Everywhere a sign

Signs, signs everywhere a sign.

Maybe it’s just me but I have a tendency to look for not-so-subtle signs as I wander through AutoAmerica.

For instance, in St. Augustine Beach I noticed that at every pedestrian crossing on Beach Boulevard the city has thoughtfully provided stacks of bright orange flags. The idea being that if you are going to cross the street on foot, better grab a flag so people in automobiles will be able to see you, um, coming.

I’m sure traffic engineers patted themselves on the backs over that one. Keeping our pedestrians safe against all odds, they’d say. 

But that’s the real message here? Those orange flags are very much a sign that people who do not encase themselves in two tons of Detroit iron really don’t belong on the public streets. That they require extraordinary markings just to survive that hostile environment. 

Rather like the old plague ships that had to fly yellow flags.

Everywhere a sign.

At Gainesville High School, where my kids graduated, I see that they have installed a push button system that sets off flashing lights at the pedestrian crosswalk. The better to allow students to get safety across four lanes of highway designed for speedy motor transit. 

Great idea. Oh, but wait.

As if to prove the point that no good deed goes unpunished, the traffic engineers in their infinite wisdom decided that the thick concrete post bearing the life-saving push button ought to be implanted right into the sidewalk, just off-center of the middle.

What’s the sign here? Fine, we’ll give you a break getting across the street. But you’ll pay the price with a partially blocked sidewalk. Tough luck if you happen to be in a wheelchair.

Everywhere a sign.

Speaking of which, I notice that the county just installed a couple of speed trackers along NW 16th Blvd, not far from my home. The speed limit is 40 MPH, and if you are going faster (or slower) than you are so informed in an orange LED digital readout. 

Good idea, because you have to assume that at least some of the drivers who are going faster than 40 will take the hint and show down….at least for a hundred feet or so.

So what’s this sign really saying?

It’s a tacit acknowledgement that four-laned, broad-laned NW 16th has been engineered to near interstate standards, so much so that the natural tendency is to drive faster than the posted limit allows. 

One might reasonably ask why anybody needs to drive 40 mph on an urban street that separates neighborhoods, schools, churches and parks. But that’s an irrelevant question: For all practical purposes you could slap a 30 mph limit on that stroad (look it up) and people would still drive 40-50. Or faster, I’ve seen them do it.

Because fast-moving cars are exactly what NW 16th was designed to facilitate. And it does its job very well.

Orange flags, sidewalk obstructions, electronic slow down alerts. 

The signs are all there. And they all say the same thing.

Here there be autoAmerican dragons. Pilgrims afoot beware.

Seeing is believing on I-95

Just when you think you’ve seen everything on I-95 this guy comes along. 

Traveling north through South Carolina I once saw a kid on a motorcycle, his girlfriend clutching his back like a human leach, weaving in and out of traffic and zipping past cars like they were standing still.

All this while balanced on one wheel. I never saw his front wheel touch blacktop. 

Just another day on the interstate in AutoAmerica. 

But right now we’re all focused on killer trucks, thanks largely to a recent spate of truck-involved crashes that have claimed lives and periodically turned I-75 into a giant parking lot.

And we should worry. There seem to be more big rigs on the road every day, feeding our addiction to consumption. Pushed to stay on schedule, drivers can be sleep deprived, road dazed and tempted to cut corners…literally.

Still, if I were driving a semi, I’d be more worried about the motorized chess players who forever jump from one lane to the next, looking for that next empty sweet spot that will let them stay ahead of the competition. 

Or the SUV cowboys who assume they won’t be stopped if they only drive nine miles faster than the limit.

Or small weaving cars lugging jury-rigged trailers full to the brim with loosely secured household goods. 

Not to mention the digital zombies trying to simultaneously track their tiny screens and whatever may be on the road directly ahead.

Interstate driving isn’t for sissies. And calling for a crackdown on interstate speeders surely can’t hurt. Although it probably won’t help much either, unless we’re prepared to hire a vast army of state troopers to keep us safe.

Anyway, there’s a more effective and cheaper solution. Especially now that we are entering the era of “smart” highways and “smart” cars.

Across the nation states are experimenting with roads that can generate their own electricity,  and even heat up to melt winter snow and ice. Sensors are being implanted to monitor traffic flow. Others may soon alert motorists if their tires are under-inflated.

If you drive on the Florida Turnpike without a Sunpass you won’t get a ticket in the mail, just a bill. This because a camera snapped your license plate. 

