The Gainesville City Commission voted unanimously Thursday to move forward to find funding for the design phase to make portions of West University Avenue and 13th Street more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.
HDR Engineering, the firm that the city hired to look at potential options for improving safety and accessibility of the two roads, presented its Phase 1 findings to the commission Thursday.
“Really this whole project and the purpose of what we are trying to achieve is improving safety, prioritizing people and making this a design focused on people rather than cars,” Jeff Arms, an associate vice president at HDR, told the commission.
The Phase 1 study, which cost $168,000, looked at 1.9 miles of University Avenue from Northwest 22nd Street to Northeast Third Street and at one mile of 13th Street from Northwest Fifth Avenue to Southwest Ninth Avenue.
The commission authorized city officials to find a source of funds to complete a $500,000 design of road changes the HDR study suggested. Those proposed changes included features such as increased medians, wider sidewalks and narrower vehicle lanes, and on a portion of University near downtown, a reduction in lanes from five to three.
Preliminary recommendations also included two potential roundabouts on University Avenue.
Gainesville has included a $20 million funding request for design and implementation of changes to University and 13th in its legislative priorities.
“We are going to have to change people’s mentality about what this road is for,” said Commissioner David Arreola. “It is no longer the state road that was the only east and west through Alachua County. They’re traveling through the middle of one of the fastest growing cities in Florida. And directly in front of the university is the highest pedestrian area.”
When the city contracted with HDR, it intended for University and 13th Street to be redesigned using a complete streets model, which takes into account all the users of a roadway such as pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders, not just motorists. A similar project on South Main Street was completed in 2019.
However, the number of cars traveling on 13th Street and on much of West University in front of UF are above Department of Transportation and complete street guidelines for repurposing traffic lanes, city officials said.
Although repurposing lanes isn’t possible on 13th Street and the stretch of University in front of UF, the HDR study still suggests several traffic calming alterations that could improve safety in the intermediate and long-term.
In a segment of University Avenue from Northwest 22nd Street to Northwest 12th Street, HDR’s preliminary recommendations include removing on-street parking, widening sidewalks, narrowing vehicle lanes and adding more raised medians.
In an Innovation District segment of University of Avenue—from Northwest 12th Street to Northwest Sixth Street—traffic counts drop low enough that HDR’s proposed changes would take it from a five lane road to a three lane road. Part of the current roadway would be used to create a cycle track, which would allow for bicycle and scooter traffic.
The sidewalks also would be widened and a larger, landscaped median could be created. At current traffic levels, the decreased lanes are estimated to add just under 20 seconds to a trip along that segment of University.
The proposed reduced lanes for University would continue into the downtown area—from Northwest Sixth Street to Northeast Third Street. The changes also would allow for the continuation of the cycle track as well as wider sidewalks and added medians.
The initial proposal doesn’t include any lane reductions for 13th Street, which sees an average of 27,000 vehicles a day on the segment from Northwest Fifth Avenue to University and 33,000 vehicles per day on the segment from University to Southwest Ninth Avenue.
However, both the north and south sections of 13th would also have narrower vehicle lanes with wider medians. Some parking along the southern section 13th near UF could be converted to bus lanes.
The wider medians improve safety in two ways, Arms said. They provide a refuge for pedestrians crossing the road, and they allow for more intensive landscaping.
Commissioner Reina Saco said she was supportive of the wider medians as pedestrian refuges.
“If you can’t fix behavior, at least you can make sure people aren’t going to die because of it,” she said.
Arms said larger medians also allow for adding trees and planters that give motorists more of a sense of enclosure, which in turn causes them to reduce their speed.
“It encourages drivers to feel like they are in a tighter space and not drive as fast,” Arms said. “It’s a subliminal approach that the [Department of Transportation] has been taking and recommending in a lot of their guidebooks.”
Although Gainesville has several roundabouts, they take a certain amount of real estate and right of way to create so they weren’t feasible at certain intersections. But according to the preliminary HDR recommendations, roundabouts could be created on University Avenue at Second Avenue and at Northwest 22nd Street, and that would help slow traffic as it enters the UF area.
“Traffic signals don’t slow you down when the light is green, but roundabouts slow you down every time you go through them, no matter what,” Arms said.
Arms said that car collisions in roundabouts are less severe and have fewer fatalities than crashes at traffic signals.
“Took me a few years to get the gospel of a roundabout, but I really feel it now,” Commissioner Harvey Ward said. “People don’t die on them. People die at traffic signals.”
Phase 2 of the HDR will look at an additional 2.1 miles of University to the east and west of the Phase 1 area and at two-thirds of a mile of 13th Street north and south of the Phase 1 area. Arms said the Phase 2 part of their study should be completed in the early part of 2022.
HDR was initially slated to present its Phase 1 findings to the commission at a September meeting that was canceled over potential threats.