More autoAmerican anarchy

“How bad might the post-pandemic carpocalypse be?” asks Streetsblog USA. Well, let’s take a look, shall we?

Should it surprise anybody that the internal combustion engine has become the counter-insurgency weapon of choice in autoAmerica? Cops, truck drivers and other grumpy Americans with lead feet have been using their vehicles to plow into Black Lives matter protestors. “It’s unclear how many vehicles were aimed at demonstrators,” reports USA Today, “but witnesses said that the incidents seemed intentional and that the drivers accelerated as they went through the crowds.” Collisions being as American as apple pie.

Seems the state of Georgia suspended on-road driving tests as a COVID19 expediency. Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, objects: “While we support the desire not to put instructors at risk, if we want to protect public safety, a better policy would be to stop issuing driver’s licenses until it’s safe to take the test again.” Not in autoAmerica Rebecca.

That’s probably why a West Virginia Fire Chief was surprised at being fired just because he posted on social media a “an image of a blood splattered truck with the caption ‘Just drove through Minneapolis, didn’t see any protesters,’” and a photo of himself “wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘All lives splatter. Nobody cares about your protest. Keep your ass out of the road.’” Clearly the good chief was a victim of political correctness run amok.

Which is not to say that the automobile cannot itself be victimized in these riotous times. Turns out that some riot cops have been deflating tires as a means of venting their, um, frustrations. Reporting on the slashed tires surge in Minneapolis, CBS News says cops “deflated tires to keep the vehicles from being used in attacks against law enforcement or protesters and for the vehicles to be towed if a collection of evidence was necessary.” Et tu Brute?

Elsewhere on the law enforcement front comes evidence that nearly half of American drivers are not at all deterred from using their devices by the inconvenient fact that doing so is against the law. “While drivers acknowledge that certain activities behind the wheel – like texting — are dangerous, some do them anyway,” say David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. (Come to think of it, I think I read that in a text.)

In the What Else Is New Dept., it turns out that federal auto safety standards were only designed to protect people inside vehicles, leaving outsiders, like pedestrians, to fend for themselves. The Government Accounting Office “is pressuring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to do what forward-thinking countries around the world did over a decade ago, and finally require automakers to start testing how likely their cars are to kill a pedestrian in a collision,” reports Streetsblog USA. Good luck on that.

One reason for the above may be that a lot of transportation planners continue to think that “distracted walking,” is a major factor in pedestrian deaths. So why inconvenience motorists when it’s the walker’s fault? According to Rutgers University researchers “Transportation professionals who worry about distracted walking were “more likely to support educating walkers about ‘safe’ walking behaviors, and less likely to support reducing driver speeds — even though driver speed is among the strongest predictors of pedestrian mortality.”

Turns out that while the pandemic has wrecked havoc on car sales, pickup trucks are still, um, trucking along. “While sales of passenger cars and SUVs have fallen sharply, pickup sales have held up surprisingly well as Americans take advantage of low-interest financing offers and refuse to let economic concerns stop them from getting the vehicle they’ve had their sights set on,” reports USA Today.

If you though the pandemic economy would steer more people to smaller, less expensive and more efficient cars, think again. This is still the land of Big Ass Trucks pal, and auto dealers know that. Which is why “The good small cars still aren’t coming to the US,” reports jalopnik.com.

And from our Kids Do The Darndest Things in autoAmerica Dept.: A cop in Utah pulled over an SUV that was doing 32 MPH on a 70 MPH road. Turns out the driver was a five-year-old boy who told the cop he was “heading to California for the purpose of buying a Lamborghini.” This after an argument with his mom, who probably told him they can’t afford a Lamborghini.

Next, Fast Company explains why pedestrian and cyclist deaths are still rising even as many American cities are actively promoting walking and cycling. No mystery here: “Modern U.S. cities are designed largely for motor vehicles,” FC reports. “From the 1950s forward, city streets lost their conviviality. Roads were engineered for fast-moving and unhindered vehicular traffic, with few pedestrian crossings or bike lanes. Even today, motorists in many cities are able to turn onto streets at intersections where pedestrians are also crossing. Most pedestrians and bicyclists are killed or injured while they are obeying the law.” Why did the pedestrian cross the road? (To at least try to get to the other side.)

And if you thought the lockdown was going to mean safer streets, think again. Reports Streetsblog USA, “Drivers aren’t just speeding up on our empty roads — they’re also braking harder, scrolling cell phones longer, and crashing more, new data show.

