Collusion collages

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

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

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

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A fondness for life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how about this?

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

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

The auto-majority clearly rules. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, a no brainer. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love this town.

Fast driving and the city

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because we know all about the deadly physics of speeding. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Gainesville Sun 2/24/19.

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

Waiving the orange flag

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

The cars are winning.

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

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

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

Oh the humanity!

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand, the cars are doing fine.

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

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

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

Do the flags work? Not really. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this a great country or what?

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.

The Ancient City Ramble

I’ve always maintained that the best way to see a city is on a bicycle. And in the past few years I’ve had the good fortune to be able to tour Ottawa, Edinburgh, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Montreal, San Francisco, Helsinki and a few other great cities on two wheels.

But, listen, one of the best city bike tours you can take is right here in Florida. Try this 26-mile  self-guided Ancient City Ramble to experience the best that historic St. Augustine has to offer (sorry, New Mexico, Virginia and Mass, but we’re still No. 1 on the oldest city list).

Leave from the Ocean Pier on St. Augustine Beach. Why? Because it’s a great spot for a start-of-ride photo.

0.9 miles: Where the white crosswalk crosses Beach Blvd. look for a short unpaved footpath. Turn right there to get off A1A and into a lovely tree covered old Florida neighborhood. 

2.2 miles: That’s the St. Augustine Amphitheater on your right. There’s probably a concert there tonight. We’ve seen Willy Nelson, Steely Dan and a few other oldies but goodies there. 

2.9 miles: Stop and take the walk to the top of the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Best views in the city.

3.9 miles: The Conch House is one of the better known restaurants in St. Aug. Think a fish house on steroids. 

5.1 miles: Cross the historic Bridge of Lions. Take your lane, the cars behind you will wait.

5.9 miles: If you haven’t seen the honkin’ big Castillo de San Marcos, now’s your chance. Bristling with cannon and history.

6.6 miles: That’s the Great Cross on your right. Mariners can see it from miles out at sea. Great photo opportunity. Beautiful grounds. 

7.0 miles: The Fountain of Youth is not nearly as tourist hokey as it sounds. In fact, it’s a beautiful stroll along the Matanzas River and an informative walk through early Florida history.

6.6 miles: Yeah, you’re gonna cross that really tall bridge. It’s the only way to get to the quaint seaside community of Vilano Beach. 

8.8 miles: Well, you did the hard work of getting over that ginormous bridge. Might as well take a quick spin through Vilano before you have to ride back over it.

12.5 miles: That lovely campus on your right is the Florida School For The Deaf and Blind. 

13.8 miles: You are at Ft. Mose Park, site of the first free African settlement in North America. The fort is gone but there’s a museum there preserves its history and a really beautiful boardwalk stroll will lead you out into the marsh to the original site. 

14-14.3 miles: Exercise CAUTION on this left turn onto U.S. 1 quickly followed by another left  to get off of it. It’s a four-lane divided highway so take your time and execute these turns carefully and safely.

16.1: You’ve reached the Old City Gates and all of the Ancient City attractions on the pedestrian-only Spanish Street. Park your bike and take a stroll through history.

16.6: Flagler College is another excellent place to stop and walk. I recommend the guided tour, which will take you to the roof for great views.

17 miles: St. Augustine Distillery. You know what to do.

18.1 miles: That compound to your right is where the horses live when they are not pulling carriages up and down Ancient City streets.

18.1: You have arrived at one of St. Augustine’s best kept secrets, Freedom Park. Its circular bike-ped path gives you great views of the San Sebastián and Matanzas rivers, and there are great sculptures depicting the city’s African American heritage.

19 miles: You are in the heart of St. Augustine’s historic African American neighborhood. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested near here. Check out the Civil Rights House.

19.4: The coolest neighborhood in St. Aug. is the quaint waterside neighborhood of Lake Maria Sanchez. 

19.9: Lightner Museum on your left. The restored San Marco Hotel (great bar) on your right. 

