Yes, sidewalks matter

Lately I’ve been thinking about Gainesville’s sidewalks.

(And before you say it, yes I do have a life.)

On my bike travels around town I’ve been taking photos and reviewing our, um, sidewalk landscape.

For the most part it’s pretty depressing. Not at all what you might expect in a progressive college town that professes to be a “walkable community.”

My column in this coming Sunday’s Sun expounds on the sad state of GNV’s sidewalks. In the meantime, here’s a primer.

I had a conversation recently with Dan Burden, nationally recognized walkable communities expert who used to live in High Springs. He told me a city that doesn’t love its sidewalks doesn’t love its children.

“If you are not building for your pedestrians you are not a city in the sense that you care about livability, quality of life,” he said. “The sidewalk is an equalizer” in a culture that devotes altogether too many resources to cars.

The University of Florida is the epicenter of foot traffic in GNV. It’s always amazed me that a university surrounded on four sides by highways has such inadequate sidewalks to protect its students.

For a couple blocks on 13h Street the campus-side sidewalk simply disappears, to be replaced by a well worn footpath…people are literally walking in the dirt just inches from speeding traffic.

Because of the recent deaths on University Avenue, they are making a lot of street alterations intended to slow traffic.

Naturally they have appropriated finite sidewalk space for signs alerting motorists to changes in traffic patterns.

Because that’s what we do in autoAmerica.

Just south of UF, where 13th Street converges onto Archer Road, the sidewalk becomes so skinny that mountain goats would have a difficult time negotiating it.

When I see a sidewalk like this at an impossibly busy traffic juncture I realize how much contempt traffic engineers have for people on foot.

University Avenue ought to be a GNV showcase. The center of the town’s prosperity. But empty storefronts and marginal businesses are all too common on our “signature street.”

Wonder if the decrepit condition of the avenue’s sidewalks have anything to do with that?

10-foot travel lanes. 8-foot parking spaces. 5-foot sidewalks. That tells you everything you need to know about our priorities.

Sure, we love to hate those “big, ugly” buildings popping up around the university. But the truth is that recently constructed sites like The Standard are the only places where the sidewalks have actually been enlarged and beautified.

That’s because the city, which has no sidewalk improvement program of its own, can require developers to do the work for them.

Yes, it’s a jungle out there. Who wants to walk in a concrete jungle?

Plant a utility pole in the sidewalk? Why not? Nobody else uses it.

We have also been pretty generous about allowing businesses to appropriate finite sidewalk space in the interest of commerce.

On the plus side, if you squint a bit and fool around with the light and colors, you can almost imagine our decrepit sidewalks as works of art in their own right.

Brutalist school of course.

Our sidewalks are trying to tell us something. Maybe we ought to pay more attention to them.

All I’m saying is our sidewalks could use a little more love.

Not in this town, pal.

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