Our accidental avenue

Four-year-old Dylan Roberts died of traffic violence on Oct. 7. This because University Avenue cuts off the house he lived in from the park he played like a knife.

It was a week before young Dylan’s death made TV news, and two weeks before it was reported in The Sun. I’d hate to think that’s because Dylan was run over on East University (the poor side of town) rather than West University. But I’ve never known a pedestrian death by traffic violence in the vicinity of the University of Florida to go that long unreported.

But never mind that. Shortly after his death finally did become public knowledge there was some well meaning chatter on Facebook about opening a GoFundMe account to raise enough money for the installation of a crosswalk on East University to more safely connect Fred Cone Park to its across-the-avenue neighbors.

I can’t think of a more savage statement about living with autoAmerica Anarchy than the idea that people feel they need to raise money on their own (how about a bake sale?) to pay for pedestrian safety improvements.

As though our own government – our state DOT, our city – either can’t be bothered to do it or doesn’t think doing it’s worth the expense…let alone the inconvenience to drivers.

Now there is plenty of talk, at least among city commissioners, about putting a crosswalk near where Dylan died. Perhaps FDOT will even agree. Problem solved.

Except that putting a single crosswalk on a very long avenue lined with housing on one side and a park, community center and health department on the other side strikes me as a cruel bureaucratic exercise in appeasement.

“The problem is that unlike a stop sign, at which drivers must always halt their vehicle, a crosswalk is viewed by many drivers as optional or only relevant in some cases i.e. when a pedestrian is present.

“A driver traveling at 35 or 40 miles an hour along a stroad might see that yellow diamond out of the corner of her eye but it’s unlikely that she’ll also be able to 1) notice whether or not a person is standing near the sign and, if so, 2) slow down in time to come to a complete halt in order for the pedestrian to cross. The driver is simply moving too fast to do all of this mental, optical and physical coordination at once.”

The above quote comes from a perceptive blog by Rachel Quednau, program director for Strong Towns. Anyone who follows Strong Towns should understand that slowing cars so as to reduce traffic violence is never as simple as laying down the occasional crosswalk.

“What should happen, and what would essentially eliminate the need for crosswalks, is to narrow our streets with road diets (or more permanent methods), and in doing so, naturally slow the speed of cars. When everyone is driving slower, it will be much easier to keep on the lookout for pedestrians,” she writes.

And here’s the thing. Almost the entirety of University Avenue, at least from Waldo Road west to NW 34th Street, is heavily commercial and criss-crossed by major highways that dump traffic on University.

But from Waldo Road east all the way to where it dead ends at Newnans Lake, the character of University Avenue is altogether different. From SE 24th St. east tt is largely residential and lined for long stretches with dense woods.

It is true that NW 55th Blvd feeds traffic onto East University from NE 39th Avenue (E SR 26). But the drivers taking advantage of that short cut to UF largely live east of Gainesville, are in a hurry to get to and from their in-city jobs, and like East University’s wide, high-speed four lanes because it may cut off a minute or two of driving time.

But if East University – say, from NE 55th Blvd to SE 24th St, just under two miles – were a residential street rather than a four-lane high-speedy traffic funnel, those drivers could just as easily remain on 39th until they get to Waldo Rd, Main Street or even U.S. 441 before turning south to their jobs.

How about this?

How about we rename the stretch of East University Avenue between Newnans lake and SE 24th St. University Street? And then we turn it into a two-lane neighborhood street with a top speed of, oh, let’s say 25 mph?

Would that throw all of east Gainesville into traffic paralysis? No.

Listen, turning that high-speed avenue into a traffic-calmed street could be done quickly and relatively cheaply using tactical urbanism techniques (maybe even throwing in a stop sign and crosswalk or two for good measure).

Does Gainesville really have to risk the lives of its children so that people from Palatka can more conveniently and quickly drive to their jobs at UF? Is it worth the life of even one more Dylan Roberts?

Somebody needs to ask FDOT that question.

I’d hate to think the answer is yes. But ultimately it will be up to FDOT to decide whether the death of a four-year-old East Gainesville child is just the occasional price we have to pay to keep autoAmerica moving through the heart of Gainesville as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

I think Gainesville is better than that. Prove me wrong.

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