20.2: Why did the cyclist cross the Bridge of Lions twice? To finish the ride of course. 

22.2: St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park. In addition to a swampload of reptiles this place boasts a world class rookery (birds like it here because the gators protect them from predators that can climb trees).

22.8: Can’t visit St. Augustine without seeing Anastasia State Park. You can rent kayaks and paddle boards on the salt run. Or walk for miles on its car-free beach. 

25.4: Thousands of motorists pass the St. Augustine Beach Sculpture Garden every day and don’t give it a second thought. But that’s their loss. This quirky collection of statuary clustered on the edge of a small lake is very cool.

26.2: You’re on Beach Blvd. Tons of great restaurants in case your hungry. 

26.4: Back at the Ocean Pier. You took a beginning-of-ride photo, might as well end the same way to commemorate a memorable urban ride.fba5f828-c6ed-49b3-9d37-6f7a394f98a2 Continue reading “The Ancient City Ramble”

The deadliest state to walk

Welcome to Florida. We’ve got it all.

Stunning beaches, world class theme parks. Enjoy your visit.

Just don’t get out of your car. 

Because outside the protection of your air conditioned steel exoskeleton, Florida’s car friendly roads are mean streets indeed.

Add to the growing list of things we don’t want tourists to know about – red tide, green algae, Florida Man – is this stunner. 

Florida is the most pedestrian deadly state in America.

Eight of the nation’s ten most dangerous metro areas for walkers are right here in the Sunshine State. Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Daytona, Ft. Myers, Sarasota…the usual suspects.

In just the past decade, more than 5,400 pedestrians in Florida have been killed by motorists. 

This according to the latest annual “Dangerous By Design” report by Smart Growth America.

Nationally, more than 49,000 pedestrians have been killed in the decade just past. 

“That’s more than 13 people per day, or one person every hour and 46 minutes,” the group reports. “It’s the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of people crashing—with no survivors—every single month.”

And here’s the really worrisome thing. Pedestrian death rates are on the rise even as overall traffic fatalities are decreasing. 

The last decade saw a 35 percent increase in pedestrian deaths. Meanwhile, fatalities among motor vehicle occupants shrank by 6.1 percent. 

So cars are getting safer? Well, they are certainly getting faster, bigger and heavier – witness the increase in SUV and pickup truck sales, while sedan lines are being discontinued for lack of consumer interest.

“Why is this happening?” poses SGA. “We’re not walking more, and we’re only driving slightly more than we were back in 2008.”

Rather, “we are continuing to design streets that are dangerous for all people.”

And you don’t have to go to Orlando or Tampa to see examples of dangerously overdesigned “stroads” (high-speed roads disguised as city streets). 

Just take a drive east on Archer Road through the heart of the UF medical center complex – at the point where the speed limit abruptly drops from 45 mph to 25 and then 20 mph.

That corridor is a pedestrian rich environment, with health care workers, visitors and patients alike crossing Archer to get from one hospital to another. So 20 mph makes eminent sense

But try driving the legal limit there and watch the cars speed past you. 

Again, the problem isn’t the posted limit. The problem is that Archer – and 34th Street, and 16th Blvd, and 13th Street and so many other Gainesville stroads – are designed to highway specifications, with broad, multiple travel lanes, clear lines of sight, and few roadside obstructions. 

Traffic engineers call them “forgiving” roads, designed to minimize the potential for injuries and deaths when motorists do something reckless. Like drive too fast through the heart of the city. 

But forgiving roads are also empowering roads. By their very design they encourage people to drive faster than the law or common sense dictates. That’s good for motorists in a hurry, but a potential death sentence if you are on foot and trying to cross the road.

Gainesville is among a growing number of cities that are beginning to adopt “Vision Zero” and “Complete Streets” policies aimed at calming traffic and making life safer for pedestrians and cyclists. But transportation funding priorities and road design standards are largely decided by state and federal officials. 

