autoAmerican Anarchy

Back when I was a young editorial writer, I produced a regular feature called “Gunshine State.” Just a periodic roundup of the latest incidents of, um, gunplay in our Blued Steel State. Somehow I never ran out of material. 

But I have lately come to believe that the truest form of American anarchy plays itself out every day on streets and highways that we purposely design to facilitate fast and careless driving – at the expense of thousands of human lives each year. 

So I’ve decided to revert to my early editorial writing form, sort of. Here’s “autoAmerican Anarchy: Edition 1.”

  •  Phoenix, Az., may be autoAmerica’s deadliest city, with 92 pedestrian fatalities in 2017 alone. Nonetheless the city council there recently rejected a modest “Vision Zero” proposal aimed at saving a few lives. “Proponents of this insane scheme want to … make driving as difficult as possible and slowly force people out of their cars”  by “slowing traffic to a crawl.” This from councilman Sal DiCiccio, who led the charge to preserve fast driving. He went on to blame potholes for much of the carnage on Phoenix streets. On the plus side, “Potholes Kill” would certainly make a great bumper sticker.
  • In Houston a deputy who was working the scene of a fatal traffic accident was injured by a driver who was subsequently charged with DUI. Then a second deputy working the same scene was hit and injured…by the inebriated twin brother of the guy who injured the first deputy.
  • In Melbourne, Fl., a 100-year old man was driving his handicapped-equipped van when he spotted a family of sandhill cranes crossing the road. Swerving to avoid them, the man was killed when he collided with another car. “In my 25 years, I’ve heard of people stopping for turtles or cows, but I’ve never seen this, a fatality involving sandhill cranes,” said Lt. Kim Montes, a spokeswoman for the Florida Highway Patrol, told USA Today.
  • And just down the road, in Broward County, a man standing in the median of a busy intersection was reportedly hit by no fewer than three cars. He died and all three drivers fled the scene of the….oops, I almost called it an “accident.”  
  • Dave Salovesh, 54, a longtime bicycle commuter and traffic safety advocate in Washington, D.C. , was struck and killed by the driver of a stolen van. I never knew him as anything but a bicycle advocate,” said Rudi Riet, a member of Salovesh’s bicycling coffee club. “He lived and breathed making the streets safe.”
  • An angry young man in Sunnyvale, Ca., plowed his car into a group of pedestrians, injuring eight people. Police later said the act was intentional because the suspect thought some of the pedestrians looked like Muslims. 
  • In Portland, Or., an impatient driver decided to use a right hand bike lane to get around the stopped car in front of him. In the process he hit a six year old girl in the crosswalk. “Before crossing, the child’s mother had activated the lights for the marked crosswalk, which is what caused the other cars to stop,” reports Willamette Week, “…the mother was not hit, and the vehicle fled the scene without stopping.”
  • Abdul Seck, 31, was walking to a store in Washington, D.C. when he was struck and killed by a vehicle that had been rammed by a driver who had just run two stop signs. Friends and neighbors began a fundraising effort to send Seck’s body back to Senegal, the land of his birth, for burial. Seck’s friend, Ebony Munnerlyn, told WTOP “He had great things that he wanted to do for himself and now his family has to bury their son, which is something that a parent should never have to do.” 
  • Galina Alterman became the 12th person to die in vehicle crashes in San Francisco this year when she was struck in crosswalk by a truck whose driver told police he hadn’t seen her. “I’m shedding a lot of tears for all the needless deaths we’re experiencing,” said Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF, a pedestrian safety group, told the San Francisco Chronicle. She added “You just have to wonder how does a human not see another human in a crosswalk
  • The snow is melting in Minnesota, which means that prime cyclist and pedestrian hunting season is about to begin. Seven cyclists were killed in Minneapolis last year alone. Now that spring is here, John Elder, spokesman for the city’s police department, told the Star Tribune: “We have to be situationally aware and protect ourselves and each other. It’s unfortunate that drivers get angry at bikes. We have to share the road.”
  • In Salem, Org., local cycling activist David Fox took it on himself to post two official looking signs proclaiming that cyclists legally “may use full lane.” But he took them down after learning that the city would do so if he didn’t. “I think people misinterpret the law, if they even know what the law is,” Fox told the Statesman Journal. “It’s not just drivers, it’s cyclists, too. I think the majority of cyclists believe they’re supposed to ride next to all the parked cars, which is really dangerous.”9A703624-5E73-437E-BD32-0A48FFD67407

And finally

  • Cycling activists in several other cities, have begun to line up red Solo cups, fastened with tape on their bottoms, along the painted lines that separate bike lanes from traffic lanes. This to get the attention of motorists and to make the case for some sort of physical barrier between cyclists and cars. Cyclists Sam Balto told Bike Portland “I want these cups to become planters, cement bollards — things that actually prevent people form swerving into bike lanes and force drivers to pay more attention.”AD6DB6BC-BF7E-4FC4-8424-1174DB765467

Be careful out there….it’s a jungle. 

