You have the right to park

Once more I must rise to the defense of our woefully misunderstood public servants in the Florida Legislature.

Of late lawmakers have been taking heat, and even threatened with legal action, over a bill – still awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature at this writing – requiring a “sufficient” amount of parking be available at early voting sites. 

What’s wrong with that? Well you might ask. Listen, if we don’t take the phrase “motor voter” literally as well as seriously here in autoAmerica then where? What can possibly be more patriotic than our collective fidelity to liberty, equality and parking? 

But, no, cynics accuse legislators of harboring ill motives in their insistence on parking. This is just a sneaky ploy to avoid having to put early voting sites on college and university campuses. Because – gasp! – student voters are presumed more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. 

And this kind of thing can quickly get out of hand. At the University of Florida alone nearly 8,000 people voted early in 2018. This after UF students successfully sued the state in federal court to have early voting on campus. 

Follow the conspiracy theory here folks: Anybody whose ever tried to drive onto a college campus knows that parking is a nightmare. Permits are almost always required. Faculty and administrators gobble up all the spaces. Campus cops toss out tickets like confetti at a homecoming parade. 

“Location is one thing that you’re looking at. But the other thing is access. And if there’s no parking, there’s no access for many people,” Republican state senator Dennis Baxley told the Huffington Post.

Reasonable, no? Well, no, counters  Patricia Brigham, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. She told HuffPost: “This is not about parking. Those students with cars, they can hop in their car and go to an early voting site off campus. This about those students living on campus, who don’t have a car and they want to vote early.”

Suspicious minds. 

But listen, there is nothing more American than minimum parking requirements. In this country you can’t build anything – outhouse, corner bar, duplex, mom and pop store, shopping center or subdivision – without meeting stringent parking mandates. That’s precisely why American cities, towns, commercial centers and suburbs have the look and feel of…well, gigantic used car lots. 

These things don’t happen by accident you know. 

Parking minimums are the strange, out-dated, and totally unscientific law that’s probably languishing in your city’s zoning code,” asserts StrongTowns.org. “They sound dull (and they are) but they’re incredibly important because they have dramatically shaped our cities in a detrimental manner.”

Yeah, not to put too fine a point on it, but we have for decades been sacrificing the look, feel and very function of our civilization for the convenience of people in cars.

And, really, what’s more fundamental to American civilization than the right to vote? And is that right truly sacrosanct if we can’t park really really close to a ballot booth?

No, if anything, a sufficient parking requirement doesn’t go nearly far enough. 

If we’re serous about universal access we need to insist that all voting be conducted at fast food restaurants, parking garages, gas stations, car washes, drive-up banks, drive-through liquor and beer barns – really at any structure specifically designed to allow patriotic autoAmericans to exercise their franchise without having to leave the sanctuary of their vehicles. 

Listen, if McDonalds can serve billions, why can’t supervisors of elections?

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

 

When the heat gets too hot

I literally had one foot out the door on my way downtown the other day when Jill asked  “You’re not riding your bike are you?” 

Um, well, I thought I would.

“It’s over 100 degrees out there,” she said.

Translation: A man your age has no business riding in heat like that.

She was right of course. So I climbed into my pickup and drove instead. I hate to do that but I’m also aware that people are literally dropping in their tracks – from Paris to Texas – because of brutal heat and the punishing humidity. 

It’s all over the headlines:

Hell is coming: A weeklong heat wave begins across Europe” The Guardian.

‘It is horrid.’ India roasts under heat wave with temperatures above 120 degrees” The Washington Post

Record-shattering hot, dry weather sparks drought and wildfires in Southwest.” USA Today.

Charleston too hot for horses,” Post-Gazette.

Woman, 3 children died of heat exposure along Texas-Mexico border,” Fox San Antonio

Compound heat waves have double impact,” Physics World.com

And my favorite from the New York Times”

Miami, scorching and drowning, awaits Democrats for debate

Ah yes, the first Democratic presidential candidate debate in a city that is already “drowning” under rising sea levels and “scorching” under extreme summer heat. But the DNC says no single-issue debates thank-you-very-much. Still, maybe they’ll be able to squeeze in a climate question or two before their host city goes down for the third time.

