Death of a panhandler

The world will little note nor long remember the man who died with his hand out while panhandling on the median at the intersection of Gainesville’s NW 16th Blvd and NW 43rd St. on Thursday.

The Sun noted it in a six paragraph brief the next day: “The vehicle that hit the victim was eastbound. He hit the median and the person standing in the median, and threw him into a car that was stopped,” GPD Inspector Jorge Campos told The Sun. “He was transported to the hospital and pronounced (dead) there.”

Neither the names of the victim nor the motorists involved were released. 

But within hours of the man’s death, the jury of public opinion was already weighing in on Facebook. An online news item drew more than 120 comments. 

“Maybe now there will be less beggars,” one compassionate soul wrote. 

“Not surprised, I knew it would happen sooner or later,” chimed in another.

And drivers “are getting so fed up they are taking matter into their own hands. This is the problem with our liberal leaders not getting the panhandling under control.”

And “STAY OUT OF THE MEDIANS! STAY AWAY FROM OUR VEHICLES! THAT IS OUR RIGHT! I DON’T WANT YOU NEAR MY VEHICLE!”

Which was not to say that this was entirely a one-sided diatribe. When one contributor suggested that Gainesville needs an ordinance “that states that for the safety of the public no person shall stand in the median,” another was quick to respond with this observation: 

“Or drivers could just not hit people on medians?  There’s a law against hitting people with your car already. In fact, more than one.”

There’s no question that the proliferation of panhandlers at intersections throughout Gainesville is generating a public backlash. We’re made uncomfortable by the sight of them. We don’t want to be bothered. We resent “these people” who would rather hold their hands out than get jobs. 

And sure enough, the day after this panhandler’s death, one city commissioner, Harvey Ward, told a luncheon group that he will pursue an ordinance to restrict panhandling. 

Apropos of nothing at all, the day before this latest Gainesville fatality occurred I was sitting in traffic on NW 13th St. and observed an elderly man with a walker slowly hobble across four wide lanes of stopped traffic. One thing I noticed was the line of fast-moving cars coming up behind him as drivers hurried to execute a left hand turn before the disabled man could get past the median and thus obstruct their progress. 

It’s not hard to imagine this elderly gentleman with a walker – or somebody very much like him – getting stuck on the same medium where that panhandler died.

What would they have said on Facebook? “One less cripple”?

I don’t mean to be insensitive. But the truth is that the very scene of this fatal “accident” – if that’s what we choose to call it – is itself an accident waiting to happen. 

Like many urban American stroads, the intersection of 16th and 43rd is intentionally designed to facilitate the fast and efficient movement of motor vehicles through the heart of the city. The speed limit on both of these intersecting corridors is 45 mph, which means that many drivers go even faster if they think they can beat the light. The median on which that panhandler lived his last moments is a narrow strip of concrete that offers scant protection against the constant flow of these unyielding masses of steel. 

Listen, I don’t care if the dead man was begging or just got caught in the median while trying to cross the street. It is no “accident” when the very street itself is “dangerous by design.”

I’ll defer to Strong Towns, the online group that does as much as any organization to point out the inherent dangers we have purposely created for ourselves when we design our towns and cities for the primary purpose of moving as many vehicles as quickly as possible while making all other considerations – saving human lives for example – secondary.

“There are a lot of reasons to want to get rid of urban stroads,” says a recent Strong Towns post. “They’re ugly. They’re frequently congested. They depress nearby property values. Most importantly, they’re deadly by design, because they inject high-speed traffic into an environment where people are likely to be present—on foot, in wheelchairs, on bikes or scooters.’

So we can condemn this unnamed panhandler if it makes us feel better about ourselves. But his death is just part and parcel of the bloody price we autoAmericans have collectively agreed to pay for our right to drive where we please as fast as we please. 

Last year alone, 6,222 pedestrians died on American streets…the highest pedestrian death toll since 1990. 

It is altogether too easy to consign this wretched panhandler to his grave with a casual “he got what he deserved” send off. But the truth is that we continue to slaughter thousands of people each year in our single-minded obsession with making the traffic run on time.

