And rising. 

Big picture: Some 40,000 Americans a year perish in traffic. 

On the other hand, the cars are doing fine.

So how badly is the War On Cars going? Increasingly, cities are handing out surrender flags. 

From Honolulu to St. Augustine to Seattle bright orange or yellow flags are being stockpiled at pedestrian crossings for the benefit of people who aspire to get to the other side with minimal chances of bodily injury. 

“Grab a flag,” pedestrians are advised. And as if to remind them that losers are expected to display humility comes the admonition to give a “thank you” wave to the cars that don’t kill you as you cross No Man’s Land.

Do the flags work? Not really. 

The California university city of Berkeley deployed them for a while before throwing in….um, the flag. In an after-action report, Berkeley staffers concluded “flags were used as intended by only two percent of pedestrians, and the use of the flags did not have a noticeable effect upon driver behavior.”

But that’s not really the point, is it? In autoAmerica orange flags serve the same purpose as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter.” 

Hester Prynne’s moment of indiscretion cost her the burden of branding herself unclean. Similarly pedestrians and cyclists who come bearing orange flags or yellow safety vests or “Please Don’t Kill Me” jerseys self-brand themselves as firmly outside the autoAmerican mainstream. Freaks, oddballs, eccentrics…literally rebels without a car. 

And now you see variations of the scarlet letter popping up all over the place. Signs in Jacksonville depict a skid-marked pedestrian figure next to the caption: “If only I’d watched out for cars.” Another sign I’ve seen shows a pedestrian running recklessly out in front of a car….very much like the deer that occasionally blunder in harm’s way out of sheer animal ignorance.

Lawmakers in Missouri have considered forcing cyclists to display orange flags visible “not less than fifteen feet above the motorway.” Talk about a scarlet letter. And Tampa’s Bay-To-Bay Blvd has gotten such a reputation for lethality that children afoot are brandishing flags in the hope of getting to school alive.

But never mind all of that. The cars are winning. A clear victory for autoAmerica.

And the losers are waiving orange/yellow flags of surrender.

Is this a great country or what?

My neighborhood stroad

Lately the county has been conducting an experiment in traffic calming on the highway that borders my neighborhood.

Well, they don’t call it an experiment. They just call it road work. 

And they don’t call NW 16 Avenue a highway either. But being a four-lane divided stroad specifically designed to accommodate fast driving, that’s what it is. 

Anyway, the experiment consists of blocking off a stretch of the outside westbound lane where 16th crosses over Hogtown Creek. Apparently the creek threatens to erode our stroad’s stability, so things need shoring up. 

The posted speed limit is 40 mph. But that stretch runs downhill and the tendency is to pick up velocity due to physics, gravity and the false sense of security NW 16th’s design imparts to impatient motorists.  

So it is not unusual for drivers to be doing 45 mph, 50, even faster when they get to the bottom of that hill. 

But now it’s been reduced to a single narrow lane with concrete barriers on one side. And I’ve noticed that motorists, feeling hemmed in, are indeed calming their speed. When I drove it the other day a stack of cars heading west was moving at just over 30 mph. At least until they reached the bottom of the hill and got that second lane back. Then the race was on again. 

This experiment is temporary. And I only bring it up to make an obvious point about city driving.

Northwest 16th divides neighborhoods, parks, schools and churches – places where unprotected human beings frequently need to cross the street. (Some years ago the son of my childrens’ kindergarten teacher was killed on this strode while riding his bike to school.)

Which raises crucial questions. How is it even remotely in the public interest to empower  fast driving – 40 mph or more – through the dense heart of a city? Wouldn’t 30, or even 25 mph be more prudent?

Unfortunately, simply posting a more civilized speed limit wouldn’t do much to slow traffic. The physical design of NW 16th and many urban stroads – divided, multiple, broad travel lanes, good lines of sight and so on – provide motorists visual and psychological cues that they may safely drive faster than whatever the posted limit might happen to be. 

And make no mistake. Speed is one of the most common denominators in traffic related fatalities. As Streetsblog points out: “Speed management is important for everyone’s safety, including drivers. But it can be especially critical for pedestrians. A pedestrian struck by a car at 40 miles per hour has a 55 percent chance of surviving compared to a 88 percent chance at 25 mph.”

Unfortunately, state and local governments don’t do nearly enough to slow drivers down, according to a new report, “Speeding Away From Zero: Rethinking A Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge,” by the Governors Highway Safety Association. 

“Policy makers and the public have largely ignored the issue, even though the proportion of traffic deaths related to speeding has remained steady at about 26 percent since the beginning of the millennium,” Governing magazine writes of the Association’s call to calm fast drivers. 

Instead, Governing adds, “Public policy at almost every level of government reinforces the cultural acceptance of speeding.” 

