A tale of two cities

Whenever I drive through Ocala I am reminded of urbanist Andres Duany’s declaration that “the Department of Transportation, in its single-minded pursuit of traffic flow, has destroyed more American towns than General Sherman.”

The first thing you see upon approaching the city proper headed south on U.S. 441/301 is a sign stating that you are entering Ocala’s business district and that, henceforth, the speed limit will be 35 mph.

Which is very sensible because most of the length of 441/301 between Gainesville and Ocala is 65 mph, and nobody needs to drive that fast through an urban business district.

The second thing you notice upon entering Ocala’s business district (aka Pine Avenue) is that almost nobody actually drives 35 mph. Most traffic moves in the 45-50 mph range right through the heart of the city.

And, really you can’t blame drivers. Never mind what the tiny speed limit signs say, all of the visual signals motorists get tell them that this is a corridor designed for speedy transit. 

We’re talking six broad traffic lanes, seven counting the middle turn lanes. We’re talking few roadside obstructions – trees for instance – that might caution motorists to ease up a bit. Yes, there are sidewalks but the pedestrian environment through the middle of Ocala is so sterile, so hostile that walking anywhere is clearly a last resort. 

Ocala loses an average of 10 pedestrians a year to traffic. It would probably be more but, really, who would want to walk on these mean streets?

Getting back to the DOT’s culpability, driving through the heart of Ocala is an unpleasant experience precisely because the character, width and configuration of U.S. 441/301 changes not at all as it makes its transition from rural to suburban to urban. 

It is simply a broad, multi-laned expedient specifically designed to funnel as much traffic as possible as quickly as possible. 

I bring this up not to especially pick on Ocala – which is a perfectly lovely city in some respects – but rather because the traffic funnel that slices through the middle of the city is the very definition of a “stroad.”

A sort of transportation mutation that works well as neither a road nor a street.

“Roads and streets are two separate things,” Charles Morhan writes in his recent Strong Town blog  which argues that road-obsessed traffic engineers should not be allowed to design urban streets.

“The function of a road is to connect productive places.” Say, to connect a university city like Gainesville to a retirement community like Ocala. He compares functional roads to railroads “where people board in one place, depart in another and there is a high speed connection between the two

“In contrast, the function of a street is to serve as a platform for building wealth…In these environments, people are the indicator species of success…with a street we’re trying to create environments where humans, and human interaction, flourish.”

In Ocala most of the human interaction occurs in traffic, and with predictable results: Ocala’s traffic-facilitating business district is the usual auto-American-bland collection of fast-food outlets, strip shopping centers, car dealerships, drive-through banks and what not. 

And Ocala’s certainly not alone in this regard. Many auto-American cities have seen their once vital economic centers reduced to drive-by convenience strips as a result of some traffic engineer’s vision of mobility paradise. It is the same vision that enables thousands of drivers a day to pass through, say, nearby Palatka’s commercial strip hell on their way two and from the beach without ever seeing the charming neighborhoods and quirky riverside downtown hidden on either side of traffic-facilitating U.S. 17.

In Gainesville we are trying to work our way out of our stroad dilemma. Main Street, which runs north and south the length of the city, continues to be redesigned with human interaction and local economic vitality in mind. Traffic lanes are being reduced and narrowed, bike lanes added, sidewalks improved attractive streetscaping added. And the result is a more people-friendly downtown and an amazing urban renaissance on a strip of South Main Street that was once given over to warehouses and empty storefronts. Now we’re seeing parks, artist studios, breweries, entertainment venues and small business incubators popping up all along that still-being redesigned stretch of South Main.

Which is not to say that Gainesville doesn’t still have work to do. University Avenue continues to be more a mass traffic facilitator than the university city signature street it ought to be. And 13th Street, which connects to Ocala via U.S. 441, is still a malfunctioning stroad that surrenders urban quality of life to the fast and efficient movement of cars. 

I think that will change, eventually, because 13th Street and University are, for all practical purposes the University of Florida’s front doors. And with 50,000-plus students concentrated in one small area and in need of more personal mobility choices, traffic calming changes are inevitable. 

It is people, not cars, that make or break a city. Gainesville’s is moving ahead, while Ocala stalls in traffic.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun and former executive director of Bike Florida.)