Listen, if jumbo jets were falling out of the sky at a rate of one per month they would certainly sit up and take notice in D.C. and Tallahassee. 

So why are so many dead pedestrians of so little concern?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

A land so strange

Jean Ribault was The First Coast’s First Tourist. 

The French explorer made landfall, on April 30, 1562, where the placid St. John’s empties into the Atlantic. There Ribault discovered a “faire cost, streching of a gret lenght,” and an “infenite number of highe and fayrc trees.” 

Hey, the guy was from out of state. 

But never mind that. The point is that, thanks to public ownership of the Talbot Islands and the primitive wetlands of the vast Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, much of the coastal landscape between Mayport to the south and Amelia Island to the north remains pretty much as Ribault must have found it: Miles of deserted beaches, wide stretches of palmetto scrublands broken up by forests of salt-sculpted, moss-draped oaks and stands of palms…all of it sandwiched between the ocean and a wonderland of twisting creeks, sloughs, mud flats and rookeries. 

Which is why this is one of my all time favorite Florida bike rides – a 40-mile trek up the Talbot Islands to Fernandina Beach and back. 

Start riding at the entrance to Little Talbot Island State Park, my all-time favorite winter camping ground.

For the first mile and a half you share A1A with some fairly fast moving traffic. But it’s got bike lanes and there are only two place, both narrow bridge crossings, where you briefly have to share the road with cars. Just be careful.

Mile 1.5: A quick right jog and you’re off the highway and onto the Timucuan Multi-Use Pathway. This is a beautifully designed off-road bike/ped path that runs the rest of the length of Big Talbot all the way to Nassau Sound. Winding and tree covered, it is a gorgeous trail.

Just after the 4 mile mark, you’ll arrive at Big Talbot Island Boneyard Beach. If you’re on a hybrid or fat tire bike you can ride down to the Boneyard  – so named for all of the fallen trees strewn along the shoreline like bleaching whale bones. If you’re on a road bike it’s still worth a short hike to the bluff overlook for the amazing view.

Leaving Boneyard Beach the paved trail soon becomes a wooden walkway. There are two covered bird watching shelters here overlooking a beautiful expanse of shallow blue water and mangrove swamps alive with – what else? – birds. 

Mile 5. You are crossing Nassau Sound on the long, slender Coastal Highway Bridge. To your right are awesome views of the Atlantic. To your left fishermen are lined up along the old George Crady bridge….long since closed off to traffic and now reserved for anglers. (I used to write about then-Rep. Crady when he was in the Florida Legislature, back in the ’70s. He would bring his guitar to the House floor to entertain fellow lawmakers while they were waiting for the leadership to hammer out a budget agreement.)

Now you are on Amelia Island, home of the rich and shameless. There is a separated bike path running up the southern stretch of the island, but using it necessitates frequent stops at the entrances of hotels, resorts and condo communities. I prefer to stay on A1A, which has perfectly adequate bike lanes.

Mile 9.6: Hang a rightcf447d95-09e9-4958-8fde-18663c56e8aa960c28f2-7028-4a00-84b8-3dcfad8ca4b6 on Burney Road and head to the beach. In this case, historic American Beach.

Why historic? Because in 1935, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, bought up this stretch of beach so his employees could vacation there. For decades it was one of the few Florida beaches where blacks could afford to live and play. Now it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a relatively modest and quiet beach community. 

Mile 11. You’re on the Amelia Island Parkway, a two-laned, low speed canopied road that takes you past the Ritz Carlton. Hey, stop for cocktails if you have a fat wallet. 

Mile 13: You’re on South Fletcher Ave., a two-laned road with narrow bike lanes that runs for several miles along the beach. But don’t count on seeing too much ocean…literally hundreds of beach houses block your view. 