“In the five weeks after many states announced lockdown orders on March 16, the data company Zendrive said drivers’ use of cell phones behind the wheel is up 38 percent over pre-lockdown numbers. The number of drivers who exceeded speed limits was also up 27 percent, as was hard braking (25 percent) and collisions per million miles (20 percent.)”

So no big surprise that on emptier roads, auto fatality rates spiked by 14 percent in March compared to the previous March. “What really strikes me is the incredible speed of the changes we’re seeing on a roadways,” Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics at the National Safety Council, told NPR. “Looking at other recessions what you usually see is a decrease in the number of deaths, or the injuries and fatality rate holding steady or decreasing slightly.” Nobody can say we autoAmericans don’t try harder to keep those stats up.

And it’s not just pedestrians that need to be careful out there. Endangered Florida panthers keep getting run over too. “The May Panther Pulse report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows that 13 cats have been killed this year, 12 by vehicle strikes and one after being hit by a train in Polk County,” reports Florida Today. Clearly we need to do something about trains if we want to save the critters.

Finally, a bit of poetic protester justice: After the death of George Floyd, thousands of Minneapolis residents protested by marching on I-95, tying up traffic. “It was this highway that, in the 1950s and ‘60s, tore apart the once-thriving neighborhood of Rondo — the heart of St. Paul’s largest African-American community — and helped spur decades of racial segregation in the region,” noted CityLab.com. “This kind of destruction and devastation are familiar to older African Americans in other cities across the U.S., whose communities were decimated by the construction of the Interstate Highway System. And as protesters take over major highways — from I-630 in Little Rock, Arkansas, I-40 in Memphis, Tennessee, I-75 in Cincinnati, Ohio — the symbolism has not been lost on some of those marching.” Well played, marchers.

The four hundred steps

It is a climb of 400 steps to the top of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill.

Through vertical neighborhoods of quirky Art Deco buildings and cozy bungalows tucked away amidst lush vegetation.

The trek is stimulating and the views fantastic. But the real reward for making the assent is to be found hidden inside the tall, spiraling Coit Tower.

Built in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, the tower’s expanse of stark, blank inner walls seemed a too dismal reflection of the hopelessness that gripped the country.

And so under the auspices of the Roosevelt-era Public Works of Art Project, 26 local muralists were hired with the charge of covering those stark inner walls with scenes of everyday life in San Francisco.

How people worked.

When there was work to be had.

Together, to feed a city.

Most of the artists were left-leaning socialists, many of them disciples of the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

And their work reflected a city that was as diverse as it was teeming with life and activity…and chaos.

And like Rivera they preferred to apply their paint onto still-wet, fresh plaster, so that the very walls would absorb the colors.

Unveiled to the world, some of the works were deemed objectionable because they reflected crime, unflattering depictions of city life, or, worse, liberal views.

And because this was a public works project, it had to be periodically reported to the federal government that the artists involved were all “very moral and conscientious, not drunken, promiscuous” or “orgiastic.”

San Francisco today remains a city of startling sights, sounds and experiences.

But tucked away in that tower, 400 steps up from the bay, are the images of a bygone city of industry, despair and hope. It is a feast for the eyes and not to be missed.

Just give us 800 ft.

San Francisco’s Market Street and New York City’s 14th Street are now off limits to most cars. This, according to citylab.com, being indicative of a “wave of cities around the globe pedestrianizing their downtown cores and corridors…”

It is worth nothing that some college towns have been way ahead of the curve in reclaiming their downtowns for people – not just to save lives but to promote economic vitality.

I’m thinking of Pearl Street, in Boulder, Col.; State Street, in Madison, Wis.; and Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.

I’ve walked those streets and observed a downtown street life that is more diverse, prosperous and enjoyable than anything we have here. And while Gainesville’s is primarily a nighttime downtown, those streets generate considerable daytime activity.

Boulder and Charlottesville are pedestrian malls, while State Street – linking the University of Wisconsin and the state capitol – allows buses, taxis and select other vehicles.

Here in Gainesville we close portions of University Avenue for the Homecoming Parade, and the rare Open Streets event. But that’s about it when it comes to making life a little less convenient for motorists as a trade-off for an enhanced street life.

But, what if we started out small and liberated just three downtown blocks for people? Maybe even ease into it and begin with weekends only.