Swans, people and automobiles

Save the swans Lakeland.

And the people too.

The lovely waterfowl that glide gracefully across Lake Morgan are living symbols of the city. But apparently that matters little to at least some of the thousands of motorists who drive by the lake every day. 

In the space of just three weeks, six of the stately birds have been run over by cars. Five did not survive the encounter. 

On the heels of this avian slaughter, public officials and local residents have begun to talk about what can be done to improve traffic safety in the area. The swans are Lakeland’s mascots, and  if saving them means cracking down on speeding or distracted driving, then so be it.

But let’s be honest, Lakeland’s traffic safety dilemma ranges far beyond Lake Morgan. 

In 2013, when I was executive director of Bike Florida, we brought several hundred cyclists from all over the country to Lakeland for our Orange Blossom Express spring tour. Bike Florida is a nonprofit organization that promotes cycle tourism while raising public awareness about safe cycling. As route coordinator for our spring tours I can tell you that we spend a great deal of time – literally months before the actual event – working to ensure that our cyclists can ride safely from point A to point B while at the same time showing them the best that scenic Florida has to offer. 

Naturally Lake Morton was on our tour route that spring. We wanted our riders to see and appreciate the royal swans. And finding a way to get them safely into downtown from our host site by the airport – in and out of Lakeland’s intensive traffic patterns – caused staffers more than a few sleepless nights. 

Fortunately we pulled it off, thanks largely to the high visibility signs we posted along the route – to both guide cyclists and alert motorists – the off-duty police officers we stationed at troublesome intersections and other proactive safety measures we implemented.

Unfortunately, people who try to get around Lakeland day to day on foot or by bike do not enjoy the kind of route support we provided our riders. Just two years ago Smart Growth America’s annual “Dangerous By Design” survey listed Lakeland-Winter Haven as America’s sixth most dangerous metro for pedestrians – more dangerous than Miami, Tampa or Phoenix.

The Ledger has reported that in the last two years alone cyclists and pedestrians have been involved in nearly 500 crashes locally. And 33 of them died.

“They’re much too small to compete with a 2,000-pound vehicle,” veterinarian Patricia Mattson told the Ledger in reference to the city’s traffic-endangered swans. 

Same goes for the human beings who routinely brave city streets on foot or by bike…they are much too small and vulnerable. And their lives are just as precious, even if their injuries and deaths do not attract as much publicity.

I don’t really mean to pick on Lakeland. In truth it’s not much different from many auto-American cities that, over the past half century, have squandered tax dollars, downtown economic vitality and, yes, human lives in the single-minded pursuit of enabling motorists to drive in and out of town as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

It is a measure of just how successful our national experiment in moving traffic at all costs has been that congestion is as bad, or worse, as it’s ever been, traffic fatalities remain at epidemic levels and pedestrian and cycling deaths are on the rise. 

It’s time to try something different. In Lakeland. In Gainesville. In every city that wants to improve its quality of life and protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents.

We know how to calm urban traffic. It’s become something of a science. Mainly it involves slowing down cars by street design, enforcement and education, and there are any number of techniques to do it. The Project for Public Spaces is one of the organizations that offer traffic calming “toolboxes” for communities that want to reclaim their streets and public spaces. 

As a society we have spent decades designing streets that put pedestrians, cyclists and, yes, in Lakeland’s case, even swans at mortal risk in order to keep traffic moving at peak efficiency. 

City leaders who want to change that dangerous status quo can choose to put cars in their place and save lives. All it takes is the will to do so and the realization that the public streets belong to all of us. 

Save the swans, Lakeland, and the people too.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of the Gainesville Sun and served as Executive Director of Bike Florida for five years. He continues to design tour routes for Bike Florida.

Like it’s 1974 all over again

On Christmas break in 1974 Dave Smith and I took a road trip to Washington, D.C. and on into Pennsylvania.

Dave was editor of the Independent Florida Alligator and I was his managing editor. And these momentous times indeed for two young journalists to go to D.C. 

Richard Nixon was gone. Our U.S. Senator, Ed Gurney, freshly indicted for influence peddling, had one foot out the door. 

