The hurricanes yet to come

(With Hurricane Michael bearing down on the Florida Panhandle this seems like a good time to post this piece I wrote for the current edition of FORUM magazine. How will Florida cope with hurricanes in the future?)

“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The great hurricane of 1928 caused Lake Okeechobee to flood its banks, drowning more than 2,500 people.

It remains to this day the most deadly storm ever to visit Florida. 

“The tragic irony is that Indians had foretold that Lake Okeechobee would spill over its rim once again to feed the Everglades.” writes Mark Derr in his book “Some Kind of Paradise” 

The Seminoles, it was said, could predict hurricanes “by watching the way sawgrass bloomed,” he continued. “Scientists speculated that atmospheric changes proceeding a hurricane made the pollen from sawgrass visible for several days before the blow.”

Ninety years later the science of hurricane forecasting and tracking has advanced to the point that it is no longer necessary to rely on local lore or blind luck to survive the advancing storm. 

And it’s getting better. Consider NOAA’s launch last year of a GOES-16 geostationary satellite that enables real time tracking of storms with updates every 30 seconds. Modern computer assisted forecasting provides ever more accurate information about where hurricanes are going, when they will get there and how strong they are likely to be. 

Which is not to say that public awareness about about hurricane impacts has necessarily kept up with the science. As National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham cautioned at this year’s annual Florida Hurricane Conference, “Here’s the deal, we could make a perfect forecast, but if people don’t understand it, it doesn’t count. We have to talk about the cone and communicate that we can still get impacts hundreds of miles away.”

Science and public education aside, two critical factors are conspiring to further complicate hurricane preparedness and disaster response in Florida, will likely continue to do so well into the future. 

1: In 1928 just over one million souls called Florida home. Today more than 21 million live here – and 14 million of them are concentrated in coastal counties.

“No matter how well your response is it’s still going to look horrible when you have to evacuate millions of people over road systems that aren’t built for this,” says Craig Fugate, former Federal Emergency Management Agency director. “We have far too many people who have built and continue to build in hurricane evacuation zones.”

2: Further complicating Florida’s surging coastal population growth is increasing evidence that climate change is driving rising sea levels and warmer ocean conditions. As a result, Florida is likely to experience even more intense and wetter hurricanes in the future.

That is the “thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night,” says Dr. Richard S. Olson, director of the Extreme Events Institute and International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University. “If you start factoring in the possibility of increasing numbers of category 4 and 5 storms, and climate scientists are pretty clear about that, then that pattern may become the new normal.”

So how to prepare for the “new normal” of ever stronger hurricanes visiting ever-growing Florida?

First, heed the lessons of past storms. 

Twenty five years ago Andrew came ashore in Miami, leveling whole neighborhoods and causing damages in excess of $10 billion. The wreckage was so extensive that at least 10 insurance companies went broke trying to cover losses.

The lessons of Andrew? Existing building codes were inadequate, and the private insurance market could not be relied upon to cover all the losses. As a result, tougher South Florida building codes were adopted, and Florida established its Hurricane Catastrophe Fund. 

Moreover, the notion of building more storm-resilient communities continues to spread. 

“We deal with this all the time, and not just here in south Florida but in the low country of South Carolina and gulf coast of Texas, Mississippi and Alabama,” says Victor Dover, a Miami-based urban design consultant. “Every day city planning conversations about are taking place about how to build resiliency into next comprehensive plan update. 

“That wasn’t the case 30 years ago, it was something we had to bring up,” he said of his client communities. “Now they are bringing it up, and that’s a very good thing.”

Last year, Hurricane Irma served up another valuable lesson – that poorly conceived mass evacuation advisories may no longer be practical or safe. Evacuation warnings issued in advance of Irma brought interstate highway traffic to a standstill from South Florida well up into Georgia, potentially putting fleeing residents in more danger than if they had stayed home. 

“We over-evacuated in Irma,” said Olson, “everybody was traumatized by what Harvey had just done to Houston.

“There’s a saying; hide from wind, run for water,” he continued. “The people that needed to be evacuated were living in the coastal zones and we needed to get them away from the water” and the threat of storm surge.