Which of course is better than we can expect from the Republicans, what with the Trumpets busy squelching scientific evidence that climate change is even a thing.

Listen, how fast are the Repubbies running away from climate change? Up in Oregon, 11 GOP state legislators have taken it on the lam so they can deny the state senate the quorum it needs to take up climate change legislation. Apparently these poor lost lambs are so fearful of their safety that they have called on organized gun nuts (i.e. militias) to protect them against their big, bad Democratic woman governor. 

Heck, the statehouse had to be closed for fear the gun nuts will overreact. Civil war anyone?

So things are getting a little, um, hot under the collar for American politicians. But as least their not yet dropping dead like those 36, and counting, heat exhaustion fatalities in India. 

Meanwhile, back on the home front.

Look, I know that Florida is always supposed to be hot in the summer. We brag about it. But this summer’s heat somehow feels different. More final. More emphatic. More oppressive. The new normal?

Yes, I’m 71 and still riding. But I’ve never felt like it was the heat that would finally topple me off my bike. I always thought it would be a car. But now I’m driving instead of riding because it is a living hell out there. Life is funny.

I suppose I could drive to the beach and cool down in the Atlantic. 

Oh wait. I read that in just one week last summer more than a thousand people were stung by jellyfish on Volusia County beaches. “The explosion in their numbers has been attributed to warming seas and even increased pollution; unlike many other marine creatures, jellyfish can cope with reduced oxygen levels,” reports the World Economic Forum. 

Plus there’s that whole red tide, blue-green algae thing.

Anyway, it didn’t really get to be 100 degrees the day I drove instead of rode. Just high 90s. But my Weather Channel app helpfully informed me that the “heat and humidity currently make it feel like 100.” So there’s that.

And City Lab is warning that “If climate goals aren’t met extreme heat will kill thousands in U.S. cities.” 

Listen, if this keeps up as many American cyclists and pedestrians are going to be killed by the heat and humidity as by cars. 

Trump’s man in Florida

Very early on in my Navy stint I signed a petition.

Yeah, I know. But it was the sixties and my generation was going to change the world. Cue Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

I don’t even remember what we were seeking redress for. I do remember my Come To Jesus meeting with a kindly chief bosuns mate who gently explained that when the Navy wanted my opinion they’d beat it out of me.

Or words to that effect. 

Fine, the military isn’t a democracy. But that’s pretty much the same message Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered when he signed legislation making it harder, if not impossible, to get citizen-initiated amendments to the Florida constitution on the ballot.

Memo to Floridians: When we want your opinion we’ll tell your elected representative what it is.

Unless your elected representative is a Democrat, in which case keep your lame opinions to yourself.

So much for our new breath-of-fresh-air chief executive. 

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. 

Listen, the elected elite in Tallahassee hate it when the peons try to tell them what to do via amendment initiative. And for the most part when that happens they try their best to ignore whatever the mandate might be.

Polluter Pays? Nah, Big Sugar buys too many politicians to have to spend even more money saving the Everglades.

The conservation land and water amendment? They laughed it off.

Let former felons vote? Not unless they pay through the nose first.

Fair districts? Well, the Legislature tried to ignore it but for once the courts insisted. 

Which is the real reason for this new move to criminalize the petition gathering process. 

The big Florida Republican priority right now is to deliver the state to Donald Trump next year. 

That should be easy, except that Trump steps on his own tongue so much that he makes everything harder than it ought to be. 

The last thing the party wants to see is Trump’s name on the same ballot as a constitutional amendment to ban assault weapons. That might turn out altogether the wrong sort of voter.

The assault weapons ban has already collected more than 100,000 signatures, but it needs 766,200 valid names to get on the ballot. 

“I think it’s very unfortunate that they want to muzzle Florida citizens from conducting democracy and giving us a voice,” Gail Schwartz, chair of the initiative drive, told Florida Phoenix. “It is going to make things harder and it is going to make things more expensive…”

Which is pretty much the point. DeSantis rode into the governor’s office on Trump’s blessing, and now he’s bound to return the favor. 

And it’s not just an assault weapons ban that worries the elites. Other petition initiatives hovering over the 2020 ballot propose to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicaid coverage for the poor, open up primary elections to all voters (horrors!) and require background checks for firearms purchases.

