You have the right to park

Once more I must rise to the defense of our woefully misunderstood public servants in the Florida Legislature.

Of late lawmakers have been taking heat, and even threatened with legal action, over a bill – still awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature at this writing – requiring a “sufficient” amount of parking be available at early voting sites. 

What’s wrong with that? Well you might ask. Listen, if we don’t take the phrase “motor voter” literally as well as seriously here in autoAmerica then where? What can possibly be more patriotic than our collective fidelity to liberty, equality and parking? 

But, no, cynics accuse legislators of harboring ill motives in their insistence on parking. This is just a sneaky ploy to avoid having to put early voting sites on college and university campuses. Because – gasp! – student voters are presumed more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. 

And this kind of thing can quickly get out of hand. At the University of Florida alone nearly 8,000 people voted early in 2018. This after UF students successfully sued the state in federal court to have early voting on campus. 

Follow the conspiracy theory here folks: Anybody whose ever tried to drive onto a college campus knows that parking is a nightmare. Permits are almost always required. Faculty and administrators gobble up all the spaces. Campus cops toss out tickets like confetti at a homecoming parade. 

“Location is one thing that you’re looking at. But the other thing is access. And if there’s no parking, there’s no access for many people,” Republican state senator Dennis Baxley told the Huffington Post.

Reasonable, no? Well, no, counters  Patricia Brigham, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. She told HuffPost: “This is not about parking. Those students with cars, they can hop in their car and go to an early voting site off campus. This about those students living on campus, who don’t have a car and they want to vote early.”

Suspicious minds. 

But listen, there is nothing more American than minimum parking requirements. In this country you can’t build anything – outhouse, corner bar, duplex, mom and pop store, shopping center or subdivision – without meeting stringent parking mandates. That’s precisely why American cities, towns, commercial centers and suburbs have the look and feel of…well, gigantic used car lots. 

These things don’t happen by accident you know. 

Parking minimums are the strange, out-dated, and totally unscientific law that’s probably languishing in your city’s zoning code,” asserts StrongTowns.org. “They sound dull (and they are) but they’re incredibly important because they have dramatically shaped our cities in a detrimental manner.”

Yeah, not to put too fine a point on it, but we have for decades been sacrificing the look, feel and very function of our civilization for the convenience of people in cars.

And, really, what’s more fundamental to American civilization than the right to vote? And is that right truly sacrosanct if we can’t park really really close to a ballot booth?

No, if anything, a sufficient parking requirement doesn’t go nearly far enough. 

If we’re serous about universal access we need to insist that all voting be conducted at fast food restaurants, parking garages, gas stations, car washes, drive-up banks, drive-through liquor and beer barns – really at any structure specifically designed to allow patriotic autoAmericans to exercise their franchise without having to leave the sanctuary of their vehicles. 

Listen, if McDonalds can serve billions, why can’t supervisors of elections?

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

 

More autoAmerican anarchy

Being another update about everyday acts of anarchy in autoAmerica:

Life is cheap in autoTexas. With 10 people a day being killed on Lone Star State roads, the Texas Transportation Commission says it will adopt a “Vision Zero” plan to cut that death toll in half….in 15 years maybe. And never mind that Gov. Gregg Abbott just signed a bill to ban cameras that catch and ticket red light runners because…well a crime undetected is no crime at all in Texas. 

“Time and time again, injuries and deaths have increased in cities that have banned automated traffic enforcement,” notes Streetsblog USA. “The debate in Texas was dominated by people who felt victimized by getting tickets. But for the actual victims of red-light running crashes, the effects are pretty devastating. These crashes are fairly high-speed and often deadly.”

Case in point: With the death of 67-year old Rosalinda Portillo, 67 – run down as she crossed the street – San Antonio recorded its 25th pedestrian casualty this year. And the year’s not even half over yet. “You’re really literally playing Frogger out there,” “Texas DOT San Antonio spokesman Hernan Rozemberg told the local ABC news outlet. Truth.

Not that Texas has anything on Florida. In Daytona Beach 35-year old off-duty senior sheriff’s deputy Frank Scofield, setting out on a 35-mile bicycle ride, was killed when the driver of a van ran a stop sign. “Frank was a fearless and dedicated deputy,” Sheriff Mike Chitwood told The Daytona News-Journal. “He had a giant heart.” Ironically, Chitwood is a longtime advocate of cops on bikes. 

Meanwhile in Altamonte Springs, a car left the road, ran up onto a sidewalk and collided with a man and woman on bicycles. The couple’s 18-month old son – strapped into a carrier on dad’s bike – was killed. “The fact that we are a state that embraces the ‘share the road’ philosophy and everything like that, I don’t think it’s specific to the incident because the family was on the sidewalk, not on the roadway, so that would not be a factor in this case,” Altamonte Springs Police spokeswoman Evelyn Estevez told Fox News 13. Missing the point much?