“As much as our culture loves to blame the victims, pedestrians aren’t responsible for their own demise,” says a recent commentary posted online by TalkPoverty. “Still, following each pedestrian accident, the comment stream centers blame on the victim…Instead of focusing on the structural problem of roads with increasingly heavy and fast-moving traffic or the lack of safe pedestrian paths, the culture at large points fingers at the road users who are most in danger.”

I can’t wait for my city commission to crack down on panhandling. That will surely solve everything. 

Still, I worry about the elderly gentleman I saw inching his way across four broad lanes of dangerous-by-design stroad. Will the Facebook jurors say it was his own fault when and if the law of averages finally catches up with him?

Another traffic scam

INVERNESS: On a recent Tuesday I sent 500 cyclists to Crystal River. 

And why not? What we try to do at Bike Florida’s annual spring tour is show our riders the very best this state has to offer. 

And Crystal River is a treasure. A cluster of 50 springs that discharge 64 million gallons of water daily, it is refuge for all manner of wildlife. It plays host to hundreds of manatees and draws fishermen, kayakers and snorkelers by the thousands. 

Still, I had some doubts about sending my cyclists there. And not because I thought Crystal River itself would disappoint. 

No, it was having to send them through 20 miles of suburban dreck that gave me pause. 

Because we – Floridians and snow birds alike – have larded Crystal River with subdivisions and strip malls and fast food restaurants and gas stations and motels and condos. Now you can barely see the water for all the steel and concrete. 

And we let pesticides, fertilizers and the detritus of “civilization” wash into those crystal waters. 

And we wonder where the algae blooms come from. 

And we suck up vast amounts of groundwater to keep our lawns green. 

And then wonder why the mighty Crystal River doesn’t seem quite so mighty anymore. 

We are loving this Florida treasure to death. And I fear the ecological havoc is irreversible. 

So why bring it up?

Because the main driver of all this ugly sprawl is a network of high-capacity highways that tie into the Suncoast Parkway and I-75. 

The Suncoast is a money-losing toll road and I-75 is habitually congested. (Our staff went into near panic the previous Sunday when a pile-up on the interstate spilled thousands of trucks, trailers, SUVs and pickups onto the rural Hernando County road that we had just put our cyclists on.)

The movers and shakers in the Florida Legislature say the way to “fix” this traffic mess is to build still more of the same. More high-speed, toll-financed interstate-scale highways up and down the western side of the state. The better to tie the Suncoast and the Florida Turnpike and I-75 together all the way from Collier County to Georgia. 

And to justify it they are pleading public safety. 

Just in case we ever need to evacuate Florida in case of hurricanes.

Because the best place to be during a hurricane is in your car. Storm-hardened shelters are way too dangerous. 

This is a scam, people. 

It’s a greed-driven scheme to spawn more sprawl, sow more subdivisions, subsidize more strip malls, fuel more car dealerships and create more condos up and down vast stretches of the most rural and unspoiled (read “developable”) lands Florida has left. 

Which brings me back to Crystal River. 

Personally I think it’s too late to save it. But it’s not too late to save Wacissa, Aucilla, the Suwannee and Wakulla (the only Florida spring cluster larger than Crystal River). 

It’s not too late to save Steinhatchee or Cedar Key or St. Marks or Fakahatchee or Big Bend or the rest of Florida’s out-of-reach-out-of-mind rural treasures. 

You want to see The Villages to stretch all the way from Ocala to Cedar Key? Build those new highways. 

You think we need to bail out the billionaire who bought half a million acres of land in Dixie, Taylor and Lafayette counties? Lay down that asphalt.

But don’t tell us it’s good public policy. It’s just more taxpayer subsidized despoliation (toll roads don’t always pay for themselves). 

We may be gullible but we’re not stupid.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun and route coordinator for Bike Florida.

Don’t flip McConnell

Alachua County: Where nature and culture  – if not necessarily minds – meet.

Honestly, sometimes I think the county’s left hand doesn’t know what its right hand is doing.

On one hand, officials are involved in an extensive discussion over how to attract more visitors to the county where nature and culture meet. 

On the other hand, they have been falling all over themselves in a rush to flip Camp McConnell, a 212-acre natural and cultural asset that the county purchased with Wild Spaces Public Places money.

