Cars, cows and trees

I originally wrote this piece several years ago for The Sun. Oddly, with a bit of updating it seems as relevant today as ever.

Fuller Warren put the cows behind bars and made Florida safe for cars. What could possibly go wrong?

Modern Florida was born in 1948. (So was I, but that’s another story.)

That’s when Gov. Fuller Warren championed a law to make farmers fence their cattle off the roads.

Florida’s Declaration of Annexation into autoAmerica.

And, hey, no mistake that was Fuller’s legacy. They even named a big bridge in Jacksonville in his honor.

The Fuller Warren bridge is an efficient mover of fast traffic through Jax.

And it seemed like a good idea at the time. Heck, when we grab our burgers on the fly, we like them to be already cooked and wrapped.

 Still, on reflection, locking up the cows and throwing away the key might have been a miscalculation.

Check out Tom Vanderbilt’s insightful book “Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)”.

Basically, the book’s premise is this: We humans are not nearly as good behind the wheel as we think we are. And that’s the problem.

 Anyway, back to the cows.

 In his book, Vanderbilt asks a traffic engineer in Delhi about the cattle frequently seen on roads in India.

 “As much as I don’t like the presence of a cow on the road when I am advocating smoother traffic and convenience, the presence of a cow also forces a person to slow down,” the engineer replied. “The overall impact is to reduce the tendency to over-speed and to rashly and negligently drive.”

Cows in India, Vanderbilt concludes, “function as mental speed bumps.”

Hey! I’m standin’ right here buddy!

 This isn’t really a plea for bovine liberation. Lord knows the poor brutes have suffered enough.

 Still, imagine if Florida motorists had to watch out for heavy cows as well as frail human beings.

Do you think we would still lead the nation in pedestrian deaths?

Why should Florida be so deadly toward pedestrians? Here’s a hint.

In his book, Vanderbilt writes of driving Orlando’s East Colonial Drive with walkable streets expert Dan Burden, and being surprised at the 45-mph speed limit posted on that congested urban street.

Orlando’s East Colonial Drive is over-engineered for speed.

” If you look on a city-by-city basis, county by county, you’re going to find our high speeds are seven to fifteen (mph) higher than they will be in most states,” Burden said.

 Speed kills. We ought to have billboards on the border that say: “Welcome to the Drive Fast And Take Your Chances State”.

And you don’t have to live in a major Florida city to fear for your life if you walk across the street or get on a bicycle (Florida also usually leads the nation in bicycle deaths).

Here in Gainesville, we get more than our share of pedestrian and cycling fatalities. These days, University Avenue – our ‘signature’ street – is ground zero for bike-ped fatalities.

 Vanderbilt argues that over-engineered roads with wide lanes, and generous rights-of-way cleared of obstacles like trees actually encourage motorists to drive faster than they would on streets that are narrower, less well marked and lined with obstructions.

Ever been to DeLand, home of Stetson University? Its main drag connects Stetson with a lively downtown that puts Gainesville’s to shame.

Two-laned Woodland Blvd., notes Vanderbilt, is lined with mature trees a few feet from the road.

The trees that line DeLand’s Woodland Blvd. at Stetson University function as traffic calming devices.

 A traffic study of that road found not a single crash in four years, and observed that drivers routinely travel at or below the posted 30-mph limit.

 The hazards were the safety device, Vanderbilt writes. “The tree-lined road goes against the typical engineering paradigm which would have deemed the trees unsafe and in need of removal.”

Contrast that to four-laned University Avenue between UF and downtown. Sterile, blighted and dotted with the occasional tree, its 30-mph limit is mostly treated like a guideline rather than a mandate.

By contrast, University Avenue, like East Colonial Drive, is designed for speed, whatever the posted limit.

That our signature road functions as little more than a conduit for speeding cars shows how little regard we have had in this progressive college town for the whole notion of being a walkable community.

Transportation for America recommends any number of traffic-calming policies that can be deployed to take our streets back.

“In recent years, community after community has begun to retrofit poorly designed roads to become complete streets, adding sidewalks and bicycle lanes, reducing crossing-distances and installing trees and crosswalks to make walking and biking safer and more inviting,” says the Dangerous by Design report. “The resulting safer streets have saved lives of both pedestrians and motorists even as they promote health by leading many residents to become more physically active.

It’s unfortunate that it took so many traffic deaths to, finally, convince the powers that be that University Avenue needs to be redesigned. Hopefully, the retrofit will look and function more like DeLand’s Woodland Blvd. than Orlando’s East Colonial Drive. (Make no mistake: Those new speed tables just installed University are just a temporary stop-gap. Or at least they should be.)

Of course, if all else fails, we can always turn the IFAS cows loose.

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