Mile 18: That’s Ft. Clinch State Park on your right. I know I said this was a 40 mile ride (out and back) but if you want to chalk up still more miles take a detour through that long, skinny state park to its Civil War- era fort. The fort is spectacular and the views along the way are breathtaking. It’s about three miles in and three miles out if you go all the way. You might even catch sight of some of the wild horses that live on nearby Cumberland Island. 

After passing Ft. Clinch you’ll cross Egan’s Creek. That elegant tower off to the right is Amelia Lighthouse, one of the oldest in Florida. 

Mile 20: You have arrived in the heart of historic Fernandina Beach. A classic old Florida downtown. Need lunch? There are a ton of great restaurants and cafes. A beer maybe? The Palace claims to be the granddaddy of all Florida saloons. 

And just before you get to the waterfront stop at the Visitor’s Center in the old railroad station on Front Street. That gent sitting on the bench is David Levy Yulee. He doesn’t say much – heck he’s bronze after all – but Yulee has a fascinating history. He opened up the Florida frontier when he built a railroad from Fernandina to Cedar Key. He was a U.S. Senator for a while, but also got tossed into prison for supporting the confederacy.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to visit the Shrimp Museum and take a walk on the waterfront. 

Then get on your bike again, turn around, and head back to Little Talbot. The return ride is every bit as scenic and spectacular. 

 

Our most dangerous act

Imagine you are hurling through space and time.

Perhaps you are running late. Or you have a long way to go.

And your speedometer begins to creep up….70 mph, 75….80…

No worries. You are encased in a modern vehicle with all of the latest safety features.

And you are on a wide, multi-laned interstate highway designed by experts to accommodate large volumes of traffic moving at high speeds over great distances. 

Perhaps it is high noon. Or the dead of night. There may be fog. Or a bit of rain, or gusting wind.

And all around you are fellow travelers moving at more of less equivalent velocity. 

Except for that troublesome fellow who insists on driving a notch below the speed limit while he stubbornly occupies an inside lane. 

Do you pass him to the right, or stay on his tail?

And what about that rocket jockey, forever darting from one lane to the next and hopping from one empty space to another determined to get out in front of the pack?

And those drivers whose vehicles are 10 times the size and weight of yours. They are pros who work behind the wheel. Surely they can be trusted. 

Say, is that pro nodding off?

Is that woman texting? Is that guy watching a video? Are those tires as bald as they look? Shouldn’t the junk in that truck bed be tied down?

Call it the autoAmerican paradox. 

For most of us, driving is the single most dangerous thing we do in the course of our ordinary lives. 

But because we do so much of it, it is also the most mundane, ordinary and casual function we perform. 

Much of the time we hardly think of its inherent risks. We get behind the wheel. Switch on the ignition. And drive. 

Until that one panic-filled split second when the terror of it all is suddenly driven home to us. 

It must have been like that in the split seconds leading up to that fiery collision last week on I-75.

And just like that seven people were dead. 

Five of them children. 

And once again we were reminded, in brutal fashion, of just how dangerous this most mundane, ordinary and casual act can be. 

And if that gruesome accident grabbed your attention, if only for a moment, then please pause to consider that it really wasn’t so unusual at all.

On any given day in America, about 90 people die in traffic. 

And those kids? Did you know that car crashes are the leading cause of death for American children? Far outpacing gunshots, cancers, drownings, overdoses or other causes of youthful mortality.

Please consider that the sheer, staggering body count on the nation’s highways must surely qualify death by driving as a public health epidemic.

An epidemic that demands full mobilization of our resources and expertise.  

“In 2016 more than 37,000 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes,” so notes the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in its 2018, 15th annual “Road Map” report.

Add to that some 2.4 million injuries, and Advocates concludes: “This is a major public health epidemic by any measure.”

So let’s talk about that. Please. 

I intend to do so in some of my future columns going into 2019. And up front, I will tell you this: There is no simple answer. No easy solution. No quick fix. No magic cure for this epidemic.

But we really do need to talk about split-second life and death in autoAmerica. It is that important.

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