What that camera won’t photograph or ticket is that jerk who just zipped past you doing 90 on his motorcycle while balanced on one wheel and hoping he won’t lose his girlfriend.

Actually there have been some experiments” with cameras that ticket speeders on interstates. Phoenix tried it for a couple of years. Not long ago cameras mounted on I-95 in South Carolina resulted in a marked reduction in speeding – albeit while making a lot of people hopping mad. 

“We’re absolutely shutting it down,” state Sen. Larry Grooms, then transportation chair of the state’s senate, told NBC News last year.

Which is another way of saying that deadly driving isn’t a crime unless a cop actually sees you doing it. 

Or until you kill somebody.

Truth be told, we have the technology to shut down speeding, reckless, distracted and all other deadly forms of driving. What we lack is the will to use it.  

No, it’s easier, and less risky for politicians, to write off the 43,000 people who die on our roads and highways every year as simply the price we pay for freedom of the road in AutoAmerica.

Anyway, dead people don’t vote. But motorists who think they’ve been “set up” by technology sure do.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor for The Sun.

The road left unpaved

“For nearly seven decades, our national transportation obsession has been about maximizing the amount that you can drive. We now need to focus on minimizing the amount you are forced to drive.”

That excerpt comes from Daniel Herriges’ terrific Strong Towns blog titled “A Texas-sized Paving Problem” which argues that not even the Lone Star State can continue to throw endless billions of dollars away in a fruitless effort to expand traffic capacity. “Forget about doubling the size of the system,” he writes, “$12.6 billion in 30 years, and none of it for maintenance of what you’ve already built? That way lies madness.”

Texas isn’t alone in its auto-American, car-centric madness. Florida loves new lane lines as well, and is experiencing its own brand of highway sticker shock. 

Here’s a column I wrote for the Gainesville Sun a few years ago that made a similar case:

While wandering the back roads between Palatka and Daytona Beach, I once took a serendipitous turn in Flagler County and ended up on a long sandy lane going nowhere.

Well, there are lots of unpaved roads in Florida, but this one was remarkable for the thousands of red bricks that ran down its center – most of them long obscured by dirt but many still exposed – for the space of about 9 miles.

That’s a lot of bricks.

Turns out that the old brick road was part of the original Dixie Highway out of Jacksonville. Built around 1915 it was nicknamed “Tin Can Alley” for the cheap trailers that tourists once hauled down to Florida behind their Model Ts.

For whatever reason, that stretch of Tin Can Alley never got an asphalt upgrade. It was just forgotten.

Letting roads revert to the wild may seem like an unnatural act in AutoAmerica. But some roads really aren’t worth the upkeep.

And that may be especially true in an era when politicians are afraid to raise gas taxes and taxpayers won’t cover their driving tab in other ways – witness the repeated, emphatic, rejection of a sales tax for road maintenance here in Alachua County.

This is leading to some interesting bookkeeping contortions to try to pay for the care and feeding of roads.

For instance, if Congress continues to renew the nation’s insolvent Highway Trust Fund – and that’s far from certain – it will likely opt to finance it with government IOUs for fear of nudging up a gas tax that hasn’t been raised since 1994.

In any case, even if Congress did raise the gas tax it would surely be a temporary “fix.” Several trends – the rise of electric vehicles, the shift away from suburbanization, the tendency among younger Americans to drive less, and killer apps like Uber – will inevitably conspire to lacerate the gasoline tax’s utility as a reliable user fee.

All of which brings me back to that old brick road to nowhere.

Ultimately, the cost of using the public roads will be paid, one way or another. But perhaps the political inertia over how to finance our transportation system will force us to confront the question of whether we’re already paying for more roads than we need.

Paul Trombino, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation, acknowledged as much at a recent Urban Land Institute seminar when he said “the reality is, the system is going to shrink.”

“I said this a lot in my conversation when we were talking about fuel tax increases,” Trombino reportedly said. “We’re not going to pay to rebuild that entire system. And my personal belief is that the entire system is unneeded.”

He continued, “let’s not let the system degrade and then we’re left with sorta whatever’s left. Let’s try to make a conscious choice..it’s going to be complex and messy, but let’s figure out which ones we really want to keep.”

The truth is that too often roads are built for the wrong reason – to enrich land speculators and enable sprawl development that guts cities, incentivizes suburban flight, creates congestion and ultimately obliges taxpayers to subsidize poorly planned growth in countless ways.