 “And what caught everybody by surprise was that people did not evacuate locally, they  just got the hell out of Dodge. There were so many people on the open road that the road was not open.

“If you want to have fewer people driving the length of state, they need to be able to go to places that are not only hardened for safety but will allow a degree of comfort.” Pointing to the death of several elderly patients last year at a Hollywood facility that had lost power for several days he said “comfort in South Florida lives or dies with air conditioning. We need to rethink our sheltering system so its not only hardened but reasonably comfortable for an extended period of time.”

That means not only hardened evacuation facilities, but hardened utility infrastructure as well. Days on end without power leaves hurricane survivors demoralized, debilitated and at continued risk. 

At a recent Public Service Commission hearing on hurricane preparedness, Bryan Olnick, vice president for distribution and reliability at Florida Power and Light, said that aging wooden utility poles are “very much a weak link in our system.” Concrete and steel poles and underground lines, are more reliable in hurricane conditions. 

There is also a need to ensure that local and state hurricane response efforts are adequate to meet the immediate emergency. This point was driven home at the Hurricane Conference when current FEMA director Brock Long said responders should be prepared to “provide your own food and water and your own commodities to your citizens for the first 48 to 72 hours.”

 “If you’re waiting on FEMA to run your commodities, that’s not the solution,” he said. “I can’t guarantee that we can be right on time to backfill everything you need.”

Beyond the question of immediate emergency response, Long’s predecessor, Fugate, worries that over-reliance on FEMA’s rescue capabilities, and on the tax-subsidized federal flood insurance program, provides a perverse incentive for states and communities to continue to allow development in storm vulnerable areas.

“We price risk too cheaply,” he said. “Can you imagine what the Florida Legislature would do if there was no FEMA and they were routinely getting hit with hundreds of millions of dollars in  rebuilding and response costs? What they would do is change their behavior. We really need to look at how do we build and rebuild after disasters in a way that protects the homeowners and minimizes future disasters.”

In that regard even post-Andrew building code standards may not be sufficient if more cat 4 and 5 hurricanes are in store. Florida International University’s “Wall of Wind” test facility employs an  array of powerful fans and blowers to generate Category 5 wind speeds of up 157 miles per hour to test more hurricane resilient infrastructure designs. 

Olson said that, increasingly, hurricane preparedness may hinge on adopting “Code Plus” standards where possible. “If you take the current code and project what would be needed to get it one (hurricane strength) category further.”

“People and assets” can be better protected “if we build more strongly and locate more smartly…that is, if the vulnerability is reduced,” he said. “You can have growth, but you can’t have stupid growth.”

That said, Olson conceded “there are practical limits” to the ability to decrease vulnerability by building stronger and smarter.” In an era of increasing hurricane intensity, what happens to a community in the grip of an especially savage storm may ultimately be “in God’s hands.”

Just as Nora Zeale Hurston had prophesied. 

This is not Trump country

OTTAWA: Now I see why Donald Trump has a mad-on about Canada.

Just walk around this grand capital city of rough granite and brown stone perched on the edge of the Ottawa River and you’ll get it. 

Listen, this town wouldn’t even be here if the Canadians hadn’t been so freaked out about a possible  American invasion during the war of 1812 that they terra-formed a lock-and-canal system through the wilderness lest the enemy blockade the St. Lawrence River.

But that’s ancient history. Point is you can’t walk around here today without seeing In-your-Face-Donald signs overt and subtle. 

One restaurant serves a dish called “Love Trumps Hate.” Shops proudly display smiling photos of a young, energetic and articulate leader who is the anti-Trump in every way.

Not Justin Trudeau, although I’m sure they like him too. 

No, Ottawans are still infatuated with Barack Obama, whose last official visit was in 2016. Bakeries sell Obama cookies. 

Not that Canadians are all that vocal about our prez. Rage and anger tend to be an American bumper crop. North of the border they prefer to farm affability. 

“Give a message to your president…” our city bicycle guide began. And then he hesitated, shrugged and dropped it. Discretion being the better part of Canadian valor.

No, this is decidedly not Trump country.

Up on Parliament Hill a bronze suffragette brandishes a banner proclaiming “Women Are Persons.” 

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s still mulling that one over in the D.C. Swamp.