I don’t understand the unseemly rush, or even the motivation, to sell that former YMCA camp. And at bargain basement prices no less.

I thought the whole purpose of Wild Spaces and Public Places was to preserve, not churn, important lands by placing them in public ownership. 

And then there’s that whole push to bring more tourists to our nature- and culture-imbued county.

So What’s the connection between Camp McConnell and the county’s desire to increase tourism? 

Here’s a for instance: The last time Bike Florida brought several hundred cyclists from around the country to Alachua County – for our 2011 Florida’s Eden tour – we camped at McConnell. And for good reason. It is located in close proximity to some of the best cycling routes Florida has to offer. 

And it’s not just cycling that attracts. Camp McConnell is strategically positioned so as to offer easy access to Cross Creek, historic Micanopy, the Ocala horse country, Orange Lake, Prairie Creek, Paynes Prairie, Sweetwater Preserve, Tuscawilla Preserve, Lochloosa Lake, Newnan’s Lake, the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail and much much more. 

In other words, it lies at the heart of a region that is rich with the potential to attract cyclists, kayakers, birders, hikers, fishermen, equestrians, nature photographers…..really, any number and variety of ecotourists. 

(BTW, commissioners. Our neighbor Putnam County is going full guns to brand itself as the ecotourism center of Florida. We’re not even in the race yet.)

And you want to talk culture? With its facilities McConnell could host artist retreats and paint-outs, offer historical expeditions to Marjorie Kinnon Rawlings Cracker House, Micanopy and other points of interest. Or gator watching treks to Alachua Sink. How about bluegrass festivals or folk arts events? The possibilities are endless.

Which is not to say that the county necessarily needs to manage and operate a nature and cultural activity center. The county has owned Poe Springs for decades without having to actively manage it. Leasing or franchising arrangements could be made with a company that specialize in running active ecotourism centers. There might even be some local entrepreneurs who would like to take on that challenge. McConnell, with its outbuildings and athletic facilities and swimming pool and related infrastructure, is a prime location for an outdoor adventure center. 

So why the rush to unload it? And do we really want to set a precedent by flipping land bought with Wild Spaces Public Places money? 

Hey, maybe we ought to raffle off Poe Springs while we’re at it.

The sign guy tells all

So there was this dead armadillo in the middle of East Gobbler Road. Clutching an empty can of Lite beer in his cold little paws.

“Definitely alcohol-related,” chuckled John, the retired Army master sergeant from Indiana who drives me around the back roads and country lanes of wherever it is that Bike Florida happens to be having its annual spring tour. In this just-concluded tour, that meant the best bike routes we could find in the Brooksville and Inverness area.

Anyway, we left the tipsy little guy where he lay for our riders to see. Presuming the turkey buzzards didn’t get to him first. 

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But I cannot tell a lie. John himself put that beer can in the critter’s paws. Because he’s acquired a bizarre sense of humor honed over years of drilling and terrorizing raw recruits. And because when you are driving endless miles in the wee hours of the morning, any little diversion is welcome.

Oh, I’m the sign guy. 

I’m that guy who rises at 5 a.m. each day during BF’s annual spring tour – setting out in the predawn darkness with a pickup truck full of bright blue-and-yellow directional, cautionary and information signs. 

Some hours later hundreds of cyclists follow in my path. Many will be riding the day’s metric (60-miles plus) route, some the shorter (usually 40 miles or so) route. And one day of the tour there will be century riders going the distance – presumably for the smug satisfaction of being able to say “Yeah, I rode 100 miles today, what did you do?”

Regardless of which route they choose, those riders will find the appropriate directional sign strategically positioned at each turn they make. 

Or they might notice the cautionary signs I often line up alongside of the road in traditional Burma Shave fashion. One announcing “Riders On The Road.” Another saying “Watch For Cyclists.” Intermixed with “CAUTION,” and “Three Feet Please” signs for good measure.

All of the above signs placed to be seen, not by our cyclists, but the motorists who are sharing the road. I’ve noticed that while guys in big pickup trucks can blow by one of our signs in complete oblivion, they tend to take note when there are five or six in a row. 

