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City of Gainesville holds corridor walks as it declares a traffic ‘crisis’

Community members gather for a corridor walk a few feet away from a memorial on East University Avenue where a 4 year-old was hit and killed in 2021. (Derrah Getter/WUFT News)
Community members gather for a corridor walk a few feet away from a memorial on East University Avenue where a 4 year-old was hit and killed in 2021. (Derrah Getter/WUFT News)

One hundred and seventy-five.

That is how many crashes involved a pedestrian or bicyclist along the West 13th Street and University Avenue corridors in Gainesville over the last five years.

This prompted the city to partner with the Florida Department of Transportation, University of Florida and the wider community to conduct a corridor study.

Gainesville city commissioners adopted a Vision Zero policy in 2018, aimed at eliminating all traffic-related deaths and injuries by 2040. According to a city document, 2030 is considered the buildout year. Last week commissioners declared a traffic “crisis,” adding the community has “reached a point of emergency” on roadways. At least two city staff members said they have been hit by cars while riding a bicycle. The city hopes to start improvements as funding becomes available.

According to a document that outlines the city’s project limits, about 86% of the crashes resulted in an injury or fatality.

The first phase of the project occurred in October 2021 and the second phase was in April 2022. The city last week hosted a series of corridor walks Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Each day consisted community members going on a guided walk for up to two hours along six segments of the University Avenue and 13th Street corridors.

About 40 people gathered in front of Heavener Hall, on the Southwest corner of University Avenue and 13th Street to kick off the first segment. City staff, UF faculty members, law enforcement officers and civilians walked 1.2 miles with feedback forms that assessed how safe they felt at each intersection. The surveys gathered the community’s insight by asking questions like “What do you think of the existing speed?” and “Would you feel safe walking down this sidewalk with a small child or an elderly person”?

“Our built infrastructure cannot fix or change everything, so what we have to do is start trying to change driver behavior,” said Douglas Cobb, a city traffic and safety engineer.

Cobb said the city and FDOT propose enclosure, engagement and deflection. Enclosure means making roads feel more compact, so drivers feel like they’re driving faster than they are. Engagement is getting drivers to slow down by engaging them with a traffic control device to make the driver aware of pedestrians and bicyclists. Deflection represents areas where drivers must physically slow down and go over a barrier like the speed tables on West University Avenue.

When walking along the first segment people could be seen choosing to walk away from the slim sidewalk along Southwest 13th street. The sidewalk that runs past Tigert Hall was barely wide enough for three pedestrians to walk side by side. City staff pointed out the lack of symmetry and abrupt changes from block to block.

“Good design thinks holistically about of these different components and tries to align all of them together,” said Andrew Meeker, a project manager for the planning, design and construction division at UF.

Sidewalk users complained about the lack of shade and little to no buffer between themselves and the cars. Pedestrians were seen avoiding light poles and trees placed in the middle of walkways.

“In planning the corridors and walkways, some of the things I really loved and was comfortable with as we were walking along the street is we were in the shade of trees,” said attendee Ann Wiley.

UF Director of Planning Linda B. Dixon addressed attendees’ concerns about the narrow sidewalks. She said the university has plans for a shared use path for non-motorists. Dixon said the path would be away from the road as well as the current pathway that runs alongside it. Despite seeking approval for funding from the Department of Transportation for the past two years, the project is currently unfunded.

“There’s no one piece to the solution,” Dixon said.

As the guided tour headed north on 13th Street, students and residents dodged cars while trying to cross the street in front of Publix where there is currently not an easily accessible crosswalk. Jaywalking was a common sight on the corridor walks, especially in areas that did not have a crosswalk near a bus stop.

The second segment began in front of the UF Heart & Vascular Hospital parking garage. Approximately 25 community members trekked through debris and traffic cones as guides led attendees north down Southwest 13th street. Many pedestrians were startled by the number of rolling stops observed at the bottom of the steep hill by the Helyx Bridge.

Seeing drivers stop in the middle of crosswalks upset many on the tours. During segment three one attendee shouted, “you got to treat drivers like horses that want to kick you in the head.”

While a few debates broke out about the importance of preserving nature or making larger pathways for bicyclists and pedestrians, unanimously tour attendees agreed that they felt unsafe sharing roadways with motorists.

“We’re getting to be more urban and unfortunately we’re playing catch up with the roadways,” said Gainesville Police Department Sgt. Lynne Valdes.

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