Gainesville residents hopeful of University Avenue becoming safer after $8M grant
Addison Sutton, 22, was making her way to Midtown for a night out with friends one evening in 2022. While waiting at the intersection of Southwest 13th Street and West University Avenue, she saw lights from a private ambulance service heading west on University Avenue.
She stopped and waited to cross the busy intersection.
But the ambulance’s siren wasn’t on, and the light was red when the vehicle approached the intersection. It didn’t look like it was slowing down.
On Southwest 13th Street, the left turn arrow had just turned green, so a white Toyota Corolla turned left onto West University Avenue. The private ambulance didn’t stop at the red light, causing the two vehicles to collide. The Corolla spun out, nearly hitting a bicyclist and ended up on the University of Florida campus sidewalk, she remembers.
“That’s a dangerous road right now,” Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward said. “We’ve had 4-year-olds killed on it, we’ve had UF students killed on it, we’ve had retirees killed. It’s a dangerous street.”
On Feb. 1, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the City of Gainesville $8 million to revitalize University Avenue, according to a city press release. The project will affect a 4.15-mile stretch, including improvements for slower traffic, raised crosswalks and narrower lanes. Construction is set to begin in March 2024.
Multiple pedestrian accidents have occurred in Alachua County over the past five years. Specifically, 70 accidents have occurred on University Avenue over that span, according to the press release.
Traffic has also increased on the busy road since multiple intersecting streets with University Avenue have turned into one-way roads, and brief stretches of the road have been cut down to one lane because of construction. Northwest 17th Street and Northwest 18th Street are two neighborhood roads that have turned to one-lane.
Joseph Garbers, 20, bikes to class four to five times a week. Living in an apartment complex behind midtown, Garbers said he usually crosses at the intersection of Northwest 17th Street and University Ave. He said the one-way road has made it more dangerous for pedestrians and bikers because of drivers going the wrong way.
“There are people coming out of the midtown parking lot, and they’re going south,” Garbers said. “It’s really frustrating because I’m in that expanded bike lane and there will be four or five other people with me. There are people trying to sneak behind us going the wrong way on that street. You don’t belong there.”
Construction on University Avenue has also forced parts of it to become one-lane. The right lane is closed beginning at the intersection of Northwest 15th Street and ends in front of the Wawa at 1614 W University Ave. Then, the right lane is closed again in front of the University Lutheran Church and ends in front of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house.
A large construction sign with a left arrow signals drivers to move to the left lane.
Multiple drivers don’t transfer lanes until the last second. Cars will slam on the gas, speeding to try and switch lanes before they reach the construction sign. Although most drivers are successful, it’s an aggressive tactic that the current road design incentivizes.
Dimitri Selimos, 21, also lives behind midtown, and he rides his scooter to class every day. He said he used to be able to easily commute through campus, but the one-way roads and construction have increased the time of his commute and caused him to encounter more pedestrians on the way.
Selimos said one of his most dangerous experiences came when he turned onto Northwest 17th Street and a car pulled out going the wrong way, almost leading to a collision.
“If I wasn’t paying attention, I could’ve easily ended up in a head-on accident,” Selimos said.
University Avenue is constantly busy with students. With classes all day throughout the week, cars are constantly lined up, waiting for pedestrians to cross. Garbers, Sutton and Selimos all said the most congested times of the day are between noon and 3 p.m., when most students head to-and-from class.
But there are constant lines during rush hour, as well. For example, cars waiting on University Avenue at the intersection of Fletcher Drive have to wait over 90 seconds before getting the chance to make their way to the next light.
This accounts for the 25 seconds for pedestrians and bikers to cross, and for cars making left and right-hand turns onto University from Fletcher Drive and Northwest 18th Street.
Sometimes, vehicles turning left onto University from Northwest 18th Street aren’t even able to make full turns because of cars backed up from the following light.
In addition to the busy streets near campus, East University Avenue has also encountered its share of incidents. Ward said this area is in dire need of the project because drivers treat it like a highway.
“There are no neighborhoods for half a mile,” Ward said. “You drive faster there. People just naturally do. We need ways to engineer that so it's safer.”
With construction set to begin in 2024, Ward said he hopes for Southwest 13th Street and West University Avenue to become a pedestrian scramble intersection. All the cars would stop, and pedestrians would be able to walk in whichever direction they desire.
He is also confident the project will create a safer community for the whole four-mile stretch the road runs for.
“There are lots of traffic innovations that we can implement for that whole 4.1 miles,” Ward said. “It’ll look different for each part of it, but I think we’ll make it a better road not only for people using it, but for businesses that are located along it.”