Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about stroads.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. You officially have no life, Cunningham.
But, really, if what we’ve been through with Covid – what we’re still going through for that matter – doesn’t get us to thinking about how things work in our community and how we might improve things don’t work so well, then what’s the point?
So let’s talk about stroads. And to kick this discussion off I’m reposting a column I wrote for The Sun in 2014. Six years later it still feels surprisingly relevant. Perhaps more so because of some of the things the city has been doing lately to try to keep downtown and midtown restaurants afloat during these times of pandemic.
Let’s talk about stroads.
The Urban Dictionary defines stroads thusly:
“Noun. Portmanteau of ‘street’ and ‘road’: it describes a street, er, road, built for high speed, but with multiple access points. Excessive width is a common feature … Unsafe at any speed, their extreme width and straightness paradoxically induces speeding. Somewhat more neutral than synonymous traffic sewer.“
So basically a stroad (a.k.a. traffic sewer) is a street that doesn’t work very well as a street and a road that doesn’t function very well as a road.
My favorite local example of a stroad is University Avenue, especially between 13th Street and downtown. With its four lanes of traffic, multiple lights, skinny sidewalks and 30 mph speed limit (seriously, does anybody drive 30 mph on University?) it is neither an efficient mover of traffic nor conducive to walking or doing business.
University Avenue is basically a suburban road impersonating an urban street. Which is a shame, because it really ought to be this university city’s signature street. That’s what Victor Dover told the Gainesville City Commission in 1999.
“Great cities are defined more than anything else by their great streets. Great streets are the public rooms of a city. And they are almost always a result of careful planning.“
Dover is an urban planner of national repute and co-author with John Massengale of a new book “Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns.“
His firm was hired by Gainesville some 15 years ago to help make University Avenue a great street. And the techniques for doing are being used by cities around the world to bring back struggling downtowns and urban commercial districts: fewer and narrower traffic lanes, wider sidewalks, on-street parking or bike lanes and other enhancements designed to slow traffic, promote streetside commerce and make strolling and shopping a more pleasant experience.
“It’s only going to get more difficult if you wait.” Dover warned.
Truer words were never spoken. In fact, the commission actually voted to turn University from a stroad to a street. Its redesign was placed on the long-range Transportation Improvement List, on track to top of the list by 2010.
But then the inevitable “don’t you dare try to slow us down” backlash materialized, commissioners got skittish and the project was quietly dropped.
Since then we’ve all turned our attention to fighting the cars vs. people battle elsewhere — first on Main Street and then on Northwest 16th and Eighth avenues. And nobody talks much about our “signature street” anymore.
But I have a feeling that this question of redoing University Avenue will surface again one day, if only because the trendlines are all running in its favor.
One thing that’s changed over the last 15 years is the astounding success of RTS; a lot of people who used to drive to campus are now taking the bus.
Couple that with the fact that UF’s Innovation Square initiative and the “Innovation Gainesville” economic blueprint are both designed to attract and retain more young start-up entrepreneurs.
Gainesville has always been a “young” city demographically, and IG economic strategy aims to build on that. And one thing we know about millennials is that they are less inclined to drive and more supportive of transportation alternatives than their elders.
And although much-derided — primarily by motorists who have been forced to slow down — I believe that before too many years go by, the narrowing of Main Street will revitalize the entire corridor between Eighth and Depot avenues. Empty storefronts will be filled, new businesses will open, a vibrant street life will emerge.
And, inevitably, people are going to ask “Why aren’t we doing this on University Avenue?” It was a good question 15 years ago, and it’s still a good question.
“This is a street that has no sense of itself, it could be any suburban roadway in the country,” Dan Burden, of Walkable Communities Inc., told me in 2002 during a stroll down University Avenue. ”… it’s not the highest and best use of University Avenue.“
Not much has changed on University Stroad since then. But my guess is that the next generation of Gainesville political, civic and business leaders will sooner or later put the creation of Gainesville’s signature street back on the list of things to do.
Because, seriously, do we need a traffic sewer running through the heart of Gainesville?