Gator STEP program quickly outpaces previous traffic enforcement

Downtown Gainesville
Downtown Gainesville
Sean Pavone via Shutterstock

In the first month of its special traffic enforcement initiative, the Gainesville Police Department (GPD) wrote 322 citations on the University of Florida portion of West University Avenue—314 more than the agency wrote there the month prior.

“That is a monumental increase,” said Graham Glover, GPD public information officer. “We have written a lot of tickets, that’s for sure.”

The additional citations are part of the department’s ongoing Gator STEP (Special Traffic Enforcement Program), which launched Jan. 18 as part of the city’s response to two student fatalities in separate West University Avenue accidents.

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The initiative has increased patrols along the segments of road that box in the main portion of the university: 13th Street, Archer Road, 34th Street and University Avenue. While the GPD made 630 traffic stops on the four roads during the first month, the vast majority of them—508—were on West University, according to statistics released by the department.

Similarly, the University of Florida Police Department (UFPD), which has jurisdiction over the entire campus, reported it made 246 traffic stops on the four roads during the first month of enforcement, 138 of those on West University.

City leaders said the emphasis on the West University area is the result of the special convergence of factors on the road: a campus with close to 60,000 students on one side, a line of local businesses on the other, and a large population of pedestrians and cyclists traveling between the two across a heavily traveled state road with multiple, wide lanes.

“You are on campus and then you are off campus in one step on that busy thoroughfare,” Glover said in a phone interview. “When you’re on campus, the speed limit is 20 miles per hour, and when you come off the campus, it’s not. When you are on campus there’s almost always an expectation that vehicles will stop when you cross the road. That should occur when you come off campus, but that’s not a one-to-one correlation, so there’s kind of an education and re-awareness [needed] with people on campus and off.”

Most of the Gator STEP traffic stops have been for speeding. Between UFPD and the GPD, 444 stops have involved speeding, again with most of those stops along University Avenue.

Speeding is a problem on all the roads around campus, said City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos, whose district includes most of the roadways that are part of the Gator STEP initiative.

However, “[West University] has the highest amount of pedestrian, bike and vehicle traffic compared to those other areas and that is where we are trying to put our focus—areas where we can make the biggest difference,” Hayes-Santos said in a phone interview.

Hayes-Santos praised the work of GPD, which spearheaded the initiative, and its collaboration with law enforcement partners UFPD and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, which are helping increase the police presence.

“I’m glad our officers are out there giving tickets and trying to get people to slow down,” the District IV commissioner said. Hayes-Santos said the number of tickets illustrates the problem: “If there wasn’t an issue [with] speeding, they wouldn’t be writing tickets.”

In addition to speeding stops, the police departments have also pulled over cars for other traffic infractions like running red lights and stop signs, failing to come to a full stop, and texting while driving.

The UFPD has also handed out tickets or warnings to 24 pedestrians who didn’t obey traffic signals or crossed the road outside of the crosswalk area. GPD didn’t provide separate statistics on pedestrian violations.

Major Brad Barber, assistant director of the UFPD, said the department has used the Gator STEP program to expand education efforts, including having its community service division hand out pedestrian safety brochures on University.

“[The efforts are getting people into] just being mindful of the roadway as both drivers and pedestrians and staying alert at all times on the roadway,” Barber said in a phone interview. “Traffic safety is a paramount concern us at UFPD, and this area is certainly one we recognize is very unique to our campus.”

The university police issued more warnings than citations—unlike the GPD, which has handed out about twice the number of citations as warnings.

“When people realize that speeding will not be tolerated in that area, the people are going to start driving slower and that’s going to be a lifesaver,” said City Commissioner David Arreola, whose District III includes parts of University Avenue and 34th Street involved in Gator STEP.

The new program is an immediate-term response to the problems on West University, but city officials are looking forward to making both medium-term and long-term changes to traffic flow on the road and the way cars and pedestrians interact.

Except for the enforcement piece, the Florida Department of Transportation is currently in charge of the traffic control measures and alterations to the avenue.

“I think visibility is key, and that’s what the goal of Gator STEP is: to have a lot of visibility on the corridor,” Gainesville City Manager Lee Feldman said in a Zoom interview. “Enforcement is an intermediate step to a very complex issue; it’s not an end all.”

Feldman said the FDOT has already made changes to the traffic patterns, changing the traffic signals in the evening from synchronous to asynchronous so that cars cannot travel from one end of the West University corridor to the other without stopping, which results in slower traffic.

While the FDOT, the city and the university look at ways to improve long-term safety, the Gator STEP initiative will continue to use enforcement and education to highlight the need to slow down and pay attention.

“We are raising the awareness of the importance of obeying laws and not just on University but across the city,” GPD spokesman Glover said. “We are making some short-term progress. We’re committed to this—a lot of folks are—and we’re going to keep chipping away.”

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