Gainesville plans to lower speed limits

The City Commission officially put Gainesville drivers on notice that they are planning to lower speed limits across the city to slow traffic as a way to reduce traffic-related injuries and deaths.

A motion, which passed unanimously at Thursday’s meeting, informs the public that they intend to lower the speed limits on city-owned roads to 30 mph and cap speeds on neighborhood streets at 20 mph.

The motion did not officially make those changes, but instead asked the city’s Department of Transportation to bring back a list of roads that could be altered.

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“When there is a unified understanding that, in the city, the speed limit is 30 miles an hour that makes a noticeable difference,” said Mayor Lauren Poe. “People aren’t thinking, ‘Am I on a 45 road or a 30 road.’ Even without the enforcement component, you will see gains, you will see improvements—reductions in speed and safer driving.”

State law allows the city to set 30 mph limits on all city streets and allows the municipality to lower other roads to 25 and 20 mph under certain conditions, said Phil Mann, currently special assistant to the city manager and former head of the public works department.

Mann, also a former city traffic engineer, said that Gainesville several years ago completed the studies necessary to already lower the speed limit in every residential neighborhood to 25 mph.

NHTSA safe speeds save lives graphic

The city doesn’t control all the roads within the city limits, so as part of the motion, the city also voted to send requests to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and Alachua County to lower the speed limits on state- and county-controlled roads within the Gainesville city limits.

While the commissioners that were present at the meeting supported the lowering of the speed limits, several expressed reluctance to make the lower speed limits official until the transportation department completed ongoing traffic studies and made a formal presentation to the commission on the roads that would be affected.

The commission also asked staff to develop communication, education and enforcement plans to accompany a lowering of the city’s speed limits.

“I think we have to tell people now that this is going to be the future of traffic safety in Gainesville,” Commissioner David Arreola said. “We are going to slow down cars in this city. We have to give the public time for the message to permeate.”

Reducing speeds can help prevent pedestrian deaths and injuries. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 73 percent of pedestrians struck by cars traveling 40 mph will die or suffer serious injuries, while 13 percent of pedestrians struck by cars traveling 20 mph will be killed or seriously injured.

“It’s a national systemic challenge that we have and we are pushing against as hard as we can here locally,” Poe said. “It’s not a matter of us not focusing the attention it needs, it’s a matter of trying to change a national culture that has been embedded for generations that cars are supreme over all other users. That’s what we’re trying to alter.”

Lowering the speed limits may affect commute times, but Commissioner Harvey Ward said it would be worth it.

“I want people to stay alive,” Ward said. “Any change that we make that improves pedestrian and cyclist safety and driver safety—we shouldn’t sugar coat it—it is going to slow things a little bit. That’s reality.”

As part of the motion, the commission also is asking staff to bring back reports on what the traffic impact would be of eliminating right turns on red and reducing the number of center-turn lanes, which Ward referred to as “suicide lanes.”

In a phone conversation with Mainstreet Daily News in advance of the meeting, Ward said, “The more we can move people into streets that are engineered to make you as a driver pay attention, the more you will pay attention.”

Although Thursday’s discussion expanded into additional areas related to traffic control and pedestrian and cyclist safety, it began as an item to discuss the intersection on Northwest 8th Avenue at NW 10th Street, where recent UF graduate Sabrina Obando was killed on Jan. 4.

Ward said in a phone interview that he hopes the city takes action to eliminate the left-turn-on-yellow-arrow option at the traffic light at Northwest 8th Ave and Northwest 10th Street.

“In this case, those are two city streets. It’s an opportunity for us to say, ‘What could we do better with this intersection to make sure it never happens again,’ because the buck stops with us on that intersection,” Ward said.

Malisa Mccreedy, the city’s transportation director, said at the meeting that several of the city’s permissive left turns have already been eliminated, and the city was completing a study of crashes and near misses at several intersections before recommending changes.

The commission did not include specific changes to the 8th Avenue and 10th Street intersection in its motion Thursday.

Vision Zero, which is a city initiative aimed at reducing traffic deaths and injuries especially to pedestrians and cyclists, completed several projects in 2021 related to road safety, Mccreedy told the commission.

Chart showing pedestrian deaths per 100,000 in Florida cities. From City of Gainesville..png

The transportation department compared the rate of pedestrian and cyclist deaths per 100,000 people to other cities in Florida for years 2020-2021. Gainesville’s rate is 8 deaths per 100,000 of population, which is lower than cities like Ocala, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville.

“That’s no comfort to anyone who has been injured or has had a family member killed,” Ward said in a phone interview. “[But] we know the measures we are taking and have taken, work.…

If you treat streets as being for automotive traffic only, people die. I don’t claim any kind of victory at this point, but we do have data that shows that the things we have been working on do drive the numbers down and do save lives.”

Another $3 million has been allocated to Vision Zero-related projects for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, Mccreedy said.

However, Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said he wanted to see the city increase its efforts and was willing to allocate more money to the transportation department and Vision Zero to do that.

“I don’t think we’re going fast enough, and I don’t think we’re doing enough,” Hayes-Santos said. “I want us to do more, and I want us to do more, quicker. I know that takes resources.”

Mccreedy said that given the number of projects already planned in the city and the need to continue to do advanced transportation planning, the department was “at max for our staff.”

“I think we’re doing things as quickly as possible [with current staffing],” she said.

The commission asked interim City Manager Cynthia Curry to look into the feasibility of adding transportation department staff to help increase the number and speed of safety projects.

Staffing levels also were an issue when the commission asked about increasing traffic enforcement.

Gainesville Police Department’s acting Chief Lonnie Scott said that the police department has approximately 30 unfilled positions, which accounts for about 11 percent to 12 percent of the city’s police force.

Through the use of overtime, Scott said GPD has been able to maintain coverage in the city but said that the staffing shortages meant that special enforcement duties would be harder to cover.

In response to public comment during the meeting that claimed the city wasn’t providing funds for the police positions, Poe said the money was budgeted and available for the open positions.

“The staffing challenge is not budgetary,” Poe said. “…Funding for GPD has gone up in the last two budget years. We have not cut money from the police department. This is a national challenge. It is increasingly difficult to recruit and retain officers for a wide variety of reasons….We are just facing the same headwinds as every law enforcement agency in the country.”

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