Fast driving and the city


Lately the county has been conducting an experiment in traffic calming on the highway that borders my neighborhood.

Well, they don’t call it an experiment. They call it road work. 

And they don’t call NW 16 Avenue a highway. But that four-lane divided stroad is built to expedite fast driving just like a highway.

Anyway, the not-experiment consists of temporarily closing a length of the outside westbound lane where 16th crosses Hogtown Creek.

The speed limit is 40 mph. But that stretch runs down a hill where vehicles tend to pick up velocity.  

So it is not unusual for drivers to be going 45 mph, 50 or faster by the time they reach the bottom. 

But now it’s been reduced to a single narrow lane, and motorists, feeling hemmed in, seem to have calmed down a bit. When I drove it recently the line of cars heading west was moving at just over 30 mph. 

At least until they got to the bottom of the hill and got that second lane back. Then the race was on again. 

I only bring this up to make an obvious point about city driving.

Northwest 16th divides neighborhoods, parks, schools and churches – places unprotected human beings frequently need to cross the street to connect with. Some years ago the son of my childrens’ kindergarten teacher was killed on this strode while riding his bike to school.

How is it even remotely in the public interest to enable fast driving – 40, 50 mph or more – through the heart of a city? Wouldn’t 35, 30 or even slower be prudent?

Because we know all about the deadly physics of speeding. 

(Bullet) A pedestrian struck by a vehicle traveling 20 mph has a 90 percent chance of staying alive.

(Bullet) The survival rate drops to 50 percent when the vehicle is doing 30 mph.

(Bullet) At 40 mph the pedestrian death rate is 90 percent.

A National Transportation Safety Board study last year found that speeding was a factor in more than 112,580 traffic deaths between 2005 and 2014.

That’s nearly the same number of people killed by drunken drivers over that period. 

But while our society, rightfully, stigmatizes driving under the influence, fast driving is still considered as autoAmerican as apple pie. 

“People don’t think of speeding the way that they think about some other hazardous driving behaviors,” NTSB Chair Robert L. Sumwalt said upon the study’s release. “Unlike other crash factors such as alcohol impairment…speeding has few negative social consequences associated with it…”

And there’s a reason for that. I can imagine the outcry if the county decided to narrow or reduce lanes on NW 16th for the sake of public safety. A “prescription for gridlock!” angry voters would cry, as they tossed commissioners out of office.

But Gainesville has already narrowed Main Street from NW 8th Ave through downtown, and is continuing to do so nearly all the way to SE 16th Ave. Not only has that slowed traffic and made life safer for pedestrians, cyclists and other living things, but we are seeing a resurgence in business activity up and down Main Street.

What we are not seeing is the dreaded gridlock many predicted. Cars are moving, just more slowly.

Urban streets should not be built like highways. The convenience of fast driving should not take precedence over the human-scale factors that define a city’s quality of life – walkability, economic vitality, connectivity, safety.

And given what we know the deadly physics of speeding, shouldn’t we take fast driving at least as seriously as drunk driving?

Published in the Gainesville Sun 2/24/19.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.)

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