Life and death in autoAmerica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accidents happen. Even on Mother’s Day.

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

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

Accidents happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least those of us who survived it.

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

Twisty trail through the timber

When I met Gene on the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway he was riding for his life. Literally.

The former Ohio coal miner turned corrections officer turned Florida retiree was slowly but surely pedaling away from the inevitable heart attack that would have almost surely put an end to his world.

At one point, he told me, he weighed in the neighborhood of 400 pounds. “I would lie in bed and gasp for breath,” he recalled.

Then he and his wife Jane, started to ride bicycles. First on the shorter Rainbow Springs Trail, and then on the recently paved 15-mile section of the Cross Florida Greenway that runs east to west from U.S. 441, just south of Ocala, to SR 200, not far east of Dunnellon

Nothing dramatic. Just a few miles here. Five miles there. But his miles on wheels have begun to add up to a life-changing experience for Gene. He’s already dropped considerable weight, “and I still have a long way to go.”

When I passed him Gene was doggedly making his way up one of the greenway’s modest hills. “When I can’t go up any more I just get off my bike and push it the rest of the way,” he said. Pushing or pedaling, he’s still getting the exercise.

Gene was hardly alone on the trail on this spring-like Wednesday. There was also a young mom and her daughter riding in tandem, both singing at the top of their lungs. And a bunch of guys putting about a dozen horses through their trotting routines. A man on a recumbent sporting a Navy jersey. Couples on hybrids, and hikers clad in kakis and broad brimmed hats, and joggers….

It’s fair to say that in just the few months that the paved portion of the Cross Florida Greenway Trail has been open, it’s gained quite a following. And for good reason.

This is easily one of the most scenic and fun to ride trails in Florida. Scenic because it runs almost entirely through oak-and-piney wood forests, – rather like riding in Endor – occasionally broken up by palmetto scrub lands. And fun because, well, unlike most of the state’s paved multi-use trails, this one is not a rail-trail.

That’s an important distinction because rail-trails tend to be straight, point-to-point affairs that seldom vary in course and direction. And why would they? The railroad tracks they replaced were also built on the straight and narrow.

But this a nicely engineered trail that winds its way through the trees in near serendipitous fashion  – call it curvaceous, twisty and serpentine as the mood strikes (Here’s a Ride with GPS link: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/22932797).

Oh, and those modest hills? Sometimes you hardly notice the long, gradually upward sloping slogs until you start to wonder whether you’ve got a flat tire. How else to explain why you’re suddenly moving so slowly and breathing so heavily?

And then the next thing you know, you’re suddenly gaining momentum. Then you glance at the computer on your handlebars and see it’s nudging 30 mph.

Yeah, a fun trail to ride, both for the uphill slogs and the downhill runs.

And in the few instances where the trail encounters major roads, it dips down into bypassing tunnels, so crossing traffic is not a problem. The exception is when you cross over I-75 on the greenway’s nicely landscaped “Land Bridge.”

Oh yeah, and the trailhead at Santos park, just off U.S. 441, has ample parking, rest rooms, picnic tables and camping facilities.

The Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway has been around for years, and has long been a favorite destination for hikers, equestrians, mountain bikers and others who don’t necessarily require asphalt to negotiate the landscape. The addition of this 15-mile section of trail opens the greenway up to cyclists, casual pedestrians, runners and families that need something more than dirt foot paths to get around.

If you haven’t ridden this trail yet you should. It’s a twisty trip through the tall timber.

Discover The Loop

Listen, I want to tell you about the prettiest mile in Florida. 

Seriously, you can trust me on this, because I’m a trained observer. But don’t go blabbing it to everybody, because it’s still one of Florida’s best kept secrets.

It starts on High Bridge Road, just off U.S. A1A south of the Volusia County line and about half a dozen miles south of Flagler Beach. You can leave your car in the parking lot at North Peninsular State Park east of the bridge and hop on your bike. (Sure, you can drive The Loop, but why would you want to?). 

First you cross the low, aging drawbridge (a charming  infrastructural relic of the last century) where it spans the Halifax River. And suddenly you are on a two-lane road lined with tall, wind-bent palm trees and shady spreading oaks. 

To your left the road follows Bulow Creek, a primeval Florida marsh alive with all manner of water fowl, flitting things abuzz in the air and swamp critters of wondrous variety.  Soon the road begins to twist and turn, and you’d almost swear you’ve pedaled into a jungle. If not for the narrow strip of asphalt under your wheels, you might think you’d slipped back in time to an age when the only way to navigate this kind of terrain was afoot or apaddle. 

And here’s the really amazing thing about this short stretch of paradise: It’s just part and parcel of The Loop, a 24-mile elongated route that runs up one side of the Halifax and back down the other between HIghbridge and the Grenada Bridge, in Ormond Beach. 

I’ve cycled The Loop many times, as recently as just a couple of weeks ago, and it never fails to inspire. Plus, I keep discovering new things about it that I hadn’t noticed before. Its got miles of oak canopy – a veritable tree tunnel. Its bridges cross savannas and winding creeks that reveal epic views of water and sky.

And it’s not all about nature. Ride south from Highbridge to Ormond on John Anderson Dr. and you’ll get a serious case of house (waterfront mansion?) envy? Cross the Grenada heading west and duck into Bailey Riverbridge Gardens, under the bridge on the western side, and you can take a stroll on an impressive boardwalk that juts out into the Intercoastal. Or visit the delightful, morbidly named James Ormond Tomb Park, site of an old cotton and indigo plantation, and search out the ancient tree. Or maybe stop off at Tomoka State Park and look at the absurd wooden statue of the legendary chief who never was. And don’t forget the Dummett Sugar Mill Ruins, or follow the Woodham Trail. 