Helen Thomas got us into a White House press briefing. And William Raspberry invited us to the Washington Post, where we chatted with Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward.

Heady stuff for a couple of guys who aspired to ink stained wretch status.

Oddly, though, none of that moved me to write this column 44 years later. 

Rather, it was something that Dave said in passing as we motored north into the American rust belt, past belching smokestacks, over polluted rivers and through communities that reeked of the effluvia of the post-war Industrial Age.

“What have they done to my country?” Dave asked. 

An excellent question then. Even better now. 

At that time the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection was just four years old. It was signed into law by a Republican president after DDT had driven the American bald eagle to the brink of extinction, oil spills had blackened California beaches and an entire river, the Cuyahoga, had burst into a chemical-fueled fire. 

Thank goodness those days are behind us. 

Listen, except for the algae choking Florida’s rivers, the red tides that are killing marine life, the fact that South Florida is sinking, – not to mention rising ozone levels, raging wildfires, dying coral reefs and slowly acidifying oceans – things are looking…well…

Like it’s 1974 all over again. 

Only now the EPA has gone over to the enemy. 

Stay with me here and try to follow the logic.

They tell us that if we don’t reverse Obama’s fuel efficiency goals, 1,000 more Americans each year will die in auto accidents because driving will be cheaper and we will want to do more of it. 

That’s bad.

But we also must reverse Obama’s emission limits on coal plants even though that will cause 1,400 additional premature deaths a year. 

That’s good.

Because, you know, the War On Coal. Plus, windmills kill birds.

And if the folks running the EPA sound like a bunch of verbal contortionists they are not alone. Over the past eight years we Floridians have stood idly by while our leaders in Tallahassee have systematically dismantled state environmental enforcement and gutted our water management districts. 

All of which brings me back to Dave’s question: What are they doing to my country?

They aren’t doing anything. We are. 

Not doing anything, I mean.

Those people that weaponized the EPA against us? We elected them.

Ditto the politicians who are dragging Florida to the brink of environmental catastrophe.

Listen, Nixon and Congress didn’t create the EPA because they woke up one morning feeling green. 

They did it because a well organized and vocal environmental movement had gained enough momentum by the 1960s to force elected officials to act lest they lose their jobs.

Nobody in public office worries about that anymore. The pols act like the only things we care about are guns and abortion. And they are kept in office by the lobbyists – big ag, big oil, big chem – who bankroll their campaigns.

That’s got to stop. Starting this year. 

As we get closer to the election we will talk more about which rascals need to be thrown out before they kill us with contamination. 

And shame on us if we don’t do it.

(Published in the Gainesville Sun Aug. 26, 20188)

 

 

Just find a trail and ride

We get it. You want to ride. 

You long to get out there on your bicycle, to explore the best that natural Florida has to offer. To exercise your body and your mind. To leave your sedentary existence behind, if only for the day, or perhaps just a few hours. 

But you are not comfortable riding on the roads. Traffic worries you. You don’t feel safe occupying the same space with cars and trucks and distracted drivers with cell phones.

Not to worry.

The really cool thing about Gainesville is that it is pretty much the epicenter of Trail Country. If you have a bike rack, or enough on-board cargo space to stow your bicycle, you are within easy driving distance – an hour or so – of at least four quality rail-trails. 

No need to share the road. Just get on a trail and sing along with Queen: “I want to ride my bicycle…..”

Here they are in order of proximity.

The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail: This one literally starts at Depot Park in downtown Gainesville and runs for more than 15 miles, all the way to downtown Hawthorne. Along the way you can stop at the Boulware Springs Trailhead for water and restrooms. You might want to take a bit of time off the bike to stroll the walkway into Alachua Sink at Paynes Prairie. There are rolling hills and scenic prairie overlooks. You can stop at Prairie Creek and watch the fishing, or maybe even cross under the Hawthorne Road bridge and take a peek at Newnans Lake. You can explore tiny Rochelle, cross Lochloosa creeks and, when you get to Hawthorne, maybe have lunch at Diane’s Old Time Barbecue, or visit the Historical Museum before heading back to Gainesville – where you just might consider a cold beer reward at First Magnitude, conveniently situated at trail’s end. This is one of Florida’s oldest rail-trails and it never loses its charm. 