Moreover, there is mounting evidence that transportation agencies routinely exaggerate the need for new and expanded road systems. A 2014 Federal Highway Administration report to Congress indicates that the U.S. Department of Transportation has been overestimating how much Americans will drive – and hence, how many lane miles of road they will need – since at least 1998.

“The road goes on forever,” the Allman Brothers once assured us. But even in AutoAmerica it may make political and fiscal sense to let at least some of ’em go the way of that old brick road to nowhere that used to be Tin Can Alley. 

 

 

 

 

 

Driving the Walking Dead

Hamlet’s okay, but to be brutally honest, I prefer “The Walking Dead.” Love it. Have from the start. Every gory, gruesome, gut-wrenching moment.

Sure, the melancholy Dane talks to a skull. But at least it isn’t trying to rip out his throat in mid-soliloquy.

Still, nine seasons in, the series has begun to stretch the bounds of credulity with me.

Oh, not that the dead reanimate. I totally buy that. Just watch C-SPAN, if you can stomach it.

Not even that the few remaining humans keep slaughtering each other. That’s just the logical outcome of American political polarization and our infatuation with gun play.

No, what’s finally got me crying “fake news!” is that the survivors are all still driving around the apocalyptic landscape as though the refineries down in Houston were still pumping at full capacity.

Haven’t they Googled gasoline? The stuff starts to break down after six months, and by year two a gallon wouldn’t have enough zoom left to motivate the Energizer Bunny, let alone Daryl’s chopper and Rick’s pickup and that monster armored SUV in the “Fear” spinoff.

As Deadpool would say “that’s just lazy writing.”

Still, the more I think about it, the more sense these post-Dead perpetual motion machines are starting to make.

I finally figured it out folks. When you come right down to it, “The Walking Dead” is the perfect allegory for the end of auto-American Civilization As We Know It.

Turns out it won’t end with a whimper, or even a bang, but rather with a wheeze.

This occurred to me after reading that London scientists have established a link between high air pollution levels and soaring rates of dementia. They already discovered that air pollution can lead to lower IQ . And it’s been documented that auto-emissions are a major contributor to air pollution.

Coincidence? I think not.

So just think of the zombies as poor lost souls who have finally surrendered their last remnants of reason and intelligence to the choking tailpipe emissions they’ve been sucking up their entire lives.

I mean, seriously, look at their faces. Don’t they look oxygen deprived to you?

Not all of them, of course. Some of the walking dead are actually the walking wounded….the multitude of pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, and drivers who have had their bodies shattered and minds addled as a result of collisions with two-ton predators. Now they just shamble from place to place, lost amid the roads and stroads and interchanges and multi-laned wastelands of a civilization that willingly sacrifices a human life every 25 seconds on the alter of the Freedom Of The Open Road.

And those survivors who keep killing each other instead of the zombies? That’s just typical auto-American road rage taken to its logical extremes. Covet thy neighbor’s wife, fine. Covet his ‘Vette and you better buckle up pal.

And finally all of those cars and vans and pickups and motorcycles and assault vehicles that keep on trucking long after the gasoline has gone bad? It seems the folks who made “The Terminator” series had it right. The machines we created to make our lives easier will still be killing us long after the dystopian curtain has dropped.

Speaking of which, I understand that when “The Walking Dead” resumes they are going to get rid of Rick, arguably the series’ central character, and perhaps the toughest post-dead survivor of all.

Here’s how I think it’ll happen (spoiler alert!)

Rick wakes up one morning and discovers that his drivers license has expired.

Consigned to pedestrian hell he steps out his front door.

Only to be run over by an autonomous vehicle.

Alas poor Rick, I knew him well…a fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy.

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.

North to Craggy Gardens

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the top of Craggy Gardens.

Everything suddenly went black.

Well, not black, exactly. More like gray.

The black part only lasted while I was riding through a tunnel on the Blue Ridge Parkway that ended just about one mile distant from the Craggy Gardens Visitor’s Center – my goal for the day’s ride. My flashing white and red lights barely registered in the darkness….but you could make out the light at the end of the tunnel.

You could also see the steep hill – just the latest and hopefully last ascent that would take me up final 300-or 400-feet up to the nearly 6,000 feet elevation point that marked the Visitors Center.

I would have liked to have made it. It was so damned close.

Yet so far away as things turned out.

What happened was that at the top of that final hill I ran into a thick bank of gray fog that was rolling across the top of the mountain.