Gainesville and the University of Florida will soon collaborate on a new downtown master plan. If I were looking at ways to enhance downtown’s “street cred,” while making it a friendlier and more inviting place for dining, retail and relaxation, I’d consider turning SE 1st Street, from University Ave to The Hippodrome, into a “pedestrian zone,” following the Boulder and Charlottesville (people only) model or Madison’s (vehicles restricted) example.

That stretch of 2nd is about 800-feet long, and that’s a good thing. “Car-free shopping streets have a better chance to succeed when smaller and their limited scale makes them easy to implement. Most car-free shopping streets are between one and three blocks long,” according to Build A Better Burb.

Creating a “people” corridor on First Street wouldn’t impede downtown traffic flow. It would sacrifice dozens of on-street parking slots. But with two parking garages and on-street parking remaining on the perimeters, that’s a small price to pay for a prosperous, people-centric downtown.

And there is a powerful case to be made for rethinking downtown parking.

Imagine the former parking spaces of SE 2nd sprouting outdoor cafes, street vendors, sculptures and fountains. Imagine travel lanes being given over to buskers, artists, flower sellers and street bands. Imagine an inviting place for folks to converge and collaborate, to see and be seen.

No question there would be resistance from business owners who fear the loss of nearby free parking. But the case can be made that restricting vehicles reaps greater rewards.

In a recent piece in CityLab.com, Brooks Rainwater, senior executive with the National League of Cities, cites Rotterdam’s decision to limit cars in its city center. “At first, area shopkeepers were concerned that customers wouldn’t be able to reach their shops without the ability to drive up to their storefronts,” he wrote. “But as evidence continues to show, retail actually improves in pedestrian zones.”

All I’m saying is give people a chance, Gainesville. A chance to claim a space for their own without the hassle of having to dodge heavy moving objects. It might be the key to the downtown revival that has eluded us so far.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com.

Art and the Anthropocene

Ange can’t sleep. 

She tosses and turns and worries.

About her daughter Lily’s grim future. About the dead chicks they encountered

during a Girl Scout creek cleanup. About an Everglades awash in salt water. 

And the rising sea.

“Poor Florida,” Ange frets.”   

“Boca Raton” is a disturbing new short story by Gainesville author Lauren Groff, who chalks the title down to her own bouts with insomnia. 

“In my night-terrors, when I can’t sleep, I look at maps of sea-level models and Boca is always submerged.”

Her story is part of an Amazon e-book collection called “Warmer.” Short fiction by noted authors focusing on the very non-fictional issue of climate change.

Groff’s contribution is a grim read that had its genesis in a particularly grim image. “I couldn’t exorcise the photograph I’d seen of the outline of dead baby birds whose parents had fed them plastic,” Groff said, “and sometimes I try to put images in fiction to get them out of my head.”

By putting it in our heads.

Artists deal with images in creative ways. And perhaps it says something about the times we live in that while many politicians studiously ignore climate change, artists are taking up the cause. 

Currently at the Harn Museum is an exhibit titled “The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene,” the works of 45 international artists keyed on the theory that human-induced alteration of the Earth’s environment is ushering in a new geological epoch.

 “We live in a world of imminent extinctions, runaway climate change and the depletion of biodiversity and resources,” explains the Harn’s web site. “Florida is one of the most environmentally vulnerable locations worldwide, making” the exhibit “especially relevant.”

Artists rush in where politicians fear to tread.

Recently I had a conversation with Xavier Cortada, identified by the New York Times as one of a dozen prominent artists who have taken on climate change.

And for good reason. Cortada lives and works in Miami, the American city most vulnerable to sea rise. 

Cortada came to Gainesville a few years ago with his “Moving Water” exhibit, which called attention to the drastic damage already being done to our very wet state. During a trip to Antarctica, he collected ice samples taken by scientists there and used the melt water to produce a series of paintings about vanishing glaciers.

Back home in Miami, Cortada this week launched his latest climate change awareness project: The Underwater Home Owners Association (HOA).

“We need to stop worrying about the color of our homes or how tall the grass is and instead worry about what’s going to happen once the sea rises,” he said.

Participating residents in the Village of Pinecrest, are displaying watercolor lawn signs painted by Cortada, also using his Antarctic melt water. Every sign depicts precisely how high sea levels must rise before a given yard will be underwater. 

“I wanted the invisible to be visible,” he said. “It’s a way to help us think about and understand our flat topography.

“Miami is a perfect canvas on which to have that conversation,” he said. “Even when the conversation is hard to have.”