The Lake Butler-Palatka Trail: Just a 35-minute drive east will take you to the trailhead at Grandin, in Putnam County. From there you can ride either west toward Keystone Heights or continue east toward Palatka – or better yet, go first one way and then the other. Either way the ride will take you through the heart of this area’s sand hills and lakes country. The important thing to remember is that this 47-mile corridor is very much a work in progress. As this is being written, construction continues on a trail extension that will go all the way into Palatka. Once that is completed, it will be possible to connect with the Palatka-St. Augustine Trail that will take you over the St. John’s River to the farm town of Hastings, the charming trail-communities of Armstrong and Elkton and then on to the very outskirts of the Ancient City itself. 

Nature Coast Trail: It’s a 40 minute drive west from Gainesville to Old Town. From there the Nature Coast Trail runs for 32 miles – west to Cross City, south to Chiefland and east to Trenton and extending in the direction of Newberry. This trail runs through the heart of a slice of old Florida that was once connected to the rest of the world by steamboats and railroads, and the highlight of the trail is a Suwannee River crossing via an one-time iron railroad bridge. The trail is in close proximity to Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs, so a quick dip in cold water, or a time out for a bit of kayaking is not out of the question.

Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway Trail: A 56 minute drive south on U.S. 441/301 will take you through Ocala to the Santos Trailhead and the recently opened 23-mile Cross Florida Greenway Trail. What makes this trail different from most others is that it was not constructed on a former railroad right-of-way, meaning that it doesn’t run straight and true in typical railroad fashion. Rather this trail takes delightful twists and turns though the deep forest and over the low hills of the Cross Florida Greenway Corridor. Instead of crossing busy roadways, the trail dips under them via a series of tunnels. And when you get to I-75 can keep riding west unimpeded thanks to the trail’s attractively landscape “land bridge.” Oh yeah, along the way you will pass the Florida Horse Park, so don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself sharing the trail with a number of earnest looking individuals who are in the process of training their mounts for upcoming races. On the drive back, consider stopping in Ocala’s restored downtown for lunch in one of its many restaurants. 

(I wrote this piece for the latest edition of Gainesville Magazine.)

Mobility power to the people

The last time I was in San Francisco I rented an E-bike and spent six hours zipping up and down its roller coaster-like landscape.

It was sinfully fun and shamefully easy.

Two days later, either from guilt or ego, I did the same thing on an old fashion two wheeler just to prove to myself that I can still climb hills under my own pedal power.

But if I’m personally agnostic about E-bikes, they are a thing.

Some 35 million electric bikes and scooters were sold worldwide last year. Walk into most American bike shops today and you can probably buy a battery assisted version.

But this isn’t about E-bikes.

This is about America’s urban mobility revolution.

This is about docks, dockless, “bike clutter,” the scooter “apocalypse,” and other more of less dreadful urban myths about how we get- or will be getting – around town.

Docks: Right now, most bike share programs in America are dock based – you have to pick a bike up at one dock and drop it off at another. This limits their practical utility, especially when it comes to the “last mile” dilemma of giving commuters a convenient way to get from their bus or subway stops to their homes or offices.

Not to mention that docked-bike share is an alien concept in most low income neighborhoods.

Enter dockless: Start up companies with names like LimeBike and Bird are beginning to pop up in cities around America. Dockless bikes can go pretty much anywhere you need to go at the swipe of a credit card, and you can drop them off where you want.

Which is starting to drive people crazy. From Frisco to Denver to Austin city officials are issuing “cease and desist” orders to force dockless bikes and scooters off the public streets and sidewalks.

Why? Because of…

“…bike litter. Undocked bikes are cluttering up the urban landscape. It’s chaos, bicycle anarchy. Not to mention…..

“….the scooter apocalypse. E-Scooter “bros” are scaring pedestrians on the sidewalks and ticking off cyclists in the bike lanes. E-scooters are a “disruptive technology” in the true sense of the term.

But then there’s this about all of that.

If you want to really talk about what’s “littering” the urban landscape you can’t ignore cars. They are everywhere you look in autoAmerica.

And it’s not just visual pollution. Urban auto traffic poisons our air, makes us sick and kills more than 5,000 pedestrians a year. Scooter bros are pesky gnats by comparison.

