In a recent letter to the editor a prominent local resident (and a friend of mine) bemoaned Gainesville’s “fondness for making major roads two lanes or for basically ignoring cars in general.”
Said city’s fondness for traffic calming being “based upon the forlorn hope that Americans (read: the other guy) will give up the freedom and flexibility that comes with the automobile.”
I understand his frustration. Without question our city’s decision to redesign and narrow corridors like Main Street and Depot Avenue to be more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly has impinged on the flexibility of motorists and obliged them to drive more slowly and carefully through the heart of our city.
Ironically another letter from an unhappy motorist appeared in the same space just about a week earlier. But this motorist was unhappy about being rear-ended by another vehicle after she did the right thing – stop for a pedestrian who was crossing the street at a designated crossing place.
“The crossing is awkwardly placed at the bottom of a hill on a street where the limit is 40 mph,” she wrote, “but most drivers go well above that. Every time I’ve driven through it I’ve thought it’s an accident waiting to happen.”
Together, these two letters raise a deadly serious public policy question:
Should the desire of my friend to drive as quickly and efficiently as possible through our city outweigh the desire of someone else to safely cross the street?
But that’s not a fair question. Because my friend is certainly not alone in his frustration.
So how about this?
Should the desire of tens of thousands of motorists to drive as quickly and efficiently as possible through our city outweigh the interests – oh, lets be charitable and say hundreds – of people who wish to walk across or bike upon our streets and live to tell about it?
Traditionally in autoAmerica the answer to that question has been an unequivocal yes.
The auto-majority clearly rules.
Which is to say that the way we have designed our streets, written our laws and chosen to enforce or not enforce those laws have for decades been weighed heavily in favor of those who wish to live free and drive – at the expense of those who simply want to live.
So it should surprise no one that pedestrian deaths in America are at a 30-year high, while fatalities among people safely encased inside vehicles continue to go down. Indeed, the argument can be made that our public policies have been intentionally designed to achieve just those goals.
As CityLab reports “every day in the U.S., pedestrians…are being killed by regular drivers at a staggering rate.” Conversely, “Thanks to increasingly advanced airbags, crumple zones, and other government-mandated safety features, the people inside America’s cars and trucks have never been better protected.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The War On Cars is lost. The cars won.
Today I left my home in northwest Gainesville on my bicycle. I traversed wide-and-fast NW 16th Avenue (where the second letter writer’s rear end collision occurred) made my way along multi-laned, fast-moving NW 13th (ironically our most pedestrian and bike-hostile road defines the eastern border of the pedestrian-rich University of Florida), and then proceeded via traffic-calmed Depot Ave. and Main St. to downtown where I’m writing this blog.
Ask me which on part of my trip through the city I felt most safe and secure.
Yeah, a no brainer.
Listen, when it comes to access to our streets and roads we have been making deliberate, and deliberately deadly, public (un)safety decisions for virtually the entirety of my lifetime (I’m 71). Last year alone 6,227 pedestrians paid with their lives for those decisions. That’s a 4 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities over the previous year, and a 35 percent increase since 2008.
“People in cars are safer than they had been in the past, and people outside of cars are less safe than they’ve been in the past,” said Richard Retting, a researcher for the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, told CityLab.
“Something’s gone terribly wrong in the last ten years,” he added.
What’s gone wrong is no mystery. Americans are driving more. They are driving bigger, faster and more powerful vehicles. Those vehicles, by their very design, are more deadly to pedestrians. And while Americans drive they are subject to distraction by a bewildering array of devices.
So, no, officials in my city – or in any American city – need not apologize or be defensive about whatever they are doing to slow cars. Call it traffic calming. Call it lane reduction. Call it a road diet. Call it Vision Zero. Call it Complete Streets. Call it what you like.
Cities like mine are on the front lines of the war to slow down cars and save lives. Neither the feds nor state officials have the courage to challenge or change the autoAmerican imperative.
I love this town.