 

We’re killing our rivers

When Abe Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe he reportedly said “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

This because Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” helped fuel popular sentiment to free the slaves.

Too bad she couldn’t likewise free Florida’s St. Johns River.

“The wild untouched banks are beautiful but the new settlements generally succeed in destroying all Nature’s beauty, and give you only leafless, girdled trees, blackened stumps and naked white sand in return,” Stowe, who kept a winter home on the river, lamented in her 1873 book “Palmetto Leaves.”

Flash forward nearly a century and a half, and the 233-mile St. Johns, Florida’s only EPA-designated American Heritage River, is also one of its most endangered. 

“YUK!  Look at my river today.  First time I’ve seen the entire river green. Driving over the Palatka bridge is scary…Hey Gov. DeSantis we need to do something.”

That Facebook post was made last week by Sam Carr, who lives on the river south of Palatka. In a follow up post a few days later, Carr added “The river is still sick…I have come to the conclusion that the dumping of sludge on the headwaters of the SJR is the major difference..

“I call it the Gov. Rick Scott Memorial Algae Bloom.”

Carr knows the St. Johns like an old friend. He fishes it almost daily and has explored its length, tracing the journeys of his hero, William Bartram, the Quaker naturalist whose popular writings and drawings introduced the St. Johns to the rest of the world.

And Carr’s criticism of now U.S. Sen. Scott is not misplaced. During his time as governor Scott gutted funding and staffing for Florida’s water management districts. And he turned the Department of Environmental Protection from a watchdog to a lap dog.

In the meantime, South Florida was running out of places to dump its sewage sludge. So in the past decade nearly 90,000 tons of the stuff has been trucked north and spread on agricultural lands around the headwaters of the St. Johns. 

“What happens, when you dump it in the headwaters, it all flows this direction,” Lisa Rinaman, of St. Johns Riverkeepers, said in a recent PBS interview. “And then there’s more pollution added on to it due to septic tanks in areas, agricultural runoff, urban fertilizers…”

Unfortunately the St. Johns is not alone in its environmental distress. Every time there’s a raw sewage spill in Valdosta, Ga. – which occurs with distressing frequently – the Suwannee River gets a little sicker. The mighty Apalachicola is being robbed of the fresh water it needs to keep its celebrated oyster beds healthy. The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers are poisoned whenever the cesspool formerly known as Lake Okeechobee is lowered to keep its levies from bursting. The Ocklawaha, once a major source of fresh water for the St. Johns, is impounded for the enjoyment of bass fisherman.  

Coming off a terrible year for red tides and blue green algae, Gov. DeSantis is promising to fix all of this. But the Florida Legislature just adjourned without doing anything to retard the pollution sources that are tainting our waters from panhandle to keys.

“It’s really bad and it’s gonna get worse” when summer begins to heat the river up, says Janice Brown-Stallings, who lives on the St. John’s in Welaka. It’s having an “awful impact on fishermen, crabbers, boaters, ecotourism and locals living along the river. Don’t eat anything from the river and certainly don’t swim or ski.”

Where is Harriett Beecher Stowe when Florida needs her?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in The Sun on May 5.

Death of a panhandler

The world will little note nor long remember the man who died with his hand out while panhandling on the median at the intersection of Gainesville’s NW 16th Blvd and NW 43rd St. on Thursday.

The Sun noted it in a six paragraph brief the next day: “The vehicle that hit the victim was eastbound. He hit the median and the person standing in the median, and threw him into a car that was stopped,” GPD Inspector Jorge Campos told The Sun. “He was transported to the hospital and pronounced (dead) there.”

Neither the names of the victim nor the motorists involved were released. 

But within hours of the man’s death, the jury of public opinion was already weighing in on Facebook. An online news item drew more than 120 comments. 

“Maybe now there will be less beggars,” one compassionate soul wrote. 

“Not surprised, I knew it would happen sooner or later,” chimed in another.

And drivers “are getting so fed up they are taking matter into their own hands. This is the problem with our liberal leaders not getting the panhandling under control.”

