Our sidewalks are broken

Robert Pearce harbors the quaint notion that public sidewalks ought to be available to, you know, the public.

And so he has been known to take issue with downtown bar owners who put up sidewalk barriers to keep their customers in line – often obliging passers-by to step out onto the street on busy nights.

Pearce recalled that after one interaction with a surly bouncer he was himself picked up and unceremoniously dumped into University Ave.

“It’s been going on for years,” Pearce says. “There’s supposed to be five-feet of clearance but the city does nothing about it.”

That people on foot are forced onto the street in the name of commerce is just one of Gainesville’s sidewalk problems…and the one most easily solved if city officials took their public safety responsibilities seriously.

But here’s the bigger problem with Gainesville’s sidewalk infrastructure: Much of it is aged, cracked, grimy, pushed up by tree roots, overgrown with weeds and strewn with litter.

There are places where the sidewalk becomes impossibly narrow, and in relatively dangerous traffic conditions. And as much as some folks hate the “big ugly” buildings that have sprung up of late, sites like The Standard are just about the only places where sidewalks are actually being improved.

This because the city has no ongoing sidewalk improvement program to speak of.

But so what?

As Dan Burden, the national walkable communities expert and former High Springs resident, told me recently, a city that doesn’t love its sidewalks doesn’t love its children.

“If you are not building for your pedestrians you are not a city in the sense that you care about livability and quality of life.”

Sidewalks truly are the stepchildren of autoAmerica’s infrastructure family. A society that spends billions for roads and pennies for sidewalks has lost its sense of humanity.

And you can see evidence of that neglect pretty much everywhere in Gainesville’s UF-downtown core.

There’s a place on 13th street where a utility pole rises almost in the middle of a narrow sidewalk. Throw in the nearby street trees, and it presents a formidable barrier to anyone on a bicycle, let alone a wheelchair.

Several blocks to the south, the sidewalk that separates UF’s campus from the US 441 traffic sewer simply vanishes for hundreds of yards. A worn footpath just inches from the highway takes its place.

If any Gainesville street ought to be a showcase, it is University Avenue. But the avenue’s sidewalks are, in some places, narrower than its 8-foot wide on-street parking spaces, never mind its 10-foot travel lanes.

And there are scores of curb cuts – each one a potential point of deadly conflict between people and cars.

Plus the avenue’s sidewalks are, simply, ugly. Dirty. Littered. Cracked. Broken.

Nobody’s idea of a university city’s Champs-Élysées.

Gainesville isn’t going to turn its sidewalk deficit around any time soon. Maybe never.

But given the renewed focus on pedestrian safety on University Avenue and 13th Street, we ought to be insisting that the state, city and university pay at least as much attention to improving the sidewalks as redesigning the roads themselves.

“It’s important to recognize that we aren’t going to go back and rebuild an entire city” sidewalk by sidewalk, Burden says. “But we can start fixing one place and make it a showcase.”

Let’s seize this opportunity to make University and 13th Street true showcases. Starting from the sidewalks and working to the roads.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog, FREEGNV, at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at ron@freegnv.com

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