And in Miami, a hit-and-run driver was trying to make good his escape when a group of, um, traffic vigilantes moved to stop him. Reviewing video footage of the incident the Miami Herald reports: “One of the witnesses of the crash pulls out a hammer and smashes several windows as another person yanks off the car door handle — all while the car is still moving. The report continued “In the footage, one elderly man throws his hands up in the air and shouts “No te muevas!” (Don’t move!”) The man stood near the wheels of the vehicle and the driver then accelerated. About half a dozen people crowded the car as glass fell on to the asphalt. The Herald also reports that the hit-and-run suspect has received 29 tickets in 10 years. So, one for the good guys.

But in Cape Coral 9-year-old Layla Aiken was sitting in the grass waiting for her school bus when the driver of a pickup truck apparent lost control of his vehicle while making a left-hand turn, ran off the road and killed her. “The pickup truck’s left side tires left the roadway and traveled onto the grass and dirt shoulder toward Layla,” reports WINK News. The 19-year-old driver left the scene but was later foundarrested and charged with “Leaving Scene of a Traffic Crash with Fatality; Vehicular Homicide; Possession of Cannabis and Drug Paraphernalia.”

But enough about Florida for now. On the mean streets of Algansee Township, in Michigan, three children were killed when the 21-year-old truck driver plowed into the back of a horse-drawn Amish buggy. The Battle Creek Enquirer reports that “two adults and five children inside the buggy were ejected.” The driver was arrested and “charged with three counts of operating while under the influence causing serious injury and one count of possessing a firearm while intoxicated.”

In Cincinnati drivers of two cars, apparently working in tandem, drove up and down a sidewalk multiple times seemingly looking for pedestrians to run down. A 41-year old woman was seriously injured after being slammed by one of the vehicles.

Speaking of autoTerrorism, in Draper, Utah, a driver reportedly toked on various drugs swerved across a road and hit an 11-year old girl walking a scooter. Reviewing security camera footage of the incident, police said the act was intentional. Reported fox13now.com the driver “got out of the car after the crash, aggressively walked up to the girl and said, ‘We all have to die sometime.’”

In the space of just three hours a pedestrian and a motorcyclists were killed in separate incidents in San Francisco. The deaths, reports SF Weekly bring the city’s “2019’s Vision Zero count to 14, outpacing the previous year. Eight who died were pedestrians, three were in vehicles, one was a cyclist, and another was on a skateboard.” Martha Lindsay, of Walk SF, said “This is a crisis, and city leaders must address it as such. And we cannot let anyone become numb to what’s happening. These are people, not numbers.”

And finally comes this depressing news from Streetsblog USA under the headline “States aren’t even trying to reduce traffic deaths”:

“Fifty more people dead in Michigan. Sixty one in Virginia. One hundred and six in Arizona. Those are the goals those state’s departments of transportation have set for themselves for road deaths under a new federal program challenging them to improve.

“Even some of the most progressive states are calling for more people dead under new “targets” for certain performance measures they must report to the federal government.”

Listen, when your state’s “traffic safety” goal contemplates an even higher body count than you’ve already got, they’re doing something wrong.

Stay tuned.

The revolution is in peril

Now that “personal mobility” is getting to be a thing, the public safety implications of emerging personal transportation options like electric scooters is getting more press. I was particularly struck by a recent Associated Press report headlined (in the Oregonian) “Worldwide scooter booms leads to more serious injuries, fatalities.”

The story begins with one scooter riders near brush with death: “Andrew Hardy was crossing the street on an electric scooter in downtown Los Angeles when a car struck him at 50 miles per hour and flung him 15 feet in the air before he smacked his head on the pavement and fell unconscious.”

Long story short, Hardy suffered extensive injuries, including several broken bones, but miraculously lived to tell about it. 

And what was the take-away from Hardy’s near brush with death?

“These scooters should not be available to the public,” he told AP. “Those things are like a death wish.”

Now maybe it’s just me. But shouldn’t the takeaway be the absolute insanity of any motorist in any downtown in any city in America being able to drive 50 mph? 

Is the bottom line here that we need to stop riding e-scooters anywhere within potential collision distance of motor vehicles that are routinely being driven so fast and so carelessly that the rider’s life and limb would be in peril as a result of that proximity?

No question there are legitimate issues that need to be resolved as the e-scooter – or the e-bike or the e-pogo stick or e-whatever comes next – craze continues to spread in American cities. Who should be allowed to share sidewalk space or bike lanes and who should get precedence therein? And how do you control e-clutter in ride-share situations when the things can be picked up and dropped off anywhere a respective rider cares to begin and end?