And “STAY OUT OF THE MEDIANS! STAY AWAY FROM OUR VEHICLES! THAT IS OUR RIGHT! I DON’T WANT YOU NEAR MY VEHICLE!”

Which was not to say that this was entirely a one-sided diatribe. When one contributor suggested that Gainesville needs an ordinance “that states that for the safety of the public no person shall stand in the median,” another was quick to respond with this observation: 

“Or drivers could just not hit people on medians?  There’s a law against hitting people with your car already. In fact, more than one.”

There’s no question that the proliferation of panhandlers at intersections throughout Gainesville is generating a public backlash. We’re made uncomfortable by the sight of them. We don’t want to be bothered. We resent “these people” who would rather hold their hands out than get jobs. 

And sure enough, the day after this panhandler’s death, one city commissioner, Harvey Ward, told a luncheon group that he will pursue an ordinance to restrict panhandling. 

Apropos of nothing at all, the day before this latest Gainesville fatality occurred I was sitting in traffic on NW 13th St. and observed an elderly man with a walker slowly hobble across four wide lanes of stopped traffic. One thing I noticed was the line of fast-moving cars coming up behind him as drivers hurried to execute a left hand turn before the disabled man could get past the median and thus obstruct their progress. 

It’s not hard to imagine this elderly gentleman with a walker – or somebody very much like him – getting stuck on the same medium where that panhandler died.

What would they have said on Facebook? “One less cripple”?

I don’t mean to be insensitive. But the truth is that the very scene of this fatal “accident” – if that’s what we choose to call it – is itself an accident waiting to happen. 

Like many urban American stroads, the intersection of 16th and 43rd is intentionally designed to facilitate the fast and efficient movement of motor vehicles through the heart of the city. The speed limit on both of these intersecting corridors is 45 mph, which means that many drivers go even faster if they think they can beat the light. The median on which that panhandler lived his last moments is a narrow strip of concrete that offers scant protection against the constant flow of these unyielding masses of steel. 

Listen, I don’t care if the dead man was begging or just got caught in the median while trying to cross the street. It is no “accident” when the very street itself is “dangerous by design.”

I’ll defer to Strong Towns, the online group that does as much as any organization to point out the inherent dangers we have purposely created for ourselves when we design our towns and cities for the primary purpose of moving as many vehicles as quickly as possible while making all other considerations – saving human lives for example – secondary.

“There are a lot of reasons to want to get rid of urban stroads,” says a recent Strong Towns post. “They’re ugly. They’re frequently congested. They depress nearby property values. Most importantly, they’re deadly by design, because they inject high-speed traffic into an environment where people are likely to be present—on foot, in wheelchairs, on bikes or scooters.’

So we can condemn this unnamed panhandler if it makes us feel better about ourselves. But his death is just part and parcel of the bloody price we autoAmericans have collectively agreed to pay for our right to drive where we please as fast as we please. 

Last year alone, 6,222 pedestrians died on American streets…the highest pedestrian death toll since 1990. 

It is altogether too easy to consign this wretched panhandler to his grave with a casual “he got what he deserved” send off. But the truth is that we continue to slaughter thousands of people each year in our single-minded obsession with making the traffic run on time.

“As much as our culture loves to blame the victims, pedestrians aren’t responsible for their own demise,” says a recent commentary posted online by TalkPoverty. “Still, following each pedestrian accident, the comment stream centers blame on the victim…Instead of focusing on the structural problem of roads with increasingly heavy and fast-moving traffic or the lack of safe pedestrian paths, the culture at large points fingers at the road users who are most in danger.”

I can’t wait for my city commission to crack down on panhandling. That will surely solve everything. 

Still, I worry about the elderly gentleman I saw inching his way across four broad lanes of dangerous-by-design stroad. Will the Facebook jurors say it was his own fault when and if the law of averages finally catches up with him?

Another traffic scam

INVERNESS: On a recent Tuesday I sent 500 cyclists to Crystal River. 

And why not? What we try to do at Bike Florida’s annual spring tour is show our riders the very best this state has to offer. 

And Crystal River is a treasure. A cluster of 50 springs that discharge 64 million gallons of water daily, it is refuge for all manner of wildlife. It plays host to hundreds of manatees and draws fishermen, kayakers and snorkelers by the thousands. 

Still, I had some doubts about sending my cyclists there. And not because I thought Crystal River itself would disappoint. 

No, it was having to send them through 20 miles of suburban dreck that gave me pause. 

