Gainesville off-the-books

Listen, I don’t really object to the City running an off-the-books homeless camp on Main Street.

I just think they ought to own up to it.

After all, it’s been a long time since city government has done very much to promote or support downtown as a desirable place to live work, play or do business.

So it should surprise nobody that the area has been deteriorating into a skid row for quite a while now.

But I do object to the disingenuousness of our local government allowing a downtown tent city to sprout up in front of the old fire station, sending trucks and employers to periodically haul off the trash and tidy things up, and even providing campers with lockers and port-a-potties…all the while asserting that what goes on there has nothing to do with the City.

You see, if Gainesville admitted that it was running a downtown homeless encampment,, then the City would have to staff it, budget it and assume liability for it.

It is City property – which is to say, our property – after all.

If the growing collection of tents, sleeping bags and their owners were occupying private property, one might reasonably assume that there may be health and safety code violations involved. But apparently the city doesn’t enforce such codes – certainly not when they occur on taxpayer property.

I am not suggesting that City Hall does nothing to combat homelessness. Quite the contrary. The support Gainesville has given to organizations like Grace Marketplace is commendable. And the latest initiative to dispatch social workers among the homeless to better understand their problems and how they might be assisted, is long past due.

But it is also true that people who work, live and do business in downtown Gainesville have long complained – mostly in vain – about aggressive panhandling, people sleeping in their doorways, harassment, litter and other problems associated with the presence of more and more street people in the city core.

If I were running a restaurant, hotel, apartment building or other downtown enterprise, I’d wonder about the logic of Gainesville offering up its old firehouse exterior to accommodate some of the same people who are making it harder and harder to do business there.

But that’s just me. I’m sure they know what they are doing at City Hall.

BTW: Wouldn’t the City Hall lawn make for a much better campground? At least then our public servants could keep an eye on what’s going on right outside their windows.

The missing partner

Now we are running children down in the streets of Gainesville.

A 3-year-old dead on NE 15th Street. Two young boys on their way to Littlewood Elementary left by the side of the road to live or die.

And of course two promising young University of Florida students killed on University Avenue.

Why does this keep happening?

We autoAmericans are an impatient and careless species. Anxious to get where we are going, with ample power under the hood to assist, and afforded streets that are too often designed to facilitate speed rather then public safety, we tend to leave human carnage in our wake.

And although of late this has begun to seem like a uniquely Gainesville phenomenon, it surely is not.

It is one of autoAmerica’s dirty little secrets that while traffic fatality rates in general have for years been declining the death rate for pedestrians keeps climbing.

“The United States has a crisis: pedestrian fatalities increased by 35.4 percent between 2008 and 2017. In 2018 alone, 6,227 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle crashes, the highest fatality rate since 1990,” says Smart Growth America, whose “Dangerous By Design” report – due for release this week – amounts to a year-by-year accounting of our most dangerous states.

Listen, I know they say that all politics is local, but all policy surely is not.

I’m thrilled that after years of hand-wringing, city and UF officials finally seem determined to stop the bloodshed on University Avenue the only way it can be done – by redesigning it to “complete street” standards.

And after decades of turning a blind eye to the dangers, even the Florida Department of Transportation finally says it is ready to turn University Avenue over to local control…and even endorses it becoming a complete street.

But that is not enough.

The big elephant in this room is the federal government. Federal funding and transportation policies have for decades been the primary architect behind the proliferation of dangerous-by-design streets. And with President Biden and Congress promising a new infrastructure bill, that spread will continue in the absence of substantial policy and funding changes.

The Complete Streets Act, pending in both the House and Senate, would require that five percent of federal transportation funds go to support complete streets projects of the sort that Gainesville contemplates for University Avenue. That’s a paltry amount, but a start.

The bill would also oblige states to prove technical support and funding for complete streets projects and require cities to adopt policies aimed at creating safer streets.

“Federal transportation policy incentivizes states to make every street…a high-speed thoroughfare. As a result, the number of people struck and killed while walking is skyrocketing,” said Scott Goldstein, policy director of Transportation for America. “The Complete Streets Act is a huge step towards reversing these perverse incentives by reallocating existing funding and empowering cities and towns to design streets that keep everybody safe.” 

When the latest Dangerous By Design report is issued it will surely, once again, identify Florida as one of the most deadly states for walking. We trust that our senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, will support this fundamental legislative change in federal transportation policy.

And because she represents a city that has seen children run down in our streets, our newly elected Rep. Kat Cammack will certainly want to embrace Complete Streets as well.

It’s the very least they can do for our children.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at rondarts2008@gmail.com.

My Florida state of mind

While we’re waiting for The Next Big Thing to happen, lemme brag on my state for a piece.

I’ve cycled it. I’ve driven it. I’ve hoofed it. Now I’m gonna show it off.

But I’m not going to talk about my Florida indiscretions. Some things are best left unspoken.

Rumor has it that Little Marco came here to find out if he was gonna be president.

Take a drive on the wild side why don’t you…just don’t get stuck in the sand.

How can any living creature look so graceful in the air and so ungainly on the ground?