And there is a reason elected officials are reluctant to slow cars down. I can imagine the outcry from suburban-bound commuters if our county decided to narrow or reduce lanes on NW 16th for the sake of public safety. 

“A prescription for gridlock!” our auto-oriented Chamber of Commerce would bemoan. “Throw the rascals out!” voters would cry. 

Traffic calming is not an autoAmerican virtue. 

Funny thing, though. Gainesville has already narrowed much of its north/south flowing Main Street, and is continuing to do so. Not only has the redesign slowed traffic and made life safer for pedestrians and cyclists, but we are witnessing a resurgence in business activity up and down Main Street.

What we are not seeing is the dreaded gridlock many predicted. Cars are still moving, just more slowly.

Cities are not suburbs. Urban streets should not be designed like highways. Fast driving should not take precedence over the human-scale factors that define a city’s quality of life – walkability, economic vitality, connectivity, personal mobility, safety.

It’s a pity this experiment in traffic calming on NW 16th is only temporary. University communities like ours should be living laboratories for experiments in urban quality of life innovation

Imagine what we could accomplish if we actually resolved to make cars behave themselves in our little university city?

Stamp out autoSocialism

My favorite part of the State Of The Union Address (yes, we all had our favorites) was when Trump waved the rhetorical bloody flag and vowed that America would never surrender to the evils of socialism.

“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” he roared to thunderous applause. “America was founded on liberty and independence – not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free.

“Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

Rousing. Stirring. Inspiring. 

And totally out of touch with reality. 

Shortly before issuing his Declaration of Antisocialist Independence,” Trump climbed into his government-bought limousine and was ferried to government built Capitol Hill via a network of government-funded public streets. 

And he didn’t have to worry about traffic because every single socialistic street in the vicinity of The Hill – Constitution Avenue, Independence Avenue, Louisiana Avenue – was temporarily closed to the public so His Nibs could get to his gig safely and quickly. 

Not to belabor the obvious, but America has been a socialistic country since the birth of the republic. And the American road system in particular is arguably the most ambitious experiment in socialism in the history of human civilization. 

The same people who keep insisting that mass transit ought to “pay for itself” are oblivious to the fact that in this country we spend upwards of $168 billion a year on public roads. 

Yeah, I know, drivers pay a gas tax for the privilege. But less than a third of the cost of our public roads are covered by gas taxes. The rest of it comes from all of us via property taxes, sales taxes, debt, etc. 

Stuck in traffic? Why doesn’t the government get off its duff and add more lanes to your commuting route? Want to build yet another exclusive gated community way out in the boonies? The Department of Transportation is your Sugar Daddy. 

Good old American socialism created urban sprawl from sea to shining sea. The American automobile industry could not exist without autoAmerican socialism. Privately owned strip malls and subdivisions and office parks feed off the socialistic tit. 

Oh, and those cops and EMTs who clean up the mess after every act of mass destruction on America’s high-speed interstates? Socialists, each one. 

And BTW, it didn’t have to be that way. There was a time in this country when many, even most, roads were privately owned and pay as you go. 

In early US history, many individual citizens would maintain nearby stretches of road and collect a fee from people who used that specific stretch,” we read on Wikipedia “Eventually, companies were formed to build, improve, and maintain a particular section of roadway, and tolls were collected from users to finance the enterprise.”

Clearly, our forbearers didn’t hold with mobility socialism. But we wallow in it. 

The auto-American Dream, the Freedom Of The Road mythology that allows us to climb into oversized pickups and SUVs and put the pedal to the metal was built on a framework of rank socialism. 

But I’m with Trump on this one. I think we need to put a stop to the evils of auto-American Socialism and thus Make America Great Again. If only because our unsustainable freedom of the road obsession must inevitably drive us into national bankruptcy. 

But returning to a patchwork system of privately owned toll roads would be messy and ineffective. No, there’s a better way thanks to good old American enterprise and innovation. 

There was a time when running a toll booth on the Florida Turnpike would get you a ticket. But these days they just bill you in the mail, whether you have a Sunpass on your windshield or not. 

We have the technology to collect a miles-driven tax/charge/fee (call it what you want depending on your personal ideology). It’s the purest user fee imaginable. Whether you drive 10,000 miles a year or just 100 miles a year you would be precisely assessed for the impact your personal automobile use has on the public roadways. 

Right pricing driving gives drivers a financial incentive to do less of it. Car pooling would flourish. More users for mass transit. Telecommuting could set us free. Less wear and tear on the roads. Less congestion. Less demand for ever more travel lanes. Fewer accidents and deaths on the highway. 

And just like that Americans would be free again. 

Yeah, I’m with Trump on this one. Let’s stamp out autoSocialism in the great American tradition.