Our deadly streets

University Avenue

It must be a new year because we’re wringing our hands, again, over people getting run down in the streets of Gainesville.

“This is an ongoing and serious condition that has proven to be difficult to address,” Mayor Lauren Poe opined after three pedestrians were killed in the course of two weeks.

We heard pretty much the same kind of talk around this time last year, after four pedestrians and cyclists were killed within the space of just a few days in January.

At the onset of 2020 the Sun reported that seven pedestrians had been killed in each of the previous two years – a dramatic jump from 2015, when just three died.

And if the most recent street casualty rate seems odd – considering that we’re still coming out of a Covid year when, presumably, more people were working at home and fewer were driving – it shouldn’t.

University Avenue

What we saw across the country in 2020 is that when there are fewer drivers on the road, those who are still motoring tend to drive faster and with less care.

Fewer cars on urban streets engineered to highway specifications turn out to be a lethal combination.

“Traffic congestion has a calming effect on traffic,” observes Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns. “With the virus-induced drop in traffic volume, what is being revealed is the incredible level of over-engineering that occurs on nearly all of our streets.”

That is nowhere more evident than on University Avenue. UF students are regularly run down on Gainesville’s “signature” street precisely because it is “over-engineered” to facilitate rapid traffic movement rather than public safety.

And that is the “difficult to address” problem facing commissioners: People drive too fast through Gainesville’s urban environment, with predictable consequences.

And they are driving too fast by design.

NW 8th Avenue by GPD

So now commissioners are talking about maybe beefing up Gainesville’s jaywalking laws. That will have no practical impact on public safety, but would at least give the impression that the city is still working on a Vision Zero plan to eliminate road deaths…some day.

Contrast this to what another university city did in 2020 to advance its Vision Zero goals.

Among other things Austin, Texas:

• Lowered speed limits on 850 miles of city streets.

• Added more than 15 miles of new or improved bike lanes, including nearly 8 miles of protected bike lanes (Gainesville has no protected bike lanes).

• Made intersection improvements that resulted in a 30 percent reduction in crashes.

• Created a “Vision Zero Viewer” an online tool that constantly tracks traffic crash data.

“People will look back at the year 2020 decades from now and will note it as the year transportation in Austin fundamentally changed,” Austin Assistant City Manager Gina Fiandaca told reporters. “This pandemic showed us what can happen when we manage our transportation demand and get people out of peak commutes.”

But, yeah, we should definitely crack down on jaywalking here in Gainesville.

13th Street

On the other hand, if we want to stop killing people in the streets, than we really need to get to work changing our street designs so they are less forgiving of heavy-footed drivers and more protective of people who just want to cross the street and get home alive.

“The time to act is now,” Strong Towns’ Mahron urges American cities. “It took us decades to build such expansive networks of dangerous and costly streets. It’s going to take us time to unwind this mess.”

The clock’s running, Gainesville.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at rondarts2008@gmail.com.

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