Because we – Floridians and snow birds alike – have larded Crystal River with subdivisions and strip malls and fast food restaurants and gas stations and motels and condos. Now you can barely see the water for all the steel and concrete. 

And we let pesticides, fertilizers and the detritus of “civilization” wash into those crystal waters. 

And we wonder where the algae blooms come from. 

And we suck up vast amounts of groundwater to keep our lawns green. 

And then wonder why the mighty Crystal River doesn’t seem quite so mighty anymore. 

We are loving this Florida treasure to death. And I fear the ecological havoc is irreversible. 

So why bring it up?

Because the main driver of all this ugly sprawl is a network of high-capacity highways that tie into the Suncoast Parkway and I-75. 

The Suncoast is a money-losing toll road and I-75 is habitually congested. (Our staff went into near panic the previous Sunday when a pile-up on the interstate spilled thousands of trucks, trailers, SUVs and pickups onto the rural Hernando County road that we had just put our cyclists on.)

The movers and shakers in the Florida Legislature say the way to “fix” this traffic mess is to build still more of the same. More high-speed, toll-financed interstate-scale highways up and down the western side of the state. The better to tie the Suncoast and the Florida Turnpike and I-75 together all the way from Collier County to Georgia. 

And to justify it they are pleading public safety. 

Just in case we ever need to evacuate Florida in case of hurricanes.

Because the best place to be during a hurricane is in your car. Storm-hardened shelters are way too dangerous. 

This is a scam, people. 

It’s a greed-driven scheme to spawn more sprawl, sow more subdivisions, subsidize more strip malls, fuel more car dealerships and create more condos up and down vast stretches of the most rural and unspoiled (read “developable”) lands Florida has left. 

Which brings me back to Crystal River. 

Personally I think it’s too late to save it. But it’s not too late to save Wacissa, Aucilla, the Suwannee and Wakulla (the only Florida spring cluster larger than Crystal River). 

It’s not too late to save Steinhatchee or Cedar Key or St. Marks or Fakahatchee or Big Bend or the rest of Florida’s out-of-reach-out-of-mind rural treasures. 

You want to see The Villages to stretch all the way from Ocala to Cedar Key? Build those new highways. 

You think we need to bail out the billionaire who bought half a million acres of land in Dixie, Taylor and Lafayette counties? Lay down that asphalt.

But don’t tell us it’s good public policy. It’s just more taxpayer subsidized despoliation (toll roads don’t always pay for themselves). 

We may be gullible but we’re not stupid.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun and route coordinator for Bike Florida.

Don’t flip McConnell

Alachua County: Where nature and culture  – if not necessarily minds – meet.

Honestly, sometimes I think the county’s left hand doesn’t know what its right hand is doing.

On one hand, officials are involved in an extensive discussion over how to attract more visitors to the county where nature and culture meet. 

On the other hand, they have been falling all over themselves in a rush to flip Camp McConnell, a 212-acre natural and cultural asset that the county purchased with Wild Spaces Public Places money.

I don’t understand the unseemly rush, or even the motivation, to sell that former YMCA camp. And at bargain basement prices no less.

I thought the whole purpose of Wild Spaces and Public Places was to preserve, not churn, important lands by placing them in public ownership. 

And then there’s that whole push to bring more tourists to our nature- and culture-imbued county.

So What’s the connection between Camp McConnell and the county’s desire to increase tourism? 

Here’s a for instance: The last time Bike Florida brought several hundred cyclists from around the country to Alachua County – for our 2011 Florida’s Eden tour – we camped at McConnell. And for good reason. It is located in close proximity to some of the best cycling routes Florida has to offer. 

And it’s not just cycling that attracts. Camp McConnell is strategically positioned so as to offer easy access to Cross Creek, historic Micanopy, the Ocala horse country, Orange Lake, Prairie Creek, Paynes Prairie, Sweetwater Preserve, Tuscawilla Preserve, Lochloosa Lake, Newnan’s Lake, the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail and much much more. 

In other words, it lies at the heart of a region that is rich with the potential to attract cyclists, kayakers, birders, hikers, fishermen, equestrians, nature photographers…..really, any number and variety of ecotourists. 

(BTW, commissioners. Our neighbor Putnam County is going full guns to brand itself as the ecotourism center of Florida. We’re not even in the race yet.)