All of that conceded, the bottom line, whether one’s personal mobility device of choice be scooter, bicycle, skates pogo stick or just good old fashion shoe leather is the same in virtually every instance.

We have deliberately built our communities and designed our public streets for the convenience of people who encase themselves inside fast and powerful motor vehicles. We design everything from lane width to speed limits to intersections to pedestrian crossings to curb cuts to turning radius with the primary intention of allowing people to drive as quickly and as efficiently as possible through the urban landscape. This because being forced to sit in traffic is considered the closest thing to a cardinal sin in autoAmerica.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We know how to design our streets to be less auto-centric and more forgiving for walkers, cyclists, scooter riders and other living things. What we lack is the political courage to do the right thing.

Do we really want to restrict e-scooter traffic because drivers deem it their right to travel move at 40-45-50 mph or faster in the middle of a city? Must pedestrians really be obliged by law to walk a quarter of a mile, or even further, just to get to the nearest designated crosswalk so they can safely cross to the other side? Most won’t. We know that. Most will simply look for a gap in traffic and take their chances. And when that happens with the predictable tragic consequences, will we continue to blame the “jaywalker” and give the innocent motorist a pass?

Back to the AP report: “There are no comprehensive statistics available but a rough count…turned up at least 11 electric scooter rider deaths in the U.S. since the beginning of 2018. Nine were on rented scooters and two on ones the victims owned. With summer fast approaching, the numbers will undoubtedly grow as more riders take to the streets.”

Let’s put that into perspective, shall we? 

Roughly 11 e-scooter deaths in a year and a half in autoAmerica 

In 2017 more than 40,000 people died in motor vehicle collisions. Including some 6,000 pedestrians and cyclists. 

Oh, and bike-ped deaths are on the increase even as traffic deaths in general have been declining. Put differently, we have insured that people inside automobiles are safer than ever. Meanwhile, people on foot or on bicycles are in more jeopardy with each passing year.  

“Across the nation, cyclist fatalities have increased by 25% since 2010 and pedestrian deaths have risen by a staggering 45%. More people are being killed because cities are encouraging residents to walk and bike, but their roads are still dominated by fast-moving vehicular traffic,” John Ronnie Short, public policy professor at the University of Maryland, writes on CQZ.com. As my research has shown, this shifting mix can be deadly.”

So, yes, by all means, we need to have a public conversation about how to meld all of the emerging forms of the personal mobility revolution into the mainstream of public life. But make no mistake. So long as we continue to concede our streets and roads to lead-footed drivers, this revolution will be a bloody one indeed.   

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. 

 

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?

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?

My neighborhood stroad

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 just call it road work. 

And they don’t call NW 16 Avenue a highway either. But being a four-lane divided stroad specifically designed to accommodate fast driving, that’s what it is. 

Anyway, the experiment consists of blocking off a stretch of the outside westbound lane where 16th crosses over Hogtown Creek. Apparently the creek threatens to erode our stroad’s stability, so things need shoring up. 

The posted speed limit is 40 mph. But that stretch runs downhill and the tendency is to pick up velocity due to physics, gravity and the false sense of security NW 16th’s design imparts to impatient motorists.  

So it is not unusual for drivers to be doing 45 mph, 50, even faster when they get to the bottom of that hill. 

But now it’s been reduced to a single narrow lane with concrete barriers on one side. And I’ve noticed that motorists, feeling hemmed in, are indeed calming their speed. When I drove it the other day a stack of cars heading west was moving at just over 30 mph. At least until they reached the bottom of the hill and got that second lane back. Then the race was on again. 

This experiment is temporary. And I only bring it up to make an obvious point about city driving.

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

Which raises crucial questions. How is it even remotely in the public interest to empower  fast driving – 40 mph or more – through the dense heart of a city? Wouldn’t 30, or even 25 mph be more prudent?

Unfortunately, simply posting a more civilized speed limit wouldn’t do much to slow traffic. The physical design of NW 16th and many urban stroads – divided, multiple, broad travel lanes, good lines of sight and so on – provide motorists visual and psychological cues that they may safely drive faster than whatever the posted limit might happen to be. 

And make no mistake. Speed is one of the most common denominators in traffic related fatalities. As Streetsblog points out: “Speed management is important for everyone’s safety, including drivers. But it can be especially critical for pedestrians. A pedestrian struck by a car at 40 miles per hour has a 55 percent chance of surviving compared to a 88 percent chance at 25 mph.”

Unfortunately, state and local governments don’t do nearly enough to slow drivers down, according to a new report, “Speeding Away From Zero: Rethinking A Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge,” by the Governors Highway Safety Association. 

“Policy makers and the public have largely ignored the issue, even though the proportion of traffic deaths related to speeding has remained steady at about 26 percent since the beginning of the millennium,” Governing magazine writes of the Association’s call to calm fast drivers. 

