Four-year-old Dylan Roberts was crossing East University Avenue when he was hit by a car Oct. 27, 2021. Almost two years after his death, the city he called home accepted an award to improve pedestrian safety.
The Gainesville City Commission accepted an $8 million award from the U.S. Department of Transportation Aug. 17. The money will go toward a larger project that plans to transform a 4.1 mile stretch of University Avenue into a safer road for all users, the city reported.
“University Avenue is absolutely the most important road in Gainesville,” Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward said. “It’s the street that everybody participates in, one way or another.” This plan has been in the works for decades, according to Mayor Ward.
However, the project began to receive the attention it needed after Dylan’s accident and two University of Florida students were killed near campus in pedestrian accidents. The two students were Margaret “Maggie” Paxton, 18, and Sophia Lambert, 19. Though Paxton was crossing against the light and Dylan was walking without parent supervision, the fatalities still struck a chord with local and federal leaders.
Ward said that after these accidents, Alachua County, the Florida Department of Transportation and the federal government started to pay attention. He noted that everyone should care about pedestrian safety.
“If we have one pedestrian or cyclist that’s killed on our streets, it’s too many,” Ward said.
To that end, the city has already taken steps to improve safety on other streets. South Main Street by Depot Park now features safe and accessible accommodations for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, according to the Gainesville Community Reinvestment Area.
The area now has designated bicycle lanes and clearly marked crosswalks with signage. This federal award will allow these safety efforts to expand throughout the city, particularly University Avenue.
Florida State Road 26, also known as University Avenue, stretches far across Gainesville, and is one of the city’s busiest and most dangerous streets, per Mayor Ward. Many students and residents cross this street every day.
The project aims to make a 4.1-mile stretch of University Avenue from Fred Cone Park to the Powell University House safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. The street will feature dedicated bicycle lanes, raised crosswalks, transit stop improvements and slower traffic, per the city’s report.
Fatalities from pedestrian accidents have increased in Alachua County over the last five years — not counting 2020, when many were inside due to COVID-19. As of Sept. 6, there have been 8 reported pedestrian accidents and five reported fatalities from pedestrian accidents in 2023, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles
Many want to see these numbers decrease, including Hannah Hosay and John Roswell, two members of the Florida Running Club at UF. The club’s practice route is mainly on campus but travels off campus some weekends. The group takes precautions to ensure safety.
“We always have to assume that the drivers aren’t paying attention,” Hosay said. “We always tell people to run in a group.”
Hosay is a Tallahassee, Florida native, who has been running since high school. She currently serves as the president of the Florida Running Club in her fourth year at UF.
Running around campus Monday through Friday, the Florida Running Club has a great deal of experience with crossing streets, and it sometimes feels like an uphill battle.
“I know from a runner’s standpoint, some of the crosswalks don’t work and we have to wait minutes,” Hosay said. “Sometimes it just skips a cycle and it’s really frustrating.”
Roswell is a third-year student at UF from Wesley Chapel, Florida. He stated that he never had to worry about crossing the street in his hometown.
“I think drivers in Gainesville probably aren’t as careful as they should be,” Roswell said.
Hosay and Roswell are just two of many that think the issue of pedestrian safety needs to be addressed.
Captain Latrell Simmons of the University of Florida Police Department said he has seen a wide variety of traffic crashes that include pedestrians and cyclists. He has also seen some fatalities.
“Any way that we can improve our roadways to make it safer for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles, I’m all in favor of,” Simmons said.
But increased safety isn’t the only benefit of improving University Avenue. A more neighborhood-friendly road can boost the economy, Mayor Ward said. University Avenue is home to a great deal of commerce. If people drive slower, they have more opportunities to pull over and shop at small businesses. In turn, those small businesses are more likely to thrive.
“There are nothing but good reasons to do this,” Ward said. “It makes our community better and more effective in every way.”