And you want to talk culture? With its facilities McConnell could host artist retreats and paint-outs, offer historical expeditions to Marjorie Kinnon Rawlings Cracker House, Micanopy and other points of interest. Or gator watching treks to Alachua Sink. How about bluegrass festivals or folk arts events? The possibilities are endless.

Which is not to say that the county necessarily needs to manage and operate a nature and cultural activity center. The county has owned Poe Springs for decades without having to actively manage it. Leasing or franchising arrangements could be made with a company that specialize in running active ecotourism centers. There might even be some local entrepreneurs who would like to take on that challenge. McConnell, with its outbuildings and athletic facilities and swimming pool and related infrastructure, is a prime location for an outdoor adventure center. 

So why the rush to unload it? And do we really want to set a precedent by flipping land bought with Wild Spaces Public Places money? 

Hey, maybe we ought to raffle off Poe Springs while we’re at it.

The sign guy tells all

So there was this dead armadillo in the middle of East Gobbler Road. Clutching an empty can of Lite beer in his cold little paws.

“Definitely alcohol-related,” chuckled John, the retired Army master sergeant from Indiana who drives me around the back roads and country lanes of wherever it is that Bike Florida happens to be having its annual spring tour. In this just-concluded tour, that meant the best bike routes we could find in the Brooksville and Inverness area.

Anyway, we left the tipsy little guy where he lay for our riders to see. Presuming the turkey buzzards didn’t get to him first. 

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But I cannot tell a lie. John himself put that beer can in the critter’s paws. Because he’s acquired a bizarre sense of humor honed over years of drilling and terrorizing raw recruits. And because when you are driving endless miles in the wee hours of the morning, any little diversion is welcome.

Oh, I’m the sign guy. 

I’m that guy who rises at 5 a.m. each day during BF’s annual spring tour – setting out in the predawn darkness with a pickup truck full of bright blue-and-yellow directional, cautionary and information signs. 

Some hours later hundreds of cyclists follow in my path. Many will be riding the day’s metric (60-miles plus) route, some the shorter (usually 40 miles or so) route. And one day of the tour there will be century riders going the distance – presumably for the smug satisfaction of being able to say “Yeah, I rode 100 miles today, what did you do?”

Regardless of which route they choose, those riders will find the appropriate directional sign strategically positioned at each turn they make. 

Or they might notice the cautionary signs I often line up alongside of the road in traditional Burma Shave fashion. One announcing “Riders On The Road.” Another saying “Watch For Cyclists.” Intermixed with “CAUTION,” and “Three Feet Please” signs for good measure.

All of the above signs placed to be seen, not by our cyclists, but the motorists who are sharing the road. I’ve noticed that while guys in big pickup trucks can blow by one of our signs in complete oblivion, they tend to take note when there are five or six in a row. 

I have “Rest Stop” signs. I have “Obey All Traffic Laws” signs. I’ve got “Oncoming Traffic” signs. “Road Work,” signs, “RR Xing” signs, “Wrong Way!” signs, “Route Change” signs, “You Can Do It” signs, “You’re Not Lost” signs and more and more and more. 

We’ve got several oversized triangular bright orange placards proclaiming “Mass Cycling Event.” The better to let motorists know that something special is happening on this road on this day.

And on the odd occasion when I encounter a road condition that we hadn’t planned for, I’ve got blank white sheets and black Magic Markers on which I can write my own warning signs. “Bad Road Ahead” maybe. 

Signs, signs everywhere a sign.

Listen, I’ve posted signs in the driving rain. My flimsy signs have been bent over double and flattened against the ground by punishing winds. Once a roadside maintenance guy shredded several of my signs as he ran his giant mower up and down the roadside. And of course, our signs are often stolen by people who think that if they simply remove them, it will keep bicyclists out of their neighborhoods. It won’t. It’ll simply cause lost and confused riders to linger longer than they otherwise might have. 

Then there were the teenagers (probably) in Hastings who kept moving our signs around for the fun of it because – well, what else is there to do in Hastings? 

Once my driver and I had to think fast and improvise when, on a dark, dark morning in the Florida Panhandle, we suddenly ran into a thick wall of smoke and realized there was a forest fire blazing. We had to summon the police to head off cyclists already on the way and then reroute the entire tour in a different direction.

We’ve encountered horses and cows asleep on rural roads. In Port St. Joe I was repeatedly swarmed by no-see-ums each time I stepped out of the truck to plant a sign. I’ve had dogs howl and growl at me, a suspicious stranger, as I’ve gone about my merry signage ways

Sometimes its hard, dirty and even dangerous work. One morning in St. Augustine I was putting out signs well before sunrise when I began to notice blood smears on several of them. What I hadn’t noticed, at first, was that the blood was mine. Seems I’d stabbed myself in the arm while pulling a wire tine-side up sign from my truck.  