Even with a fat tire bike you can only ride so far north on Anastasia beach before the sand drags you down. And then there’s the guano…

Went through Greenville on a Bike Florida tour once. They put Ray in the town park, right next to a lovely pond.

Took this shot on another Bike Florida ride, this time in Pinellas County. It’s either a stunning sunset or a nuclear explosion…I forget which.

What to say about Floral City? Not much. But it’s got wonderful oak lined streets and really nostalgic graffiti.

This stretch of greenway is midway between Port St. Joe and, sadly, what’s left of Mexico Beach.

As Ponce de Leon said just before they hit him with that poisoned arrow: I’ll be back.

We can calm University Avenue

Dublin, Ireland

Strolling the narrow streets of old Dublin one evening, I attempted to make casual conversation with my adult daughter.

“I’ve been noticing the traffic patterns here,” I began.

“Yeah, you’re the only one who does that, Dad.”

She’s right. I’m a traffic geek.

Unfortunately, now we are all traffic geeks in Gainesville.

There is something about multiple UF students being run down on University Avenue that tends to focus the communal mind on a hazard too long neglected.

Flowers and candles left at the site of the latest pedestrian fatality on University Avenue.

I thought we would fix Gainesville’s most dangerous “stroad” back in 2002. That’s when nationally renown town planner Victor Dover gave us a blueprint to turn University from a traffic sewer into Gainesville’s “signature street.”

But then we had a backlash city election. And, once again, the imperative to drive fast trumped the simple right to cross the street and live to tell about it.

But two decades, and too many deaths later, I believe we finally have the will to fix University Avenue.

And it isn’t just the “Not One More” movement that’s fueling my optimism.

Rather, it’s this: We now know how to make University Avenue a complete street – one that can be safely shared by motorists, strollers, cyclists, skateboarders and everybody.

In fact, Gainesville has been employing the art of complete street making quite successfully.

South Main Street used to look like University Ave. on steroids. No more.

South Main Street then.
South Main Street now.

We also redesigned Depot Avenue. We calmed SW 6th Street. We put SW 2nd Avenue on a road diet. (Check out my recent blog post, highlighting Gainesville’s complete streets).

All this without throwing the city into gridlock.

On a recent balmy Sunday afternoon, with Depot Park jam packed and South Main Street thick with traffic, I stood where the Gainesville-Hawthorne Rail Trail crossed Main St. and watched the interaction between cars and people.

It was pretty flawless. Cars, already slowed by narrow travel lanes and roundabouts, routinely yielded to people crossing the street.

For their part, crossers only had to negotiate two narrow, divided lanes to safely negotiate Main.

Compare that to the rail-trail crossing on Williston Road, where state traffic engineers are still trying to figure out how to protect trail users against four lanes of relentlessly fast cars.

I know what you’re thinking: Sure, but University and Williston are major highways with lots of commuter traffic. South Main, Depot, etc. are local streets. No comparison.

But it turns out that the complete streets principles are highly adaptable to different kinds of roads. As Smart Growth America notes, even Florida’s auto-centric Department of Transportation (FDOT) rewrote its design manual in 2017 to incorporate complete streets policies that encourage “state engineers to design for lower speeds in busier, more urban areas.”

University Avenue can be a complete street rather than a traffic sewer.

Consider this. There are nine sets of traffic lights on University Ave. just between Main Street and 13th Street. That’s a lot of stop and go frustration, and they tend to make University’s four travel lanes more useful for stacking cars than moving them.

There are only two traffic lights on South Main between SW 4th Avenue and SW 16th Avenue – roughly the same distance. Guess which street moves cars more continuously…albeit more slowly? The one with fewer lanes and with roundabouts instead of lights.

Multiple lights on University Avenue make for a lot of stop-and-go traffic…and a lot of motorist frustration.

The new thinking in urban traffic management is that you can indeed move more cars more efficiently with fewer lanes…and fewer accidents.

It’s not rocket science, Gainesville. We know how to do this.

If FDOT let’s us, that is.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at rondarts2008@gmail.com.

Life in the fast, fast, fast lane

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve checked in on the current state of autoAmerican anarchy. So much to lament…so little time.

Are women more likely to die in crashes than men? Yes, according to Streetsblog. And for reasons that, upon reflection, seem pretty obvious.

“Women drivers are more likely to die in crashes because the male drivers who hit them are more likely to be driving trucks and SUVs, a new study finds…Aggressive driving plays a role, too. The researchers also found that women-identified drivers were more likely to be struck by another driver from the side or front of the vehicle, while men-identified drivers were more likely to cause the crashes in which they were involved.” Talk about a deadly gender gap.

Of course women drivers aren’t the only vulnerable users out there in autoAmerica’s fast lane. Outside magazine spent a year monitoring cycling deaths in 2020 and discovered that “record numbers of cyclists (and thousands of pedestrians) on our nation’s roads are being killed by drivers often without any media attention beyond a brief local news story.”

“In 2018, 857 cyclists died in crashes with drivers, the deadliest year for people on bikes since 1990. In 2019, while the total number of deaths dipped slightly, to 846, cities like New York recorded their highest number of cyclist fatalities ever.”