The peasants are revolting! Time to crack the whip.

Florida has been under one-party rule for more than 20 years. During that time the reds in power have done everything possible to insulate themselves against demographic shifts that might give the blues some wiggle room. Voter purges? Sure. Voting registration barriers? Why not? Gerrymandering? As long as they could get away with it. And now weaponizing the constitution against the reformers in the cheap seats. 

Ain’t democracy wonderful?

“A direct democracy is for other places,” Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, famously said this past session, “not, namely, the United States or the state of Florida,” 

Oh, right, I forgot.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun.

More autoAmerican anarchy

Being another update about everyday acts of anarchy in autoAmerica:

Life is cheap in autoTexas. With 10 people a day being killed on Lone Star State roads, the Texas Transportation Commission says it will adopt a “Vision Zero” plan to cut that death toll in half….in 15 years maybe. And never mind that Gov. Gregg Abbott just signed a bill to ban cameras that catch and ticket red light runners because…well a crime undetected is no crime at all in Texas. 

“Time and time again, injuries and deaths have increased in cities that have banned automated traffic enforcement,” notes Streetsblog USA. “The debate in Texas was dominated by people who felt victimized by getting tickets. But for the actual victims of red-light running crashes, the effects are pretty devastating. These crashes are fairly high-speed and often deadly.”

Case in point: With the death of 67-year old Rosalinda Portillo, 67 – run down as she crossed the street – San Antonio recorded its 25th pedestrian casualty this year. And the year’s not even half over yet. “You’re really literally playing Frogger out there,” “Texas DOT San Antonio spokesman Hernan Rozemberg told the local ABC news outlet. Truth.

Not that Texas has anything on Florida. In Daytona Beach 35-year old off-duty senior sheriff’s deputy Frank Scofield, setting out on a 35-mile bicycle ride, was killed when the driver of a van ran a stop sign. “Frank was a fearless and dedicated deputy,” Sheriff Mike Chitwood told The Daytona News-Journal. “He had a giant heart.” Ironically, Chitwood is a longtime advocate of cops on bikes. 

Meanwhile in Altamonte Springs, a car left the road, ran up onto a sidewalk and collided with a man and woman on bicycles. The couple’s 18-month old son – strapped into a carrier on dad’s bike – was killed. “The fact that we are a state that embraces the ‘share the road’ philosophy and everything like that, I don’t think it’s specific to the incident because the family was on the sidewalk, not on the roadway, so that would not be a factor in this case,” Altamonte Springs Police spokeswoman Evelyn Estevez told Fox News 13. Missing the point much?

And in Miami, a hit-and-run driver was trying to make good his escape when a group of, um, traffic vigilantes moved to stop him. Reviewing video footage of the incident the Miami Herald reports: “One of the witnesses of the crash pulls out a hammer and smashes several windows as another person yanks off the car door handle — all while the car is still moving. The report continued “In the footage, one elderly man throws his hands up in the air and shouts “No te muevas!” (Don’t move!”) The man stood near the wheels of the vehicle and the driver then accelerated. About half a dozen people crowded the car as glass fell on to the asphalt. The Herald also reports that the hit-and-run suspect has received 29 tickets in 10 years. So, one for the good guys.

But in Cape Coral 9-year-old Layla Aiken was sitting in the grass waiting for her school bus when the driver of a pickup truck apparent lost control of his vehicle while making a left-hand turn, ran off the road and killed her. “The pickup truck’s left side tires left the roadway and traveled onto the grass and dirt shoulder toward Layla,” reports WINK News. The 19-year-old driver left the scene but was later foundarrested and charged with “Leaving Scene of a Traffic Crash with Fatality; Vehicular Homicide; Possession of Cannabis and Drug Paraphernalia.”

But enough about Florida for now. On the mean streets of Algansee Township, in Michigan, three children were killed when the 21-year-old truck driver plowed into the back of a horse-drawn Amish buggy. The Battle Creek Enquirer reports that “two adults and five children inside the buggy were ejected.” The driver was arrested and “charged with three counts of operating while under the influence causing serious injury and one count of possessing a firearm while intoxicated.”

