Gainesville commute times lowest in state, but congestion still an issue
Published: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 6:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 6:43 p.m.
It might not be so obvious at 5 p.m. on Newberry Road, but Gainesville drivers have the shortest commute time in Florida.
In addition to topping the state, Gainesville's average commute time ranked 19th best among 269 major cities across the country, according to the American Community Survey, a report issued earlier this month by the U.S. Census Bureau based on 2009 data.
City officials credited public transit and a new traffic management system for the distinction but acknowledge more must be done to address congestion along major corridors such as Newberry and West 34th Street.
According to 2010 data, the average commute time for local residents was 16.7 minutes, and 45 percent of commuters made the trip to work in less than 15 minutes.
With those numbers, Gainesville sat at the top of the rankings for Florida in both categories. It came in second in the state behind Miami regarding the percentage of residents who use public transit or walk to work, with 11.4 percent.
"Ease of travel within Gainesville is definitely a mark of quality of life," Mayor Craig Lowe said. "I think it speaks well for the transportation plans of the city."
City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said if Gainesville is to grow, it will need to do "better and better on this issue."
"We know you can't fight a battle on only one front," Hawkins said, acknowledging that transit, roadways and urban design — allowing people to work near where they live — will play a role. "Keeping commute times low is about allowing people to have more time with their families and reducing their frustrations."
Gauging by the number of gripes Matt Weisman says he gets now, those frustrations have diminished in the past few years.
"We don't really get compliments in our line of work," said Weisman, an intelligent-transportation systems engineer for the city. "We don't hear nearly as many complaints as we used to."
He said Newberry Road near The Oaks Mall and Interstate 75 still get backed up daily but that it doesn't take as long to flush the traffic out because of the city's SmartTraffic program, which eases congestion by letting engineers like Weisman monitor traffic and change signals when necessary.
The $18 million traffic-management system was established in 2007 and now covers about 90 percent of Gainesville and Alachua County, said Chip Skinner, spokesman for Gainesville's Public Works Department and the Regional Transit System.
By the end of the year, Skinner said, the system should cover almost 100 percent of Gainesville and Alachua County — right on schedule.
Rather than needing a police officer to manually operate the lights when there is a traffic problem, they can be controlled remotely.
"In a centralized location, we have video cameras that let us look at the traffic and link those signals," Skinner said.
Before they leave for work, commuters can look at traffic updates on the SmartTraffic website (http://gac-smartraffic.com), its Facebook page or its Twitter account, he said. If they see a report of heavy traffic on 34th Street, for example, they can take a different route.
"It also helps with law enforcement and fire rescue," Skinner said. "When there is an accident, we can put that on the website as well and start rerouting traffic through the use of signals."
Congestion can be cut by decreasing the number of cars on the roads, and the Regional Transit System plays a role in this by offering an alternative way for people to get around town.
"One of our buses will hold up to 72 people," Skinner said. "So that's taking potentially 72 vehicles off the roadway, which lessens the congestion out there."
Every day, between 53,000 and 55,000 people ride the RTS buses. The program set a ridership record in fiscal year 2011 with 10,021,824 passengers.
RTS is evaluating the potential addition of a bus rapid transit system that could lower commute times and traffic congestion even more, Skinner said. The system would add faster routes with designated bus-only lanes on major streets such as Archer Road.
Park-and-ride lots, where people commuting from towns such as High Springs could park their cars before riding a bus into Gainesville, also would be added, he said.
RTS is looking for a consulting firm to study the proposed program and determine if it is feasible. It plans to select a firm by April.
If the system is approved, its implementation could begin as early as 2015, Skinner said. The program's estimated cost is $38 million for infrastructure needs, although the final cost could vary.
In addition to having one of the shortest commute times in the U.S., Gainesville also ranked seventh among the nation's top 10 metro areas in terms of the percentage of workers who commute by bicycle, with 3.3 percent.
Dekova Batey, coordinator of the city of Gainesville Bicycle and Pedestrian program, handles outreach efforts that educate the public about the benefits of alternative methods of transportation, such as bicycles.
The program's efforts are supported by local groups that advocate for bicycling and similar practices.
"You have core groups at different initiatives that support developing the community in a holistic way," Batey said.
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