Oh yeah, and after spending four or five hours in the morning putting all of those signs out, I get to go out again late in the afternoon and pick them up. 

At my age, 71, I’ve often considered that being a sign guy is a young man’s game. But I’ve been putting them out and picking them up so long that I’ve come to consider route signage more an art than a science – and certainly not a routine, plant by the numbers affair. 

Question: How do you position a turn sign so that outgoing riders can see it but inbound riders cannot? Answer: Artfully, very artfully.

So I keep signing because, well, I fancy I’ve gotten pretty good at it and I want to make sure our riders get where they are going safely and without incident. 

I hate it when, on that rare occasion, placing sights gets so unexpectedly complicated that riders begin to catch up with me. And I’ve never understood the cyclists who rise before dawn and set out in the darkness to get a jump on the day. 

Once near High Springs I discovered several of our cyclists riding on a road that simply wasn’t on the route. When I stopped and asked them why, I was told they had stopped at a local restaurant where somebody assured them that our route was too dangerous and there was a much safer way to go. And never mind that we had spent months in planning and exploring, and consulted with plenty of experienced local riders, before deciding on a route. 

On the other hand, technology is making the job easier than it used to be. No more following paper maps or calculating distances by odometer. GPS now tells us exactly where we are and shows us exactly where the route turns are. 

Oh yeah, and I hate the DOT.

Most of the time I hate the DOT because its traffic engineers habitually supersize our roads and highways so motorists can drive as fast as they want – and kill as many pedestrians and cyclists as might happen to get in their way. 

But on spring tour week in particular I really really hate the DOT for its fiendish alchemy – it’s uncanny ability to turn roadside grass and dirt surfaces into almost concrete like surfaces.

Really, I don’t know how they do it. All I know that that half the time when I’m trying to drive the wire tines of my Share The Road directional signs into ground the wires just crumple under the unyielding resistance of the rock-infused roadside grassy strips. 

I have an impressive collection of bent, mangled and mutilated wire sign supports. 

Which is why I use a prodigious number of zip ties. I just find a strategically placed stop sign or route sign, or even a utility pole, and, zip!, my signs are on securely affixed and on prominent display.

Also, duct tape tends to come in handy as well. 

But that’s pretty much true of all of life’s situations. Right?

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Collusion collages

I cannot help myself. I think therefore I must collude to collage.

I know this whole Trumpfestation is getting to be deadly serious stuff. The fate of our democracy, indeed our nation, hangs in the balance. It’s no laughing matter.

But. But. But these are heady times for the confirmed cynics and curmudgeons amongs us. We cannot resist the urge to commit parody in small boxes. So just let me get it out of my system and we’ll move on as if none of this ever happened. OK?

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A fondness for life

In a recent letter to the editor a prominent local resident (and a friend of mine) bemoaned Gainesville’s “fondness for making major roads two lanes or for basically ignoring cars in general.” 

Said city’s fondness for traffic calming being “based upon the forlorn hope that Americans (read: the other guy) will give up the freedom and flexibility that comes with the automobile.”

I understand his frustration. Without question our city’s decision to redesign and narrow corridors like Main Street and Depot Avenue to be more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly has impinged on the flexibility of motorists and obliged them to drive more slowly and carefully through the heart of our city.

Ironically another letter from an unhappy motorist appeared in the same space just about a week earlier. But this motorist was unhappy about being rear-ended by another vehicle after she did the right thing – stop for a pedestrian who was crossing the street at a designated crossing place. 

“The crossing is awkwardly placed at the bottom of a hill on a street where the limit is 40 mph,” she wrote, “but most drivers go well above that. Every time I’ve driven through it I’ve thought it’s an accident waiting to happen.”

Together, these two letters raise a deadly serious public policy question: 

Should the desire of my friend to drive as quickly and efficiently as possible through our city outweigh the desire of someone else to safely cross the street?

But that’s not a fair question. Because my friend is certainly not alone in his frustration. 

So how about this?

Should the desire of tens of thousands of motorists to drive as quickly and efficiently as possible through our city outweigh the interests – oh, lets be charitable and say hundreds – of people who wish to walk across or bike upon our streets and live to tell about it?

Traditionally in autoAmerica the answer to that question has been an unequivocal yes. 

The auto-majority clearly rules. 