Now I saw it, now I didn’t.

In fact, I literally couldn’t see much of anything beyond my handlebars. And that’s not a great situation to find yourself in when you are on a narrow, two-lane, twisty mountain road much favored by cyclists, automobiles, motorcycles and RVs.

So, conceding defeat, I turned around and headed back the other way, downhill. Luckily, the fog did not follow me.

The Visitors Center will still be there for some future ride.

And the long, steep, descent between Craggy Gardens and the distant Folk Arts Center – at about 2,200 feet just outside Asheville – is reward enough.

Really, how often do you get to ride at speeds of up to 35-plus MPH (could have gone faster at points, but I get skittish at a certain velocity and start feathering the brakes) for mile after mile? Certainly nowhere in the vicinity of my usual Florida stomping grounds.

Having climbed steadily and doggedly for upwards of two hours, that return ride seemed to fly by in a matter of minutes.

In my previous blog, I criticized the National Park Service’s “ride on the right side of the road” rule for bicyclists on the Blue Ridge Parkway – aka its “suicide by bike” requirement. Which criticism I stand by.

But I also had some not very flattering things to say about cycling the segment of the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs through the Asheville area. That last complaint calls for clarification.

So here goes: There’s nothing wrong with riding the Blue Ridge Parkway out of Asheville, indeed it is recommended – providing that you are headed in the right direction.

In fact, cycling north (in the direction of Mt. Mitchell) on the Parkway out of Asheville is a delightful experience. Beginning at the Folk Arts Center, the climbs are challenging but not especially punishing, the descents are thrilling and the scenery is spectacular. The traffic tends to be light, at least earlier in the morning, and not nearly as intimidating as what you would encounter riding south.

It is riding south out of Asheville (toward Mt. Pisgah) that should be avoided, most especially during the week days. The first several miles is essentially a forested local road which is used by commuters to get to work and back or wherever, thereby avoiding the city’s more heavily trafficked surface roads. You can tell it’s a local road not only by the volume of fast-moving traffic but also by the roadside litter that is all too common along this stretch of the Parkway. It isn’t until after you cross the French Broad River, about 10 miles into the ride, that the trip south begins to seem as pleasant as the trek north. (Ironically, right after crossing the river we saw construction signs advising cyclists to go no further because of loose gravel on the road. Sometimes you just can’t win.)

Judging by the number of cyclists I was able to observe, the locals know this north-south divide very well. Over several days we passed (or were passed) by dozens of riders headed north. Only a hardy few were evident on the one day we ventured south.

And most were headed north for reasons of safety and scenery. The overlooks at Haw Creek Valley, Craven Gap, Tanbark Ridge, Bull Creek, Lane Pinnacle, Potato Field Gap and so on all make for scenic water stops that more than compensate for the hard work involved in riding steadily uphill in the direction of Craggy Gardens.

Listen, I’m a Florida flatlander who does most of my riding at sea level. But this summer I’ve had the opportunity to cycle in the mountains of western Virginia, the uplands of southern Scotland (more about that in a future blog) and on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. All are recommended.

Life’s a journey, folks. Just make sure all of your gears are in working order – not to mention your tires, brakes and flashing lights etc.

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Live center or die on the edge?

I wasn’t aware of the National Park Service’s “Suicide By Bicycle” rule until I cycled the Blue Ridge Parkway out of Asheville, N.C.

Actually it was on the third day of cycling the Parkway when, headed north, I pulled over just after crossing the French Broad River to read a colorful sign proclaiming that I was about to encounter the “highest, most rugged elevations” of its entire 469-mile length.

There was lots of other information as well, including fairly specific instructions for bicycles. Among them that cyclists must “ride single file on the right hand side of the road.”

This next to an illustration showing a single rider hugging the road’s edge so closely that his right ankle was surly being tickled by the grass.

I’ve got no problem with the single file part. But anybody on a bicycle who follows the “right hand side” rule must have a death wish.

Why? Two reasons.

One: Sitting on the right edge seems an invitation to lead-footed motorists coming up from behind to pass you without bothering to move over onto the oncoming traffic lane….even if that means squeezing by within inches of your vulnerable body.

In fact, a sheriff’s deputy in his SUV cruiser did just that to me without bothering to either slow down or edge across the yellow middle line. Thanks John Law.

Second, hugging the right edge of the road similarly invites impatient drivers coming in the opposite way to view the remainder of your lane as a “window of opportunity” to pass the slowpoke driver (or drivers) in front of them.