I have “Rest Stop” signs. I have “Obey All Traffic Laws” signs. I’ve got “Oncoming Traffic” signs. “Road Work,” signs, “RR Xing” signs, “Wrong Way!” signs, “Route Change” signs, “You Can Do It” signs, “You’re Not Lost” signs and more and more and more. 

We’ve got several oversized triangular bright orange placards proclaiming “Mass Cycling Event.” The better to let motorists know that something special is happening on this road on this day.

And on the odd occasion when I encounter a road condition that we hadn’t planned for, I’ve got blank white sheets and black Magic Markers on which I can write my own warning signs. “Bad Road Ahead” maybe. 

Signs, signs everywhere a sign.

Listen, I’ve posted signs in the driving rain. My flimsy signs have been bent over double and flattened against the ground by punishing winds. Once a roadside maintenance guy shredded several of my signs as he ran his giant mower up and down the roadside. And of course, our signs are often stolen by people who think that if they simply remove them, it will keep bicyclists out of their neighborhoods. It won’t. It’ll simply cause lost and confused riders to linger longer than they otherwise might have. 

Then there were the teenagers (probably) in Hastings who kept moving our signs around for the fun of it because – well, what else is there to do in Hastings? 

Once my driver and I had to think fast and improvise when, on a dark, dark morning in the Florida Panhandle, we suddenly ran into a thick wall of smoke and realized there was a forest fire blazing. We had to summon the police to head off cyclists already on the way and then reroute the entire tour in a different direction.

We’ve encountered horses and cows asleep on rural roads. In Port St. Joe I was repeatedly swarmed by no-see-ums each time I stepped out of the truck to plant a sign. I’ve had dogs howl and growl at me, a suspicious stranger, as I’ve gone about my merry signage ways

Sometimes its hard, dirty and even dangerous work. One morning in St. Augustine I was putting out signs well before sunrise when I began to notice blood smears on several of them. What I hadn’t noticed, at first, was that the blood was mine. Seems I’d stabbed myself in the arm while pulling a wire tine-side up sign from my truck.  

Oh yeah, and after spending four or five hours in the morning putting all of those signs out, I get to go out again late in the afternoon and pick them up. 

At my age, 71, I’ve often considered that being a sign guy is a young man’s game. But I’ve been putting them out and picking them up so long that I’ve come to consider route signage more an art than a science – and certainly not a routine, plant by the numbers affair. 

Question: How do you position a turn sign so that outgoing riders can see it but inbound riders cannot? Answer: Artfully, very artfully.

So I keep signing because, well, I fancy I’ve gotten pretty good at it and I want to make sure our riders get where they are going safely and without incident. 

I hate it when, on that rare occasion, placing sights gets so unexpectedly complicated that riders begin to catch up with me. And I’ve never understood the cyclists who rise before dawn and set out in the darkness to get a jump on the day. 

Once near High Springs I discovered several of our cyclists riding on a road that simply wasn’t on the route. When I stopped and asked them why, I was told they had stopped at a local restaurant where somebody assured them that our route was too dangerous and there was a much safer way to go. And never mind that we had spent months in planning and exploring, and consulted with plenty of experienced local riders, before deciding on a route. 

On the other hand, technology is making the job easier than it used to be. No more following paper maps or calculating distances by odometer. GPS now tells us exactly where we are and shows us exactly where the route turns are. 

Oh yeah, and I hate the DOT.

Most of the time I hate the DOT because its traffic engineers habitually supersize our roads and highways so motorists can drive as fast as they want – and kill as many pedestrians and cyclists as might happen to get in their way. 

But on spring tour week in particular I really really hate the DOT for its fiendish alchemy – it’s uncanny ability to turn roadside grass and dirt surfaces into almost concrete like surfaces.

Really, I don’t know how they do it. All I know that that half the time when I’m trying to drive the wire tines of my Share The Road directional signs into ground the wires just crumple under the unyielding resistance of the rock-infused roadside grassy strips. 

I have an impressive collection of bent, mangled and mutilated wire sign supports. 

Which is why I use a prodigious number of zip ties. I just find a strategically placed stop sign or route sign, or even a utility pole, and, zip!, my signs are on securely affixed and on prominent display.

Also, duct tape tends to come in handy as well. 

But that’s pretty much true of all of life’s situations. Right?

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