“Last January, in response to those disturbing numbers, we launched the #2020CyclingDeaths project, which aimed to track every person on a bike killed by a driver in the U.S. over the course of the year. In the end, we recorded 697 cyclist deaths. Since we were only able to count deaths reported by local media, the actual total is likely significantly higher. The five victims of the Nevada crash were numbers 662 through 666 in our database.”

Speaking of those five cyclists killed in a single collision in Nevada, they might not have died entirely in vain. In Clark County, scene of the fatalities, bicyclists may now legally take the full lane if riding on the right side of the road is too dangerous. The previous mandate to keep to the right side of the road no matter what, county officials now concede, was “outdated and inconsistent with state law.”

The cyclists could have told them that…if they could still talk.

There’s been a 50 percent increase in pedestrian deaths in America in the last ten years. And as Angie Schmitt points out in her new book “Right Of Way: Race, Class and The Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America”: “Walking deaths fall disproportionately on those who are poor, black and brown, elderly, disabled, low income or some combination thereof.” Give it a read.

By the way, if you are a fan of daily TV and radio traffic broadcasts, don’t be taken in by the light tone of most of them.

“I’ve long found these breezy reports horrifying specifically for the way they’re clearly not meant to be, nor are they widely understood as, horrifying,” writes Daniel Herriges for Strong Towns. “The list of traffic jams the upbeat DJ wants to inform you about over a techno beat as you plan your commute is, in some measure, a list of places that people have just been injured or killed…Of course, they’re not going to tell you that they’re nonchalantly listing off places where someone may have just died. You’re not going to learn the name of anyone who was rushed to the hospital…There’d be no reason for them to tell you that even if they could; it’d be a heck of a downer, and it’s completely beside the point of these little updates.”

No, whole the point of the updates is to let drivers know which roads to avoid when they want to get to where they’re going as fast as possible. Talk about accidents waiting to happen.

By the way, if you thought COVID lockdowns would mean less autoAmerican anarchy, think again. “The rate of traffic deaths jumped in the first half of 2020, and safety experts blame drivers who sped up on roads left open when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses and limited commuting,” reports USA Today. “When the pandemic significantly lowered traffic, the rate of traffic fatalities per miles driven jumped by 18%, reaching a level not seen in at least 12 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Safety experts have blamed speeding for the increase as reduced congestion gave motorists more room to roam.”

Turns out that traffic congestion saves lives because drivers are forced to slow down.

From our Feeding The Beast Dept. comes word from Bloomberg City Lab that the pandemic can’t even slow down the relentless pace of highway expansion projects – never mind that fewer people are driving, more people are working at home and there are less tax revenues available for pressing needs.

The biggest boondoggle? Where else but right here in The Sunshine State? “Florida’s M-CORES project, a $10 billion, 330-mile plan to build three toll roads through rural southwest and central Florida. Dubbed the “Billionaire Boulevard” by critics who characterize the project as a handout to developers, a state task force recently found a lack of “specific need” for any of the roads, which would run through environmentally sensitive areas.” Roll on, autoAmerica.

And from Smartcitiesdive comes a report that should surprise absolutely nobody: “U.S. cities are less walkable than their counterparts elsewhere in the world, according to a report from The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).”

Why so? Because “Efforts to make streets safer for pedestrians require a culture shift in city halls across the country, where planners have for too many years been purely focused on building new roads and trying to make it quicker for cars to get from one point to another…” Big surprise, right?

Speaking of which, it should also surprise nobody that the automobile is increasingly becoming the weapon of choice for American ‘patriots’ who are angry about protests. Consider this recent incident from the New York Times about the driver of a BMW who injured six people at a march in support of immigrant detainees: “The episode was the latest in a series of similar altercations between drivers and protesters in New York City and elsewhere in America this year, as some motorists respond to street-blocking demonstrators by plowing through them, not always with legal consequences.”

And, really, what could be more autoAmerican than this deadly form of freedom of expression?

Another troubling autoAmerican trend: Hit and runs are up the upswing. In Florida alone, drivers who elect to not stick around at the scene of a collision jumped 18 percent this year. “We had over 91,000 crashes that were hit and run crashes. That means people left 91,000 scenes. Keep in mind, about 254 of those crashes resulted in a fatality. 137 were involving pedestrians, so that’s very scary.” Florida Highway Patrol Public Affairs Officer for Troop A, Lieutenant Jason King said.

And finally, a shout-out to my own city, Gainesville Florida. We have known for decades that University Avenue – a traffic sewer running through the heart of Gainesville – is a death trap for pedestrians and cyclists. But the deaths of three University of Florida students in the space of just one year has mobilized the city, university, UF students and parents….and even, apparently, the auto-centric Florida Department of Transportation…in a communal determination to finally make University Ave. a complete street.

If you walk down University Ave. today you may notice a ghost bike – a memorial to a dead cyclist – a plaque honoring a Gainesville police officer who was killed on that stroad, and..most recently…dried flowers and candles to mark the place where the latest UF student died.

I suppose it is appropriate to say ‘Better late than never.’ But I personally have been writing about dangerous University Avenue for something like 30 years now. I just hope that, this time, we will finally get serious about fixing it.