And on a bridge spanning the Rideau Canal, there is an outdoor display of photos and graphics asserting that the Canadian government believes climate change is real, serious and must be confronted, not denied. 

“Climate change impacts human health, the economy and natural resources,” we are informed. While Canada touts wind and solar, it is all coal all the time back in the presidential bunker formerly known as the White House. 

Meanwhile, people are lining up at Ottawa’s National Gallery to see its latest exhibit: Anthropocene.”

That being the theory that the Earth is entering a new geological epoch in which human activity, not nature, is permanently altering the planet. 

“Humans now change the Earth’s systems more than all other natural processes combined,” the exhibit argues. As evidence it offers startling aerial view photos: City-sized plastic landfills in Africa, oil refining on the coastal Gulf of Mexico, tundra tunneling in Russia, fracking in Wyoming.

There is a haunting video of the mass incineration of ivory tusks seized from elephant poachers that should make you cry if you have an ounce of compassion left in your soul.

Viewed from the 25,000-foot level, some of the images – copper smelting in Arizona, oil bunkering in the Niger Delta – at first look like lovely surrealistic art forms. Until it dawns on you that all the strange colors and weird shapes are, literally, earth-changing events.

That’s not Dali. Those “swirling, marble-like patterns are the result of leached heavy metals held in tailing ponds at an Arizona mining-smelter operation.”

But you don’t have to go to Canada to get schooled on this brave new world we are carving out for ourselves. Just visit UF’s own Harn Museum and see its new exhibit: “The World To Come: Art In The Age of Anthropocene.”

These artists “display a mastery of human power over nature”…all the while attempting to keep their “optimism in check and nihilism at bay.”

Oh the irony. Our down-to-earth terra-forming has literally become a unique art-form all its own.

Oh Canada. Oh America. Oh Donald!

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

(Published Oct. 7 in the Gainesville Sun.)

 

Don’t scare the horses

I’ll just say this and let the chips fall where they may.

Ron Cunningham is a liberal.

I know, you’re shocked. And appalled.

“But you told us you were a progressive, Cunningham.”

Yeah, that’s just something I say in polite company so as to not cause anybody vapors or scare the horses.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being, you know, the L-word. I hear they may even have a cure for it now over at Shands. A vaccine maybe. 

But I’m not taking the cure. I’m just going to stop humoring the absurd but carefully manufactured mythology that we liberals are aliens from outer space out to Destroy Civilization As We Know It. 

Truth is, most of us are perfectly reasonable carbon-based life forms. 

Oh, and don’t call me a socialist either. Not that there’s anything wrong with socialism. I’m just not all that social a guy.

Apropos of nothing at all, I see that Andrew Gillum (also not a socialist) is officially The Most Liberal Candidate Ever Nominated For Governor Of Florida. 

Everybody says so. Trump. DeSantis. Newspaper nabobs of negativity. 

How liberal is he? Gillum wants health care for all. He wants to crack down on gun violence. He wants us to stop turning our rivers gunk green and our seas dead red. He favors quality public schools. And he wants to tax corporations more to help pay for it all.

Gee, doesn’t sound so bad when you say it fast like that.

Anyway, it’s not just Gillum who’s finding his liberal voice in this Age of Trumpian Discontent. 

Heck, ole Willie Nelson himself is helping Democrat/liberal/socialist/progressive (choose one) Beto O’Rourke take away Ted Cruz’ U.S. Senate seat. 

“Beto embodies what is special about Texas, an energy and an integrity that is completely genuine,” Nelson said.

Sing it Willie. 

Admittedly some of his fans think this is, um, one toke over the line, even for a guy who never passed up a toke in his life. “Let me know when you come back from your bad acid trip” an ex-Red Headed Stranger groupie grumped…I mean tweeted.

But polls indicate that Beto’s got a fighting chance in red Texas, as does Gillum in red tide Florida. So maybe this whole idea of liberals being persona non grata in American politics is no longer being swallowed hook, line and sinker by the electorate. 

Not that the Republicans haven’t tried long and hard to shame us libs into shutting up and sitting down. They’ve done it for virtually my entire adult lifetime, and mostly it’s worked pretty well for them. 

