Angels and road lanes


Published: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 20, 2004 at 10:08 a.m.

Taking a bicycle along on a trip to Plantation is rather like carrying a rubber knife into a gun fight.

The odds of surviving the encounter are simply not in your favor.

Listen, forget about wearing one of those bright orange vests that smugly proclaim "One less automobile."

You might just as well hang a bull's-eye on your back and have done with it.

That's especially true if you happen to be staying at a hotel located smack in the epicenter of that South Florida "edge city" - near the intersection of University Drive and Broward Boulevard.

Think Butler Plaza on steroids. Now throw in endless expanses of office parks and fashion malls, connected by miles of ticky-tacky commercial strip development. Encircle and bisect the whole mess with lots of multi-laned, traffic-choked urban roads. And then layer on top of all that a snaking tentacle of interstate highway.

The American Dream set in reeking exhaust fumes.

And me on my bicycle.

But it wasn't so bad, really.

I stayed on the sidewalks (what the heck, there weren't any pedestrians using them anyway), and was real careful about crossing intersections and skirting parking lots. And I only had to ride three or four miles before I found a rather lovely county park.

Where they charged me $1 to cycle round and round and round a long, narrow retention pond that had been cleverly disguised to look like a lake.

This is why the most oft-repeated phrase in Gainesville is (All together now):

"We don't want to be like South Florida!"

Anyway, while peddling around Urban Hell, an idle question popped into my mind.

Exactly how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

No, only kidding. We can't know the answer to that one.

Seriously, the question was:

How many new road-lane miles will it take to solve Gainesville's traffic-congestion problems?

Don't bother to drag out your calculators. In a way, it's not unlike counting microscopic angels. The answer has no relevance in real life.

It doesn't matter because even if we knew how many extra lanes we'd need to decongest Archer and Newberry roads, NW 34th and 43rd streets, Tower Road and so on, we wouldn't do it.

Our elected leaders don't have the political will. And we taxpayers are not willing to pay the price.

Last year county commissioners didn't even have to guts to raise the gas tax by a nickel a gallon to simply maintain the transportation grid we've already got; never mind adding new capacity to unjam traffic.

So what would congestion relief cost? A dime a gallon? A quarter a gallon? Might as well make it five bucks a gallon for all it matters.

Come to think of it; I wonder how many lanes they added to build their way out of congestion in Plantation? And after they did it, just where in the heck did all that new congestion come from?

Anyway, I thought about my harrowing ride through Plantation's heart of urban darkness last week, when the City and County commissions - meeting as the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization - spent the better part of an afternoon and evening talking about the virtues of "traffic calming," versus the benefits of building our way out of congestion.

Typically such conversations tend to be framed in "either-or" fashion: i.e., we can either reclaim our downtowns, core city business districts and neighborhoods by slowing down traffic and redesigning our streets to be more pedestrian, bicycle and business friendly - or we can can "fix" roads that are choked by traffic jams.

And, typically, those two choices are deemed mutually exclusive. Because our gut tells us that anything we do to slow down traffic will only make congestion worse.

Our gut is wrong, by the way. Some traffic calming techniques actually move traffic more efficiently through the city, with the result being less congestion. But even if the premise wasn't faulty, it's a phony argument.

Because no city in America has managed to build its way out of congestion. On the other hand, literally scores of communities in recent years have been reclaiming once-abandoned downtowns and isolated neighborhoods and decaying urban cores. They've been doing it by employing traffic calming devices like narrower streets, fewer road lanes, roundabouts, traffic circles and other design features that slow down, not stop, traffic.

And in communities like Palo Alto, Calif., Sacramento, Calif., Seattle, Portland, Ore., Charlotte, N.C., Norfolk, Va., and elsewhere, the results have often been spectacular: Once stagnant downtowns and aging Main Streets have become people magnets again. And new business and residential development have "followed the market."

"We have to fix the road first before we entice developers to come in and build the great town centers," argues Dan Burden, the High Springs-based "walkable communities" expert who has helped cities all over America improve both their quality of life - and their economic development prospects - by slowing down traffic and making their public streets more people-friendly.

We need to have a serious discussion in this community about how we can better manage traffic and make Gainesville a more liveable city. But we can't do that until we get past this either/or fallacy that makes our chronic griping about traffic congestion about as relevant as trying to count dancing angels.

"We don't want to be like South Florida," comes close to being a religious mantra around here. And in a way, that's too bad.

Because the truth is that a lot of people who live in South Florida don't want to be like South Florida anymore, either. They have learned from their mistakes, and they are beginning to correct some of them. And we might very well learn a few things from them that would keep us from making our own South Florida-style mistakes.

I wouldn't force my dog to live in Plantation's gridlocked core. But not too many miles to the east, downtown Ft. Lauderdale, and adjacent Los Olas Boulevard, have blossomed precisely because city fathers decided it was more important to accommodate people rather than facilitate traffic flow.

And not too many miles to the south of Ft. Lauderdale, Hollywood, where I grew up, has turned its once-derelict downtown into a flashy, South Beach-style business and entertainment district - by the simple device of narrowing and "taming" Hollywood Boulevard.

And to the north, West Palm Beach has restored a recently dilapidated Clematis Street to its former grandeur by turning it from a four-lane highway into a two-lane corridor of elegant living, dining and shopping.

The same thing, to one degree or another, is happening in Stuart, Ft. Pierce, Del Ray Beach and several other South Florida cities that have resolved to put automobiles in their proper place in the urban scheme of things. It's also been happening in Orlando, Winter Park, DeLand, Dunedin, New Smyrna and elsewhere around a state that, until recently, has been far better known for its legacy of urban sprawl than its success in fostering urban revitalization.

Here in "progressive" Gainesville, we gasp in utter horror at the very idea of narrowing University Avenue between downtown and UF. But University ought to be the city's showcase; a culturally and economically vibrant gateway to UF. Instead, it is little more than a blighted thoroughfare whose chief purpose is to move traffic through the city's heart, and out to the suburbs, as quickly as possible.

Let's dare to be more like South Florida, I say. Not like Plantation-gridlocked South Florida, but rather like Hollywood glamorous South Florida.

Bob Rowe, developer of Haile Plantation, said it best during the MTPO discussion about traffic calming and congestion.

"What we have done in America is probably not very defensible," Rowe said of the ill-considered land use and transportation decisions we've been making for the last half century or more. "We have not done a very good job of creating places where people want to be."

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