Major changes are coming to the most dangerous roads for bikers and pedestrians in Alachua County.
After multiple pedestrian deaths in recent weeks along West University Avenue, the regional transportation planning group at a Monday meeting proposed installing additional traffic signals, well-lit crosswalks and temporary speed tables to slow down cars.
“It is the highest priority… that we make this an area that is safest for everybody,” said Gainesville City Commissioner David Arreola, who chairs the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization. “I understand that it is one of the busiest traffic lanes in the whole of Alachua County, but this has been a problem for too many years.”
The Florida Department of Transportation, which manages the road, has already installed special emphasis crosswalks with additional striping to make pedestrians more visible as they cross the street. However, other upgrades won’t be in place until the summer. For some of Gainesville’s city commissioners and residents, that’s too long to wait for short-term solutions.
“We need improvements today,” Mark Merwitzer, news outreach director of the Florida Not One More advocacy group, said. “They (the department) should not have been caught flatfooted when they have a road that is so unsafe.”
The department has been working alongside Gainesville city officials to establish these safety measures in response to recent pedestrian deaths along the corridor.
Maggie Paxton, 18, was struck and killed by a vehicle while crossing West University Avenue in December. Just five weeks later, two vehicles collided along the same road. One skidded sideways before hitting a pole and five University of Florida students, including Sophia Lambert, 19, who sustained fatal injuries.
City data show the vast majority of pedestrian and bike crashes from 2015 to 2019 happened where Paxton and Lambert were both killed, in the heart of the city along West University Avenue and 13th Street.
According to Jim Hannigan, a district traffic operations engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation, the aim of the new signals, speed tables and crosswalk design is to divide University Avenue into short blocks, causing drivers to stop more often and making it difficult for them to speed.
“A lot of motorists use the crosswalk as a stop bar,” he said, “but if you ever look at the design of any of our intersections, the stop bar is offset from the crosswalk.”
Work is set to begin Monday to upgrade the city’s remaining brick paver crosswalks to follow the new, more visible pattern, Hannigan said. Other plans are still in development.
Four temporary speed tables, mid-block traffic calming devices that raise a vehicle’s wheelbase to reduce its speed, will be installed along the corridor until they are converted to crosswalks. Once the speed tables are installed, the department will consider lowering the speed limit from 30 to 25 miles an hour.
City Commissioner Reina Saco expressed her concern that any attempt to slow traffic could make travel difficult for first responders.
“I think we need to strike a balance that will make sure every pedestrian is safe but also our fire engines and ambulances can get through quickly,” she said.
Hannigan said the department’s efforts will not impede first responders’ activity. The speed tables length and flat tops allow for a smoother transition to a reduced speed than a typical speed bump, he said.
Although city officials are pleased with the changes that have been put in place, they agree that the solutions to these problems must be wholesale. The department said it would be willing to turn control of University Avenue over to the city, which would allow Mayor Lauren Poe, city commissioners and the city manager’s office to transform the city’s roadways with a totally different, walk-friendly design.
State highways were designed to move vehicles quickly and efficiently, and pedestrians and bikers were to be seen as obstacles, the mayor said.
He envisions University Avenue redesigned as what the city calls a “complete street,” which accommodates all modes of travel with wide bike lanes and walking paths, roundabouts and narrow travel lanes that make drivers less comfortable speeding. The redesign of South Main Street in the past four years followed that style.
The city’s “complete streets” study will evaluate the Northwest 22nd Street to Northeast 15th Street stretch of University Avenue, as well as 13th Street from Northwest Eighth Avenue to Southwest 16th Avenue.
“We know that in the long run that (the Complete Streets model) is what is going to protect the most number of lives and make the street the most usable for the most wide variety of modalities,” Poe said.
The Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization’s next meeting will be held April 26 at 3 p.m. at the Alachua County Administration Building and will be virtually accessible to accommodate COVID-19 safety guidelines.