Which is to say that the way we have designed our streets, written our laws and chosen to enforce or not enforce those laws have for decades been weighed heavily in favor of those who wish to live free and drive – at the expense of those who simply want to live.

So it should surprise no one that pedestrian deaths in America are at a 30-year high, while fatalities among people safely encased inside vehicles continue to go down. Indeed, the argument can be made that our public policies have been intentionally designed to achieve just those goals.

As CityLab reports “every day in the U.S., pedestrians…are being killed by regular drivers at a staggering rate.” Conversely, “Thanks to increasingly advanced airbags, crumple zones, and other government-mandated safety features, the people inside America’s cars and trucks have never been better protected.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The War On Cars is lost. The cars won.

Today I left my home in northwest Gainesville on my bicycle. I traversed wide-and-fast NW 16th Avenue (where the second letter writer’s rear end collision occurred) made my way along multi-laned, fast-moving NW 13th (ironically our most pedestrian and bike-hostile road defines the eastern border of the pedestrian-rich University of Florida), and then proceeded via traffic-calmed Depot Ave. and Main St. to downtown where I’m writing this blog. 

Ask me which on part of my trip through the city I felt most safe and secure. 

Yeah, a no brainer. 

Listen, when it comes to access to our streets and roads we have been making deliberate, and deliberately deadly, public (un)safety decisions for virtually the entirety of my lifetime (I’m 71). Last year alone 6,227 pedestrians paid with their lives for those decisions. That’s a 4 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities over the previous year, and a 35 percent increase since 2008.

“People in cars are safer than they had been in the past, and people outside of cars are less safe than they’ve been in the past,” said Richard Retting, a researcher for the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, told CityLab. 

“Something’s gone terribly wrong in the last ten years,” he added.

What’s gone wrong is no mystery. Americans are driving more. They are driving bigger, faster and more powerful vehicles. Those vehicles, by their very design, are more deadly to pedestrians. And while Americans drive they are subject to distraction by a bewildering array of devices. 

So, no, officials in my city – or in any American city – need not apologize or be defensive about whatever they are doing to slow cars. Call it traffic calming. Call it lane reduction. Call it a road diet. Call it Vision Zero. Call it Complete Streets. Call it what you like. 

Cities like mine are on the front lines of the war to slow down cars and save lives. Neither the feds nor state officials have the courage to challenge or change the autoAmerican imperative.

I love this town.

Fast driving and the city

 

Lately the county has been conducting an experiment in traffic calming on the highway that borders my neighborhood.

Well, they don’t call it an experiment. They call it road work. 

And they don’t call NW 16 Avenue a highway. But that four-lane divided stroad is built to expedite fast driving just like a highway.

Anyway, the not-experiment consists of temporarily closing a length of the outside westbound lane where 16th crosses Hogtown Creek.

The speed limit is 40 mph. But that stretch runs down a hill where vehicles tend to pick up velocity.  

So it is not unusual for drivers to be going 45 mph, 50 or faster by the time they reach the bottom. 

But now it’s been reduced to a single narrow lane, and motorists, feeling hemmed in, seem to have calmed down a bit. When I drove it recently the line of cars heading west was moving at just over 30 mph. 

At least until they got to the bottom of the hill and got that second lane back. Then the race was on again. 

I only bring this up to make an obvious point about city driving.

Northwest 16th divides neighborhoods, parks, schools and churches – places unprotected human beings frequently need to cross the street to connect with. Some years ago the son of my childrens’ kindergarten teacher was killed on this strode while riding his bike to school.

How is it even remotely in the public interest to enable fast driving – 40, 50 mph or more – through the heart of a city? Wouldn’t 35, 30 or even slower be prudent?

Because we know all about the deadly physics of speeding. 

(Bullet) A pedestrian struck by a vehicle traveling 20 mph has a 90 percent chance of staying alive.

(Bullet) The survival rate drops to 50 percent when the vehicle is doing 30 mph.

(Bullet) At 40 mph the pedestrian death rate is 90 percent.

A National Transportation Safety Board study last year found that speeding was a factor in more than 112,580 traffic deaths between 2005 and 2014.

That’s nearly the same number of people killed by drunken drivers over that period. 

But while our society, rightfully, stigmatizes driving under the influence, fast driving is still considered as autoAmerican as apple pie. 