In Cincinnati drivers of two cars, apparently working in tandem, drove up and down a sidewalk multiple times seemingly looking for pedestrians to run down. A 41-year old woman was seriously injured after being slammed by one of the vehicles.

Speaking of autoTerrorism, in Draper, Utah, a driver reportedly toked on various drugs swerved across a road and hit an 11-year old girl walking a scooter. Reviewing security camera footage of the incident, police said the act was intentional. Reported fox13now.com the driver “got out of the car after the crash, aggressively walked up to the girl and said, ‘We all have to die sometime.’”

In the space of just three hours a pedestrian and a motorcyclists were killed in separate incidents in San Francisco. The deaths, reports SF Weekly bring the city’s “2019’s Vision Zero count to 14, outpacing the previous year. Eight who died were pedestrians, three were in vehicles, one was a cyclist, and another was on a skateboard.” Martha Lindsay, of Walk SF, said “This is a crisis, and city leaders must address it as such. And we cannot let anyone become numb to what’s happening. These are people, not numbers.”

And finally comes this depressing news from Streetsblog USA under the headline “States aren’t even trying to reduce traffic deaths”:

“Fifty more people dead in Michigan. Sixty one in Virginia. One hundred and six in Arizona. Those are the goals those state’s departments of transportation have set for themselves for road deaths under a new federal program challenging them to improve.

“Even some of the most progressive states are calling for more people dead under new “targets” for certain performance measures they must report to the federal government.”

Listen, when your state’s “traffic safety” goal contemplates an even higher body count than you’ve already got, they’re doing something wrong.

Stay tuned.

The revolution is in peril

Now that “personal mobility” is getting to be a thing, the public safety implications of emerging personal transportation options like electric scooters is getting more press. I was particularly struck by a recent Associated Press report headlined (in the Oregonian) “Worldwide scooter booms leads to more serious injuries, fatalities.”

The story begins with one scooter riders near brush with death: “Andrew Hardy was crossing the street on an electric scooter in downtown Los Angeles when a car struck him at 50 miles per hour and flung him 15 feet in the air before he smacked his head on the pavement and fell unconscious.”

Long story short, Hardy suffered extensive injuries, including several broken bones, but miraculously lived to tell about it. 

And what was the take-away from Hardy’s near brush with death?

“These scooters should not be available to the public,” he told AP. “Those things are like a death wish.”

Now maybe it’s just me. But shouldn’t the takeaway be the absolute insanity of any motorist in any downtown in any city in America being able to drive 50 mph? 

Is the bottom line here that we need to stop riding e-scooters anywhere within potential collision distance of motor vehicles that are routinely being driven so fast and so carelessly that the rider’s life and limb would be in peril as a result of that proximity?

No question there are legitimate issues that need to be resolved as the e-scooter – or the e-bike or the e-pogo stick or e-whatever comes next – craze continues to spread in American cities. Who should be allowed to share sidewalk space or bike lanes and who should get precedence therein? And how do you control e-clutter in ride-share situations when the things can be picked up and dropped off anywhere a respective rider cares to begin and end?

All of that conceded, the bottom line, whether one’s personal mobility device of choice be scooter, bicycle, skates pogo stick or just good old fashion shoe leather is the same in virtually every instance.

We have deliberately built our communities and designed our public streets for the convenience of people who encase themselves inside fast and powerful motor vehicles. We design everything from lane width to speed limits to intersections to pedestrian crossings to curb cuts to turning radius with the primary intention of allowing people to drive as quickly and as efficiently as possible through the urban landscape. This because being forced to sit in traffic is considered the closest thing to a cardinal sin in autoAmerica.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We know how to design our streets to be less auto-centric and more forgiving for walkers, cyclists, scooter riders and other living things. What we lack is the political courage to do the right thing.

Do we really want to restrict e-scooter traffic because drivers deem it their right to travel move at 40-45-50 mph or faster in the middle of a city? Must pedestrians really be obliged by law to walk a quarter of a mile, or even further, just to get to the nearest designated crosswalk so they can safely cross to the other side? Most won’t. We know that. Most will simply look for a gap in traffic and take their chances. And when that happens with the predictable tragic consequences, will we continue to blame the “jaywalker” and give the innocent motorist a pass?