Who knows, maybe Miami resident and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will be sufficiently moved by Underwater HOA (we’re talking real estate values here, after all) to actually have a conversation about climate change. Maybe Rubio will discuss it with Florida’s new junior U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who wouldn’t talk about it during 8 years in the governor’s mansion. Perhaps they’ll even include Florida’s new governor, Rick DeSantis, in the conversation.

Hope springs eternal, as the artists say. And Florida can’t afford many more years of climate change denial in Tallahassee or D.C. 

The arts speak to us. Can they speak to the deniers?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

It’s just so complex(ion)

What gives?

Why are the cops so tough on some people?
And so solicitous toward others?
Maybe it’s obvious. Maybe the police are afraid of these guys because they are armed to the teeth.
While these people are armed with nothing more than righteous indignation.
Maybe it’s because these people are rude.
And these people are courteous.
Perhaps it’s because these people are rabble.
While these people have friends in high places.
It could be because these people are complaining about police misconduct.
While these people just want death for politicians.
Or that these people wave the flag.
And these people don’t.
I dunno. It’s such a conundrum.
Really, it’s such a complex(ion) question.

Life in the ‘human rut’

Your thought for the day:

“They would fail. We would always fail. We weren’t built to do anything but fail. We had the wrong kind of motives and we couldn’t change them. We had a built-in short-sightedness and an inherent selfishness and a self-concern that made it impossible to step out of the little human rut we traveled.”

All Flesh Is Grass by Clifford D. Simak

Schools and sprawl

Listen, I’m not going to quibble over whether the school board paid too much for the site of a future school in Jonesville.

I won’t argue that the board broke faith earmarking money for a “someday” school that voters clearly intended to be spent rehabbing the schools we already have.

I’m not even going to take issue with the logic of laying out $3.68 million for land that won’t be used for a decade while we’re in the middle of a pandemic that is likely to cripple school district budgets for years to come.

I do question, however, school board member Rob Hyatt’s defense of the purchase on the grounds that “there will be a need for a new school on the Jonesville property within 10 years.”

I’ve got to ask, Rob:

Is it the policy of the Alachua County School District to blindly chase suburban and exurban sprawl no matter the costs?

Or is it possible that the school district is itself promoting sprawl by announcing its intention to accommodate new development wherever it goes?

We know that the availability of good schools is a major consideration when it comes to buying a home.

And we can be fairly certain that for the next 10 years, realtors looking to sell homes in Jonesville and beyond will be telling young families and parents-to-be that “new schools are on the way, so better buy now before prices go up.”

Which is a much better sales pitch than “of course, you will have to put your kids on a school bus.”

A policy paper titled “Education and Smart Growth,” makes the case that chasing growth with new schools is a recipe for fiscal and educational calamity. Among other impacts, “a new school on a distant site can act as a growth magnet, helping draw people out of older urban neighborhoods and into new subdivisions on the metropolitan fringe.

“It is well understood that school quality determines where many families will choose to locate within a region. If new schools are being built on the edge of town and they are perceived to be superior, as new schools often are, then families who can afford the move will often relocate…

“Even families without school age children are impacted as school quality has a significant influence on residential property values.”

In an article titled “School Sprawl,” planner Edward T. McMahon argues that “Construction of large schools on the outskirts of communities not only gobbles up land, it is rarely cost effective. The cost of new school construction is frequently higher than rehabilitation or building additions onto existing schools.”

One consequence of school sprawl, McMahon writes, is that “all over the country smaller, old schools are being closed in favor of bigger, new schools in far flung locations.”

Say, whatever happened to Prairie View Elementary anyway?

This community already has a well documented achievement gap that runs largely along east-west and urban-suburban lines. Continuing to build new schools to serve ever more distant wealthier and whiter suburbs will only exacerbate that gap.

And it’s not necessary. If the state of Florida has done anything over the past decade or more it has been to promote “school choice” in the form of private schools, religious-backed schools, charter schools, home schooling and more.

Parents do have a choice, and the notion that our school district is by itself capable of providing “neighborhood” schools for all regardless of location, distance or sprawl development is ultimately an exercise in fiscal and educational bankruptcy.

Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns, calls suburban development a “Ponzi scheme,” wherein “the local unit of government benefits immediately from all the permit fees, utility charges, and increased tax collection…” but ultimately acquires “long-term liability for servicing and maintaining all the new infrastructure.”

“A near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation is one element of a Ponzi scheme,” he writes.

Whether the school district deliberately promotes sprawl or simply chases it the end result is the same. Board members are buying into a Ponzi scheme.