Design is destiny

Not all roads must lead to ruin.

South Main Street funnels traffic into downtown Gainesville. It traverses mom-and-pop businesses, an industrial district and Depot Park. Big trucks, cars, buses, walkers and cyclists all use South Main in more or less peaceful coexistence.

Archer Road also brings traffic into the heart of the city. On the way it runs right through Gainesville’s “medical mile,” past the VA Hospital and UF Health’s tightly packed hospitals, clinics and labs.

Archer is also traffic-,transit- and pedestrian-intensive. And some of its pedestrians must get around with the help of canes and wheelchairs.

Slowing traffic where there are lots of sick and elderly people – and thousands of health care workers – would seem to be good public safety policy. I assumed that was the reason 25 mph speed limit signs were once posted on Archer between SW 23rd St. and SW 13th St.

Because we know that speed kills.

But it turns out that the 25 mph limit was just a temporary inconvenience for drivers while road construction was underway. Last month, the limit was raised to 35 mph.

Not that posted limits count for very much. Archer was designed for speed. Multiple, broad travel lanes, no on-street bike lanes or parking, no roundabouts and good straight lines of sight all conspire to empower fast drivers.

The speed limit on South Main is 30 mph. But unlike Archer, South Main was deliberately designed to move traffic at a slow, steady pace. A single, narrow travel lane, on-street bike lanes and parking, roundabouts, landscaped median and other “traffic calming” designs induce motorists to behave themselves.

South Main used to look a lot like Archer, and it similarly invited rural highway speeds.

True confession: I got my last ticket on the old South Main speedway. In retrospect, I should have pleaded entrapment by design.

If you haven’t been paying attention, South Main is beginning to blossom. Depot Park and the Cade are people magnets, and new businesses are beginning to spring up in a corridor once known more for urban blight than vitality.

In contrast, Archer’s medical mile continues to be traffic-centric. Moving cars as quickly and efficiently as possible is goal No. 1, with public safety a distant second.

Why UF isn’t demanding that the state turn that stretch of Archer into a South Main clone is baffling to me. If though traffic was diverted around the medical complex and onto SW 16th Avenue, only people who had health business to attend to would need to drive through medical mile.

The old South Main speedway is newly redesigned by the City of Gainesville to improve the urban quality of life. It is reviving a once moribund part of the city without disrupting, only slowing, traffic.

Archer was designed by the state to do exactly what it does. Move a lot of cars very quickly.

But here’s the thing. All over America, cities are waking up to the necessity of obliging cars to behave themselves in order to make the public streets safer and accessible to people who do not seal themselves up inside protective metal cocoons.

In any sane society the safety of people who get around with the help of wheelchairs and walkers would take precedence over the convenience of fast driving.

But that’s the story of autoAmerica.

We can be better than that in Gainesville. We can choose to design our own destiny. Not all of our roads must lead to ruin.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at http://www.floridavelocipede.com.

Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

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