“People don’t think of speeding the way that they think about some other hazardous driving behaviors,” NTSB Chair Robert L. Sumwalt said upon the study’s release. “Unlike other crash factors such as alcohol impairment…speeding has few negative social consequences associated with it…”

And there’s a reason for that. I can imagine the outcry if the county decided to narrow or reduce lanes on NW 16th for the sake of public safety. A “prescription for gridlock!” angry voters would cry, as they tossed commissioners out of office.

But Gainesville has already narrowed Main Street from NW 8th Ave through downtown, and is continuing to do so nearly all the way to SE 16th Ave. Not only has that slowed traffic and made life safer for pedestrians, cyclists and other living things, but we are seeing a resurgence in business activity up and down Main Street.

What we are not seeing is the dreaded gridlock many predicted. Cars are moving, just more slowly.

Urban streets should not be built like highways. The convenience of fast driving should not take precedence over the human-scale factors that define a city’s quality of life – walkability, economic vitality, connectivity, safety.

And given what we know the deadly physics of speeding, shouldn’t we take fast driving at least as seriously as drunk driving?

Published in the Gainesville Sun 2/24/19.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.)

Waiving the orange flag

Dispatches from the front: The War On Cars is flagging.

The cars are winning.

Oh, I know, it’s been a grueling, grinding, soul-and-body crushing campaign. But steel and velocity ultimately prevail over mere flesh and bones. 

The phrase “War On Cars” reportedly arose in Toronto as a handy rallying cry to mobilize concerned commuters against local efforts to give pedestrians, bicyclists and other living things a fighting chance of survival in a city dominated by traffic.

““The city’s undeclared but very active war on cars is really a war on people,” the Toronto Star fumed in a 2009 editorial that sounded the alarm against misguided traffic calming efforts.

Oh the humanity!

From there the War On Cars spread to Seattle, where misguided liberals conspired to make cycling, walking and transit viable forms of personal mobility. And then to London, which dared to deploy the nuclear option – congestion pricing – to reclaim its central city. Next the Heritage Foundation accused Washington, D.C. of waging a “war against cars and suburbia.” And pretty soon the Wall Street Journal, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institution, Fox News and other reliable conservative warriors were all piling on in a blitzkriegian effort to protect vulnerable cars against the cruel tyranny threatened by the insidious forces of walking, cycling and…well, living. 

I only bring this up as a faithful war correspondent to let you know that the Freedom Of The Road forces are prevailing. 

Pedestrians are taking a pasting: Inching upwards toward 5,000 deaths a year.

Cyclists are on the ropes: A death rate of 800 annually. And rising. 

Big picture: Some 40,000 Americans a year perish in traffic. 

On the other hand, the cars are doing fine.

So how badly is the War On Cars going? Increasingly, cities are handing out surrender flags. 

From Honolulu to St. Augustine to Seattle bright orange or yellow flags are being stockpiled at pedestrian crossings for the benefit of people who aspire to get to the other side with minimal chances of bodily injury. 

“Grab a flag,” pedestrians are advised. And as if to remind them that losers are expected to display humility comes the admonition to give a “thank you” wave to the cars that don’t kill you as you cross No Man’s Land.

Do the flags work? Not really. 

The California university city of Berkeley deployed them for a while before throwing in….um, the flag. In an after-action report, Berkeley staffers concluded “flags were used as intended by only two percent of pedestrians, and the use of the flags did not have a noticeable effect upon driver behavior.”

But that’s not really the point, is it? In autoAmerica orange flags serve the same purpose as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter.” 

Hester Prynne’s moment of indiscretion cost her the burden of branding herself unclean. Similarly pedestrians and cyclists who come bearing orange flags or yellow safety vests or “Please Don’t Kill Me” jerseys self-brand themselves as firmly outside the autoAmerican mainstream. Freaks, oddballs, eccentrics…literally rebels without a car. 

And now you see variations of the scarlet letter popping up all over the place. Signs in Jacksonville depict a skid-marked pedestrian figure next to the caption: “If only I’d watched out for cars.” Another sign I’ve seen shows a pedestrian running recklessly out in front of a car….very much like the deer that occasionally blunder in harm’s way out of sheer animal ignorance.

Lawmakers in Missouri have considered forcing cyclists to display orange flags visible “not less than fifteen feet above the motorway.” Talk about a scarlet letter. And Tampa’s Bay-To-Bay Blvd has gotten such a reputation for lethality that children afoot are brandishing flags in the hope of getting to school alive.

But never mind all of that. The cars are winning. A clear victory for autoAmerica.

And the losers are waiving orange/yellow flags of surrender.

Is this a great country or what?