And if you’re an especially ambitious cyclists, you can extend your ride several miles by heading north on John Anderson to Flagler Beach (I recommend the roof deck of the Golden Lion for lunch) and then head south again on A1A past Gamble Rogers State Park. Among other things you’ll have about six miles of spectacular, uninterrupted Atlantic Ocean vistas to hold your attention on the way back to Highbridge. (if you’ve got a Ride With GPS account you can access this extended route by clicking on (https://ridewithgps.com/routes/27381323).

I keep telling people that there’s so much more to our little peninsula than just Disney and South Beach. Case in point: The Loop is a different Florida  entire.

(Feature photo by John Moran courtesy of Bike Florida.)STJR2C.069-2

Don’t Raise The Bridge, Lower The River

My latest column in the Gainesville Sun:

University cities are laboratories for urbanism. And we can learn as much from their failures as successes.

So what can we learn from the bridge that fell and the little Uber that couldn’t?

First the bridge:

Last month a concrete span intended to get pedestrians safely across Miami’s busy SW 8th Street to Florida International University collapsed while undergoing “accelerated” construction. Six people died.

That $14 million structure was built because, in recent years, SW 8th had seen more than 2,200 crashes and 12 fatalities. And it was going up at a faster than usual pace so as to minimize traffic delays.

But, really, was the bridge designed to be a life saver or just one more car expediter?

Pedestrian bridges “are not really about providing safety..,” Victor Dover, a Coral Gables-based town planning consultant, writes in Miami Community Newspapers. Rather this bridge’s purpose was to “reduce the pesky crosswalks and speed up traffic, to minimize signal phases when motorists would have to wait for people to cross on foot.” It did “nothing to solve the situation at ground level at all the multiple other crossing locations where pedestrians are being killed.” (Check this City Lab conception of a more rational approach to traffic taming.)

If Dover’s name rings a bell it may be because, some years ago, his firm proposed a controversial redesign of University Avenue with the objective of “calming” traffic (narrower traffic lanes, wider sidewalks, etc) so as to make Gainesville’s main east-west car expediter more business and people friendly.

You can probably still find that study in some round file down at city hall.

Oh, and about Uber’s renegade robo-car:

Three days after the bridge fell, an Uber autonomous vehicle (AV) hit and killed a woman who was wheeling her bike across the street in the Arizona State University city of Tempe. Neither the car’s anti-collision system nor the presence of a just-in-case driver on board worked as expected.

The “accident” scene: Six wide traffic lanes 500 feet away from the nearest intersection.

Tempe police quickly blamed the victim for “coming out of nowhere” and thereby putting herself in harm’s way. And never mind that the AV was doing nearly 40 mph and likely couldn’t have stopped on time even if its programmed mind-of-its-own wanted to.

Forget posted speed limits and just consider the laws of physics.

If you are a pedestrian knocked down by a car doing 20 mph you have a 95 percent chance of surviving the encounter. If that car is doing 30, your chance of staying alive is a coin toss – about 50-50.

At 40 mph your chances of living are one in five.

The negative publicity of the Uber crash has, temporarily, put a halt to Arizona’s love affair with AV’s. And it may even help delay Gainesville’s pending deployment of our own robo-ride in the form of an autonomous mini-bus.

So what lessons might our university city learn from the bridge that fell and the little Uber that couldn’t?

First, the fact that two of Gainesville’s most pedestrian-hostile streets define the eastern and northern edges of its most pedestrian-rich environment (UF) shows just how horribly off-kilter our transportation/public safety priorities are.

And second, that neither expensive infrastructure “solutions,” like ped bridges, nor autonomous vehicles are likely to rescue us from the deadly consequences of our own traffic-first policies.

Dover describes Miami’s SW 8th St. as a “rushing river of cars.” Likewise University and 13th Street.

Gainesville: Don’t raise the bridge, lower the river.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

What fresh new hell is this?

I will be looking at 2017, my 69th year, with new eyes. Literally, thanks to laser surgery. But what to see now that the scales have fallen? The crumbling of our American democracy? The end of our American century? Overdue certainly. I used to joke that when I started out as an editorial writer I thought I could save the world. Now I’m just hoping that the really bad stuff won’t happen until after I’m dead. Let the kids sort it out.
I’m not a cynic….ok, so I am a cynic. But there are only two logical explanations for the chain of events that have brought us to the very eve of a Donald Trump presidency. 1. Widespread ignorance. 2. A culture of venality. Which raises an interesting if uncomfortable question indeed. Is it better to say that one lives in the United States of Ignorance? Or the Venal States of America? A Hobson’s choice any way you cut it.
In my lifetime, Apartheid fell, men stepped on the moon and the Iron Curtain came down. All things seemed possible. Ours was the generation that would change everything. “We can change the world, rearrange the world.”
Turns out we did. And with horrible consequences. I fear for my country in 2017. For my children.
Not all is gloom and doom. I live on a shining city on a hill, or on a creek in any event. I’m optimistic that Gville will find its own path in the coming year. Against all odds perhaps.
And what of me? Bike Florida is behind me. I’m still writing for The Sun, although for how long is anybody’s guess. I must find new outlets for my cynicism, surely. Hence resurrecting this long-dormant blog site. img_0279Let the Gator growl in 2017!