Right now urban America is caught up in a competition over who gets to use the public right-of-way and with what form of mobility. And it’s not just a competition between pedestrians and cyclists and scooter bros. There’s also a “bikelash,” going on, with angry motorists pressuring their elected officials to remove newly installed bike lanes so they can get back to driving as fast as they like.

Can’t we all just get along?

Eventually I believe we will.

Bike and scooter litter can be solved if cities provide “corrals” (you can fit about 10 bikes and scooters into one standard car parking space). Urban rules of the road for both street and sidewalk use can and will be established and enforced by social mores and law.

But the bottom line is this: Individual automobile use is the most wasteful, dirty and dangerous form of personal urban mobility. Anything cities can do to induce people out of their cars to bus, bike, walk and, yes, even scooter, will ultimately improve the quality of urban life and save human lives.

Revolutions are messy.

Mobility power to the people.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial writer for The Sun. This column was published in The Sun on June 17 2016.

 

 

 

 

Don’t Raise The Bridge, Lower The River

My latest column in the Gainesville Sun:

University cities are laboratories for urbanism. And we can learn as much from their failures as successes.

So what can we learn from the bridge that fell and the little Uber that couldn’t?

First the bridge:

Last month a concrete span intended to get pedestrians safely across Miami’s busy SW 8th Street to Florida International University collapsed while undergoing “accelerated” construction. Six people died.

That $14 million structure was built because, in recent years, SW 8th had seen more than 2,200 crashes and 12 fatalities. And it was going up at a faster than usual pace so as to minimize traffic delays.

But, really, was the bridge designed to be a life saver or just one more car expediter?

Pedestrian bridges “are not really about providing safety..,” Victor Dover, a Coral Gables-based town planning consultant, writes in Miami Community Newspapers. Rather this bridge’s purpose was to “reduce the pesky crosswalks and speed up traffic, to minimize signal phases when motorists would have to wait for people to cross on foot.” It did “nothing to solve the situation at ground level at all the multiple other crossing locations where pedestrians are being killed.” (Check this City Lab conception of a more rational approach to traffic taming.)

If Dover’s name rings a bell it may be because, some years ago, his firm proposed a controversial redesign of University Avenue with the objective of “calming” traffic (narrower traffic lanes, wider sidewalks, etc) so as to make Gainesville’s main east-west car expediter more business and people friendly.

You can probably still find that study in some round file down at city hall.

Oh, and about Uber’s renegade robo-car:

Three days after the bridge fell, an Uber autonomous vehicle (AV) hit and killed a woman who was wheeling her bike across the street in the Arizona State University city of Tempe. Neither the car’s anti-collision system nor the presence of a just-in-case driver on board worked as expected.

The “accident” scene: Six wide traffic lanes 500 feet away from the nearest intersection.

Tempe police quickly blamed the victim for “coming out of nowhere” and thereby putting herself in harm’s way. And never mind that the AV was doing nearly 40 mph and likely couldn’t have stopped on time even if its programmed mind-of-its-own wanted to.

Forget posted speed limits and just consider the laws of physics.

If you are a pedestrian knocked down by a car doing 20 mph you have a 95 percent chance of surviving the encounter. If that car is doing 30, your chance of staying alive is a coin toss – about 50-50.

At 40 mph your chances of living are one in five.

The negative publicity of the Uber crash has, temporarily, put a halt to Arizona’s love affair with AV’s. And it may even help delay Gainesville’s pending deployment of our own robo-ride in the form of an autonomous mini-bus.

So what lessons might our university city learn from the bridge that fell and the little Uber that couldn’t?

First, the fact that two of Gainesville’s most pedestrian-hostile streets define the eastern and northern edges of its most pedestrian-rich environment (UF) shows just how horribly off-kilter our transportation/public safety priorities are.

And second, that neither expensive infrastructure “solutions,” like ped bridges, nor autonomous vehicles are likely to rescue us from the deadly consequences of our own traffic-first policies.

Dover describes Miami’s SW 8th St. as a “rushing river of cars.” Likewise University and 13th Street.

Gainesville: Don’t raise the bridge, lower the river.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.