No thank you.

I mostly stuck just to the right of the center of the lane. With my fluorescent yellow jersey, flashing red tail lights and white head lights, I was visible enough to give oncoming motorists ample notice that they needed to slow down until they could pass me safely employing the oncoming lane. Even if that meant waiting until there was no approaching traffic.

As it happens, very few of the numerous cyclists I observed while riding the Parkway seemed to adhere to the bicycle suicide rule. And if that sounds like cycling anarchy, I would also observe that many of the motorists who shared that narrow road with us didn’t bother to observe the Parkway’s 35-45 mph speed limits. And Parkway traffic enforcement being apparently rare to nonexistent, there seems little incentive for motorists not to speed.

I hesitate to make too much of this. Cycling remains a popular activity on the Parkway and for good reasons – spectacular mountain vistas, challenging climbs and exhilarating descents to name just three.

But given the presence of so many SUVS, RVs, pickup trucks, motorcycles and such, the intent of the ride-on-the-right-edge rule seems less intended to protect the lives of people on bicycles than facilitate the swift and uninterrupted flow of motorized traffic.

A worthy goal on a wide, high-speed multiple laned highway, perhaps. But wholly inappropriate within the tight confines of what amounts to America’s longest, narrowest linear park.

Don’t get me wrong. I still loved cycling the Blue Ridge Parkway. But I would advise anyone who wants to give it a try to avoid the stretch running through the Asheville area. It’s clear that many local commuters use the Parkway as a convenient, time-saving option to avoid the traffic lights and congestion on the city’s roads. Looking in my helmet-mounted rear mirror and seeing a line of 7 or 8 cars coming up behind me and showing no signs of slowing down tends to….well, spoil the moment.

Not to pick on the Park Service, but I think the Parkway’s right-side rule is dangerously misguided. Check out what the American Bicycling Education Association’s Cyclingsavvy website has to say on the subject:

“Driving in the middle of the lane actually protects bicyclists against the most common motorist-caused crashes: sideswipes, right hooks, left crosses, and drive-outs.  A bicycle driver’s top safety priority is to ensure he or she can be seen by motorists with whom they might potentially be in conflict, and bicycling in the middle of a lane is one of the most effective ways to do that. Most overtaking crashes involve a motorist who attempts to squeeze past (illegally) in a lane that is too narrow to share.”

If ever there were lanes that are “too narrow to share” you’ll find them on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Sorry, ranger, but I’d rather live as a rule-breaker than die in perfect compliance.

Shaming and speeding

If you take a leisurely stroll down Lawtey’s main street you will pass a ball field, an elementary school, City Hall, a post office a grocery store and a church. 

Not that anybody strolls on Lawtey’s main street – aka U.S. 301. That would be like ambling through traffic hell.

Still, in a nominal concession to Lawtey’s pretense of actually being a “community,” the thousands of heavy trucks, pickups, SUVs and sedans which every day funnel through that small Columbia County town north of Gainesville are legally obliged to slow down from 60-plus to 45 MPH.

Not that many do. In autoAmerica, posted speed limits are deemed guidelines more than mandates. 

Studies have shown, as Bryan Jones, a planner and engineer with Alta Planning + Design wrote recently for strongtowns.org, that most “motorists believe the posted speed limit is just the suggested maximum and more frequently treat it as the minimum, knowing that many law enforcement professionals and courts will not ‘strictly’ enforce the maximum posted speed limit but rather something 9-15 MPH over the posted speed limit.”

Which is why, if you know anything at all about Lawtey, you probably know that it has been branded a “speed trap” by the American Automobile Association. It’s an old rep – these days the town reportedly only writes about 15 tickets daily. 

“We think it is a relic of the past,” Police Chief Shane Bennett told First Coast News last month. 

Still, it remains Lawtey’s foremost, um, claim to shame.

The definition of “speed trap” being a town that insists on ticketing motorists for breaking the law.

The definition of “speed limit” being a law that may only be enforced up to a point – that point being where the collection of traffic fines becomes a “revenue stream.”

Which is ironic when you consider that one-third (and that’s a conservative estimate) of all traffic fatalities in America are due to speeding. To break that down, about 113,000 people in America died of an overdose of “speed” between 2005 and 2014.