Back to the AP report: “There are no comprehensive statistics available but a rough count…turned up at least 11 electric scooter rider deaths in the U.S. since the beginning of 2018. Nine were on rented scooters and two on ones the victims owned. With summer fast approaching, the numbers will undoubtedly grow as more riders take to the streets.”

Let’s put that into perspective, shall we? 

Roughly 11 e-scooter deaths in a year and a half in autoAmerica 

In 2017 more than 40,000 people died in motor vehicle collisions. Including some 6,000 pedestrians and cyclists. 

Oh, and bike-ped deaths are on the increase even as traffic deaths in general have been declining. Put differently, we have insured that people inside automobiles are safer than ever. Meanwhile, people on foot or on bicycles are in more jeopardy with each passing year.  

“Across the nation, cyclist fatalities have increased by 25% since 2010 and pedestrian deaths have risen by a staggering 45%. More people are being killed because cities are encouraging residents to walk and bike, but their roads are still dominated by fast-moving vehicular traffic,” John Ronnie Short, public policy professor at the University of Maryland, writes on CQZ.com. As my research has shown, this shifting mix can be deadly.”

So, yes, by all means, we need to have a public conversation about how to meld all of the emerging forms of the personal mobility revolution into the mainstream of public life. But make no mistake. So long as we continue to concede our streets and roads to lead-footed drivers, this revolution will be a bloody one indeed.   

Sleepless in City Hall

Former Alachua County Manager Randy Reid typically ends his correspondence with “In Public Service.” Appropriate coming from a man who has spent his professional life working in city and county governments.

Reid recently sent me a document titled “What keeps local government managers up at night.” The product of a series of focus group discussions involving local government managers in Florida, the concerns expressed were pretty much what you might expect – state legislatures eating away at home rule authority, deteriorating infrastructure, eroding tax bases and the like.

Ironically, within hours of sending the document Reid – now a regional coordinator for the International City & County Management Association – was abruptly summoned to provide assistance to one local government, Virginia Beach, whose managers suddenly had ample cause to lose sleep.

Add to the list of things that keep managers up at night: Mass shootings.

“Virginia Beach is the classic nightmare for public managers in our current era of political divisiveness and recognized failure to be able to identify or track people with mental health or violent prone tendencies in our communities and workforces,” Reid told me in an email.

Reid had been attending a city and county manager conference in Orlando when the news broke about a disgruntled city worker who used an automatic pistol rigged with sound suppressor and extended ammunition capacity to murder 11 Virginia Beach employees and a local contractor. 

Most of the managers at the conference, he wrote, were thinking “this easily could have been my city or county.”

“We all have war stories of disgruntled employees who could have carried out threats or gone off their meds.”

Such is the occupational hazard of working for the branch of government that is, by definition and proximity, “closest to the people,” in the most heavily armed society in the history of human civilization. And unlike the well guarded buildings that shelter Congress and most state legislatures, city halls and county administration buildings tend to be easily accessible, and thus vulnerable. 

“Public buildings and meeting areas must remain open and accessible in a democracy,” Reid wrote, “so short of implementing TSA procedures, meetings in public facilities must balance security and ease of access and are likely places of future occasional tragedies.” 

Not surprisingly, this tends to foster a near state of siege mentality among those who work in local government buildings. 

“Most managers instinctively visually scan meetings for known troubled attendees, look for packages carried into meetings and scan empty parking lots if leaving the building late, and some on occasion if lawful carry firearms on persons and vehicles. Bailiff or police officers are now common place at meeting and have been for decades. Card entry to non public areas the norm,” Reid wrote.

Randy and I both regularly attend an informal gathering of current and former Gainesville and Alachua County elected officials, employees and community leaders. And quite often during our sessions, the increasingly hostile and uncivil tone of public comment at city and county meetings is a topic for discussion. 

In Virginia Beach, it was an angry employee who wielded the gun. But you don’t have to watch too many local city commission meetings to wonder about the prospect of angry rhetoric degenerating into something decidedly more deadly. 

When commissioners are routinely impugned as liars, fools and thieves how can they not worry about their own personal safety and that of their families? When city employees must sit mute as their professional reputations are impugned and their personal lifestyles condemned, how can they not wonder when ugly verbiage may take a lethal turn?

