Voter clarity on Gainesville’s Complete Streets program still evolving post-election

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The Complete Streets program, a design approach that requires streets to be planned, operated and maintained to ensure safe travel, proved to be a point of conflict during a mayoral debate hosted by WUFT and The Gainesville Sun last month. 

So why do people seem not to know what it is? 

Gainesville’s Vision Zero program, a part of the national Complete Streets movement, was introduced to the city commission in 2018, and the city implemented many of its major components in 2021. The Nov. 8 election results indicate that the plan will likely maintain support over the next electoral term. 

Both the city program and the national movement aim to make all forms of traffic safe for everyone. 

“The whole idea of commingling bikes with 3,000-pound automobiles, to me, is just nonsensical. It just doesn’t work,” mayoral candidate Ed Bielarski said during the debate. 

He said the cost of continuing to use the plan would put the city further in debt. 

“The biggest issue we have with this election and with the future of city hall is that we have a city government that is in freefall,” he said. 

City Commissioner Harvey Ward, who was elected to be Gainesville’s next mayor, did not respond directly to Bielarski’s comments regarding the cost of the program but did state that Bielarski’s method of confronting the cost problems was offensive.

“These were people standing by the side of the road that were hit and killed. You didn’t have anything to do with that, but I had to call their mothers…We’re talking about real, actual people who have lost their lives, and shame on you,” Ward said. 

Ward will be sworn in as mayor Jan. 5 of next year. 

Lee Hoffman, 23, a history major at the University of Florida and Gainesville resident, said they were not familiar with the program. 

“Every time I leave the house, I wonder, ‘Is today the day I’ll get hit?’” Hoffman said.

Lee Hoffman rides their bike to and from campus and work every day. “Every time I leave the house, I wonder, ‘Is today the day I’ll get hit?’” Hoffman said. (Joanna Keen/WUFT News)

Hoffman does not own a car and uses a bicycle for transportation to and from campus and work. They also belong to a community of bicyclists who have similar complaints about Gainesville’s drivers and roads. 

“We’ve all had things like that, all the time. Like, “Oh, I got tapped by a car today. I got put in this dangerous situation today.’ It shouldn’t be normal, but it is common,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman said many drivers don’t respect bicyclists’ right of way on Gainesville’s bike boulevards. Even within the biking community, there is confusion as to what signals and signs to use, Hoffman said. For example, bicyclists are not in complete agreement about which hand signal is used to indicate a right turn.

“People are just thinking about where they have to go and how fast they can get there when they really need to be thinking about the people using the road around them,” Hoffman said. “Getting somewhere can wait. A human life is always more important.”

Every five years, the Florida Department of Transportation publishes the Highway Safety Matrix report, which ranks serious injury and fatality data in 36 Florida cities with populations over 75,000. The 2020 matrix, which measured data from 2015 to 2019, ranked Gainesville ninth among cities with the most bicyclists and pedestrians killed or seriously injured. 

The annual Highway Safety Matrix, which ranks all counties in the state in a similar fashion, showed that Gainesville’s ranking had slightly improved based on Alachua County’s ranking as a whole. The county ranked number 20 among the 26 counties with a population of over 200,000.

The state of Florida’s record for traffic fatalities is also concerning. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 899 pedestrians were killed in Florida in 2021, representing a more than 25% increase from 2020 and a nearly 21% increase from 2019.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Traffic Fact Sheet, pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. increased by about 13% from 2020 to 2021. Bicycle fatalities went up by 9%.

On the national level, the Complete Streets movement is grounded in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden a year ago. The law approved $1.2 trillion for transportation and infrastructure spending; $550 billion of that figure is dedicated to new programs.

According to the law, Complete Streets are roads that “ensure the safe and adequate accommodation of all users of the transportation system, including pedestrians, bicyclists, public transportation users, children, older individuals, individuals with disabilities, motorists and freight vehicles.” 

Bike lanes with buffers are intended to reduce bicyclist injuries and fatalities. “I think our community wants safe roads. They don’t want people to die. They don’t want their friends and family to die on the roads,” City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said. (Joanna Keen/WUFT News)

Cities and states across the U.S. have different programs that support the national Complete Streets movement. Gainesville’s program is called Vision Zero, named after the city’s goal to achieve zero road deaths by 2040.

The program was started in 2018. It consists of three categories of improvements: road safety education, changes to road policies and changes to road design and infrastructure. 

“The goal we’re talking about is that — for all ages and abilities, no matter if you’re 95 or you’re 5 years old, no matter whether you’re in a wheelchair or you can walk great — you feel safe on the roads, bike paths…and sidewalks,” said City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos. 

Some of the specific changes that have already been implemented include buffered bike lanes on Main Street, one-way street pairs north and east of the UF campus, and proposed design changes to University Avenue and 13th Street. 

Commissioner Hayes-Santos said he believes the strongest voice against the plan is that of the defeated mayoral candidate. 

“Really, Bielarski is the one who is, that I’ve heard, the most against it. We have to make our roads safer,” Hayes-Santos said. “And I think this election showed that the candidates who were promoting Vision Zero and safety on our streets the most won.”

He was referring to mayor-elect Harvey Ward, and new City commissioners Casey Willits and Brian Eastman, all of whom made a point of supporting Vision Zero and road safety, in general, during their campaigns. 

Because of these election results, City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said the program will retain support during the next mayoral term.

“I think our community wants safe roads. They don’t want people to die. They don’t want their friends and family to die on the roads,” he said.

About Joanna Keen

Joanna is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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