Lawtey is exactly the sort of town that Florida urban planner Andrés Duany had in mind when he wrote “The Department of Transportation, in its single-minded pursuit of traffic flow, has destroyed more American towns than General Sherman.” Other casualties of the traffic wars along US 301 alone might include Waldo and Hawthorne, small towns similarly robbed of any sense of community by some long ago traffic planner’s “single minded pursuit.”

But the truth is that even cities, like Gainesville, that have supposedly embraced “Vision Zero” plans to eliminate traffic fatalities are either powerless or unwilling to slow down traffic and thereby save lives. 

We have no lack of “traffic calming” solutions, from narrowing or reducing traffic lanes, to using on-street parking, landscaping and other designs that make fast driving feel uncomfortable, to installing speed detection cameras and employing GPS technology. 

No, what’s lacking is the political will, and the public support, to adopt life-saving constrains on the autoAmerican “right” to drive fast. 

The other day I saw a corporate-owned fleet vehicle with a bumper sticker stating that the vehicle was being electronically monitored to ensure that its driver obeys the speed limit. Obviously the bumper sticker was meant to alert impatient motorists behind the fleet car that its driver wasn’t going to play ball.

Can you imagine the public outcry that would ensure if government adopted similar GPS technology to stop speeding? 

No, consider Lawtey a Scarlet Letter example of a town that tried to keep motorists from killing each other and ended up being nationally shamed for it. 

Because the truth is that we Americans have the need. The need for speed. No matter how many must die. 

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in The Sun on June 3, 2018.

Life and death in autoAmerica

The zebra ambled over and licked the salt off my handlebars.

The camels, aloof, looked the other way. And the springboks, oversized ears turning in unison like synchronized radar screens, dashed off in full flee mode.

I have no idea what manner of creature that was howling full-throat off in the distance.

And that’s the thing about cycling Florida’s back roads. You never know what you’re going to see next. Once I came across half of a built-to-scale brontosaurus – apparently destined to become Florida’s next roadside attraction.

On Mother’s Day, Jill and I cycled south out of Micanopy into the Marion County horse country on a rabbit warren network of rural roads defined by Spanish Moss-draped giant oaks, cracker barns, house trailers, multi-million dollar horse farms….and a private wildlife preserve.

It was a perfect day. The weather was fine. Traffic was light. Twice a man and a woman on a motorcycle cruised slowly past us, sharing the same scenery and peace of mind.

Later, back in Micanopy, we saw police cars diverting southbound traffic away from U.S. 441 where it intersects with CR 234. A badly dented car and a destroyed motorcycle blocked the road.

The man driving the motorcycle was dead, and his woman passenger critically injured. Maybe the same couple that had just shared our ramble through paradise.

Accidents happen. Even on Mother’s Day.

We call them accidents because it makes us all feel better – as though the inevitability of 40,000-traffic related deaths a year is simply the price we must collectively pay for personal freedom in autoAmerica.

But the truth is that, all too often, deadly accidents are the result of careless negligence bordering on the criminal – speeding, poor judgement, distracted, aggressive or impaired driving. That “king of the road” feeling you get when you’re tearing down the highway in your SUV, fiddling with the stereo, maybe sneaking a text message, impatient to get there and perhaps driving just a little too boldly because…you can.

Accidents happen.

And, really, you can’t blame us. We are sold vehicles that can travel at speeds far in excess of any posted limit. We enjoy wide, multi-laned “forgiving” roads specifically engineered to minimize our chances of dying when our hubris overrides our common sense.

Well, that’s not exactly true. “Forgiving” roads really only forgive people who are encased in automobiles. Scant mercy is spared pedestrians (6,000 dead in 2016), motorcyclists (5,000 killed) or cyclists (840).

By the way, isn’t it bloody ironic that we observe “Infrastructure Week” and “Ride Your Bike To Work Week” at the same time?

The former gives us occasion to berate our politicians for not building us even more lanes, that are wider still, more forgiving and pothole-free so we can to drive to work, school, the mall and home again as quickly as possible.

Even as we give once a year lip service to this notion that people ought to get out of their cars, get on their bikes and ride to work on roads that make anything but car-armored commuting a very risky business.

Listen, we don’t have to accept staggering body counts as a necessary trade-off for life in autoAmerica. We have the technology, the know-how and the wherewithal to end the slaughter.

In future columns I’ll talk about how we can save lives on our public roads…if only we have the will to do so.

But for now, I just wanted to tell you about the lovely Mother’s Day we had.

At least those of us who survived it.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun. This column was published in The Sun on Sunday, May 20.

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.