Instead, Governing adds, “Public policy at almost every level of government reinforces the cultural acceptance of speeding.” 

And there is a reason elected officials are reluctant to slow cars down. I can imagine the outcry from suburban-bound commuters if our county decided to narrow or reduce lanes on NW 16th for the sake of public safety. 

“A prescription for gridlock!” our auto-oriented Chamber of Commerce would bemoan. “Throw the rascals out!” voters would cry. 

Traffic calming is not an autoAmerican virtue. 

Funny thing, though. Gainesville has already narrowed much of its north/south flowing Main Street, and is continuing to do so. Not only has the redesign slowed traffic and made life safer for pedestrians and cyclists, but we are witnessing a resurgence in business activity up and down Main Street.

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

Cities are not suburbs. Urban streets should not be designed like highways. Fast driving should not take precedence over the human-scale factors that define a city’s quality of life – walkability, economic vitality, connectivity, personal mobility, safety.

It’s a pity this experiment in traffic calming on NW 16th is only temporary. University communities like ours should be living laboratories for experiments in urban quality of life innovation

Imagine what we could accomplish if we actually resolved to make cars behave themselves in our little university city?

Stamp out autoSocialism

My favorite part of the State Of The Union Address (yes, we all had our favorites) was when Trump waved the rhetorical bloody flag and vowed that America would never surrender to the evils of socialism.

“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” he roared to thunderous applause. “America was founded on liberty and independence – not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free.

“Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

Rousing. Stirring. Inspiring. 

And totally out of touch with reality. 

Shortly before issuing his Declaration of Antisocialist Independence,” Trump climbed into his government-bought limousine and was ferried to government built Capitol Hill via a network of government-funded public streets. 

And he didn’t have to worry about traffic because every single socialistic street in the vicinity of The Hill – Constitution Avenue, Independence Avenue, Louisiana Avenue – was temporarily closed to the public so His Nibs could get to his gig safely and quickly. 

Not to belabor the obvious, but America has been a socialistic country since the birth of the republic. And the American road system in particular is arguably the most ambitious experiment in socialism in the history of human civilization. 

The same people who keep insisting that mass transit ought to “pay for itself” are oblivious to the fact that in this country we spend upwards of $168 billion a year on public roads. 

Yeah, I know, drivers pay a gas tax for the privilege. But less than a third of the cost of our public roads are covered by gas taxes. The rest of it comes from all of us via property taxes, sales taxes, debt, etc. 

Stuck in traffic? Why doesn’t the government get off its duff and add more lanes to your commuting route? Want to build yet another exclusive gated community way out in the boonies? The Department of Transportation is your Sugar Daddy. 

Good old American socialism created urban sprawl from sea to shining sea. The American automobile industry could not exist without autoAmerican socialism. Privately owned strip malls and subdivisions and office parks feed off the socialistic tit. 

Oh, and those cops and EMTs who clean up the mess after every act of mass destruction on America’s high-speed interstates? Socialists, each one. 

And BTW, it didn’t have to be that way. There was a time in this country when many, even most, roads were privately owned and pay as you go. 

In early US history, many individual citizens would maintain nearby stretches of road and collect a fee from people who used that specific stretch,” we read on Wikipedia “Eventually, companies were formed to build, improve, and maintain a particular section of roadway, and tolls were collected from users to finance the enterprise.”

Clearly, our forbearers didn’t hold with mobility socialism. But we wallow in it. 

The auto-American Dream, the Freedom Of The Road mythology that allows us to climb into oversized pickups and SUVs and put the pedal to the metal was built on a framework of rank socialism. 

But I’m with Trump on this one. I think we need to put a stop to the evils of auto-American Socialism and thus Make America Great Again. If only because our unsustainable freedom of the road obsession must inevitably drive us into national bankruptcy. 

But returning to a patchwork system of privately owned toll roads would be messy and ineffective. No, there’s a better way thanks to good old American enterprise and innovation. 

There was a time when running a toll booth on the Florida Turnpike would get you a ticket. But these days they just bill you in the mail, whether you have a Sunpass on your windshield or not. 

We have the technology to collect a miles-driven tax/charge/fee (call it what you want depending on your personal ideology). It’s the purest user fee imaginable. Whether you drive 10,000 miles a year or just 100 miles a year you would be precisely assessed for the impact your personal automobile use has on the public roadways. 

Right pricing driving gives drivers a financial incentive to do less of it. Car pooling would flourish. More users for mass transit. Telecommuting could set us free. Less wear and tear on the roads. Less congestion. Less demand for ever more travel lanes. Fewer accidents and deaths on the highway. 

And just like that Americans would be free again. 

Yeah, I’m with Trump on this one. Let’s stamp out autoSocialism in the great American tradition.