We live in an era of political polarization in which the popular rhetoric of the day more often makes government out to be the enemy than the servant of the people. Combine that with easy access to firearms – not to mention state and federal restrictions on the ability to the locals to control guns – and it is easy to understand why city halls and county administration buildings may become irresistible targets of opportunity for the spiteful, the vengeful and the deranged. 

Looking back on his own career in local government, Reid recalls “I have personally always had meeting room evacuation and emergency plans distributed to folks on the dais with procedures, as to code words, exit procedures and where to meet up for post event security.

“I and many  managers, like cops, learn not to set with backs toward the door in public places, take different routes when commuting if suspecting trouble or harassment,” Reid continued. “Personally in forty years I have been threatened several times, harassed while shopping for groceries and at civic events and physically assaulted once at restaurant when I did have my back turned to the door by the brother of a terminated employee requiring police response and arrest.”

“In Public Service” is a worthy salutation for legions of men and women who labor each day on behalf of their fellow city and county residents. That such public servants all too often become objects of public contempt – and, yes, even human targets – says something frightening about the fragile state of our democracy in an age of rage. 

Time for a managed retreat

We did not save the best for last on our Forgotten Coast Tour. 

In fact, on the very first day of Bike Florida’s most popular small group tour our riders were treated to something truly extraordinary. Call it a blast from the past.

Leaving Port St. Joe cyclists headed west on U.S. 98. On their left the aqua blue Gulf of Mexico glistened in the sun, and no wall-to-wall condos blocked that extraordinary view. No cookie-cutter chain restaurants. No glass towers blotting out the sky, housing northern retirees determined to spend their final years perched on the edge of paradise. 

Cycling past the quirky El Governor Hotel, the Crab Shack, Toucans and the Grey Whale. Stopping for a break at the Visitors Center, next to the Giant Chair. 

Mexico Beach in all its retro glory. Looking still as though it had been ripped from the pages of a 1960s-era travel guide.

Last year we had to cancel our tour because Hurricane Michael got there first, leaving much of the Forgotten Coast disheveled and almost all of Mexico Beach in ruins. And today, eight months later, Mexico Beach is still mostly rubble. Many of its residents continue to live in wretched conditions as they wait for vindictive members of Congress to stop playing games with a long delayed disaster relief bill. 

Politicians from the President on down have promised to put things back the way they were. But you really can’t put Mexico Beach back the way it was. When rebuilding begins in earnest, the ubiquitous condos and towers and cookie cutter chains will inevitably replace the modest beach houses and mom-and-pop motels that gave the town its charm. 

Which begs the larger question: Even if we could put Mexico Beach back the way it was, should we?

Given what we know about the inevitability of sea level rise. About climate change generating ever more extreme hurricanes. About the corrosive march of coastal erosion despite our best efforts to armor against it.

Not to mention the spiraling fiscal liability of supporting a national flood insurance program that pays to rebuild in areas that have flooded before and will certainly do so again. 

“Across the nation, tens of billions of tax dollars have been spent on subsidizing coastal reconstruction in the aftermath of storms, usually with little consideration of whether it actually makes sense to keep rebuilding in disaster-prone areas,” noted the New York Times in 2012, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. 

Seven years and several hurricanes later, we’re still giving scant consideration to whether it makes sense to rebuild vulnerable communities like Mexico Beach. 

Which is not to say that disaster victims should be abandoned. A saner policy would make displaced residents whole again by giving them the means to rebuild – just not in the same place. In return for that compensation, coastal and flood plane properties would revert to conservation, never to be built upon again. 

A so-called “managed retreat” policy would, over time, not only move residents inland and out of harm’s way, but also enable coastal areas to “heal themselves,” as it were. Construction being a main cause of coastal erosion 

“Managed or planned retreat…allows the shoreline to advance inward unimpeded,” explains beachapedia.org. As the shore erodes, buildings and other infrastructure are either demolished or relocated inland.”

Mexico Beach was a true Florida treasure. But we know from bitter experience that it is possible to love our Florida treasures to death. 

Better to let it go and fondly remember Mexico Beach the way it was. 

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun and one-time executive director of Bike Florida. This column was published in The Sun on June, 2, 2019.)