It worked when they convinced voters that George McGovern – who had one of the most dangerous jobs in World War II, bomber pilot – was unAmerican…unlike Dick “I am not a crook” Nixon. It worked years later when they got another war hero, triple amputee Max Cleland, tossed out of the Senate to make room for a Georgia fried chicken king.

On the notion that losing two legs and a forearm to enemy fire does not a patriot make. 

But I’m not sure it’s working still. Some early election results this year indicate that voters are beginning to think that good government may actually require more than tossing rolls of paper towels at hurricane victims.  

So liberals of America unite! It’s time to be loud and proud. We have nothing to lose but the phony “libtard” rep that GOP shape-shifters have been furiously trying to graft onto us since the 1960s.  

Voters are wising up. Thanks, Donald. 

(Published in the Gainesville Sun, Sept. 23.)

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

Gloppitta-gloppitta Brett

If you are a fan of 1960s era dark comedies (aka the golden age of macabre laughs) you couldn’t watch Brett Kavanaugh’s histrionic display of self-serving rage on Thursday without thinking about the “gloppitta-gloppitta” machine and the Button Defense.

“How To Murder Your Wife,” was one of the darker comedies released in 1965. Its own marketing campaign lauded the film as “One Of The Most Brutal, Fiendish, Sadistic, Bloodcurdling Comedies Of Our Time!”

Naturally I loved it, but I was 17 and, well, you know teenage boys, right Brett?

Anyway, Jack Lemmon played Stanley Ford, confirmed bachelor and cartoon artist with the hottest syndicated strips in America, the adventures of secret agent “Bash Brannagon.” 

Long story short, after a night of drunken revelry and subsequent blackout (funny how that happens) Ford wakes up in the morning to discover himself married. The new mystery woman in his life (Italian actress Virna Lisa) speaks no English but she’s beautiful and solicitous to a fault.

Domestic life soon turns Ford fat and complacent, and in a Walter Mitty moment of spite, he produces a strip in which alter ago Brannigan murders his wife, deposits her body in a cement mixer (the gloppitta-gloppitta machine) and proclaims himself a free man again.

Seeing the strip the new wife disappears in the night (and who can blame her?) which leads the police to think Ford really did the dirty deed and then bragged about it via Bash.

Which brings us to the Button Defense. 

During his trial Ford fires his incompetent lawyer and pleads his own case before an all-male (naturally) all-married jury. In a stream-of-consciousness oratory about the joys of bachelorhood and the indignities of marriage, Ford tells the jury he did it (he didn’t) draws a chalk circle the size of a button and invites the boys to “imagine if just by pressing that button you could make your wife disappear.”

Whereupon the guys in the jury box spontaneously acquit, give Ford a round of applause and carry their hero out of the courtroom on their shoulders – leaving the women in the spectator seats to shudder in horror.

Isn’t it funny how life imitates art?

It isn’t difficult to imagine the Republican men on the Senate Judiciary Committee shouldering their guy Brett out of the hearing room and into the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court in a triumph of partisan politics against all logic, common sense and decency. The only difference between Ford’s Button Defense and Kavanaugh’s rant was that Lemmon carried off his role with an actor’s sly wit and hail-fellow-well-met smoothness that our boy Brett couldn’t hope to match.

On the other hand, Kavanaugh didn’t have to. He could afford the indulgent luxury of raving  about Democrats destroying his life and traumatizing his wife and children knowing that the confirmation in the bag no matter what. 

Lemmon at least had to con the suckers into ignoring the evidence. Kavanaugh hardly had to bother. 

“How To Murder Your Wife” was a satirical ode to male privilege writ large. The Kananaugh confirmation farce is the same – only more irony than satire, more tragedy than comedy. The movie at least had the virtue of being Hollywood unbelievable. And it even had a happy ending, with Ford’s wife returning and the two of them presumably living happily ever after in a household where the man rules the roost. 

The Senate sanctification of the next Justice of the Supreme Court offers no such happy ending, unless your idea of sheer bliss is sticking it to the liberal snowflakes and putting uppity women in their place. 

In the Age Of Trump reality has become more bizarre than make believe. Women are chattel. Men get away with murder, figuratively if not literally. And the boys who will be boys get to live happily ever after. 

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.

A tale of two cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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