Horse sense on University

Wild horses couldn’t stop on Gainesville’s first forgiving road.

It was just after the beginning of the last century that we hardened a sandy stretch of E. University Avenue with clay and limestone.

Now that was progress…even if the occasional horse-drawn wagon did tend to run amok.

Here’s how JPH Bell, longtime Gainesville postmaster, remembered it in Jess G. Davis’ book “The History of Gainesville.”

“When the team got to the rocked streets, the wagon got easier to pull, it began rattling on the hard streets,” he recounted. “Unaccustomed to city sights, the team got out of control…with everybody scattering.”

It’s safe to say that whoever designed the city’s first hard-surfaced road didn’t take horse sense into account. But then, that’s pretty much the history of “forgiving” roads in autoAmerica.

Basically that’s a road purposely over-engineered so that if the occasional motorist does something careless – like step on the horsepower – the consequences are less likely to be lethal. At least for the motorist.

But as Tom Vanderbilt put it in his 2008 book “Traffic,” a forgiving’ road tends to be a “permissive road” precisely because forgiving designs encourage people to drive faster and with less care.

Thus the “pursuit of a kind of absolute safety” on forgiving roads “has in many cases made them less safe.”

Which is precisely why we keep losing pedestrians and cyclists on University Avenue.

Because its broad, multiple-lanes and good lines of sight encourage drivers to speed up without worrying overly much about wrapping themselves around a tree in the process.

Fortunately, we took down University Avenue’s big trees years ago. In the name of traffic safety.

Unfortunately, we’ve since learned that it’s the bystanders – those not cocooned inside a couple tons of steel – who tend to suffer the bloody consequences.

So I was puzzled to read that University Police Chief Linda Stump-Kurnick – UF’s chief public safety officer – opposes narrowing University Avenue.

She told the Sun a narrower (i.e. traffic calmed) University would only confuse drivers, especially young students. “It adds to the complexity of a… road with issues,” Stump-Kurnick said. “At night, when you throw the lights in with people not knowing where they are going and what the heck is going on, absolutely it’s a problem.”

Well, I suppose that’s one way to look at it. It is certainly the way traffic engineers have looked at it for decades.

But look at the body count on University Avenue over just the past year, Chief, and tell me that drivers aren’t already confused over the “complexity” of its design.

By the way, have you noticed the new roundabout just south on Lake Alice on UF’s Museum Road?

That’s Traffic Calming 101: Because it’s better to be confused on a road designed to induce 15 mph driving than on a permissive road that makes 50 mph or faster the norm.

One more thing. While we’re wringing our hands and hoping that more enforcement might make University Avenue less lethal, UF is moving ahead with plans to convert its historic northeast quarter into a vehicle-free zone. If anything that means there will be more, not less, foot and bike traffic right on the edge of one of Gainesville’s most dangerous roads.

If we don’t redesign it for safety, let’s at least have the decency to restore University Avenue’s original name.

That was Liberty Street: Because here, freedom to drive trumps all.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at Email him at

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