Dangerous Streets For 10 Years and Counting: Florida is Making Changes

By: Lia DiPaolo, Jung Kim, Nomfumo Manaba, Alexa Mickler, Kala Parkinson, Sarah Pickett

For 10 years, Smart Growth America has published a yearly report on safety for all travelers. The report consistently lists Florida as the most dangerous state for pedestrians.

In Gainesville, where the University of Florida has its main campus, change is happening that could lead the way to safer streets in Florida and across the country. But, it comes after the loss of four student lives on West University Avenue in the past few years.

On Oct. 28, 2016, Abigail Doughtry was hit and killed by a garbage truck.

On Jan. 27, 2020, Denise Griffiths was hit and killed by a car.

On Dec. 9, 2020, Maggie Paxton was hit and killed in a hit-and-run.

On Jan. 16, 2021, Sophia Lambert was hit and killed in a car crash.

The Call for Change

On Jan. 29, Florida Not One More posted their first message on Instagram:

“We cannot remain silent any longer. UF Not One More is a new group created to unite UF students to pressure those in power to immediately take action on proposed plans to make University Avenue safe.”

“As students, we aim to promote the plans created by GCAT and Gators Against Student Pedestrian Deaths and to become a face for action. #NotOneMore UF student should be lost or affected by an unsafe road. We need to raise our voices and demand for change.”

“Join the fight for our safety.”

This was a catalyst for change in Gainesville.

Following calls by students for change, parents, the university and city officials also chimed in.

WUFT News reported that the Gainesville City Commission approved a motion to ask the Florida Department of Transportation to turn over responsibility of a portion of State Road 26 to the city, make traffic safety changes as quickly as possible and create a traffic safety education program.

The University of Florida also released a memorandum addressing immediate and long term changes to West University Avenue and their commitment to working with the city of Gainesville, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the University Police Department.

Changes for State Universities

Each university and administration has their own approach and addressed incidents in their own ways.

University of Florida

“I think some students and some parents may have come into this with concerns that nothing would change,” Orlando said. “I think parents have been pleasantly surprised that, in fact, a lot of things are changing and a lot of actions have been taking place.”

After the most recent deaths, UF has been working with the Florida Department of Transportation and the City of Gainesville. West University Avenue, however, is a state road that prevents UF from managing all courses of action regarding the road. The roadway belongs to the state and part of the sidewalk belongs to the city, complicating matters further.

“That’s why it’s critical that we’re able to work in partnership with them,” Orlando said. “Some of the things you don’t see, for instance, are the conversations that are sort of happening behind the scenes.”

Immediate changes made include higher visibility of the University Police Department parked along the road, lighted message signs urging drivers to slow down and repainted crosswalks. Future campaigns may include a reduced speed limit of 30 mph to 25 mph and raised pedestrian crosswalk installations.

Along West University Avenue, lighted message boards like the one above flash warnings to slow down due to high pedestrian areas. Photo: Sarah Pickett

Orlando said that all of the different characteristics of each major Florida university eliminate a “single solution” tactic. From the major metropolitan areas surrounding Florida International University in Miami to the more rural climate of northern Florida and the college town of the University of Florida, each locale calls for its own point of action.

“Everybody kind of has to find their own in these topics. But I think one unifying factor in all of that is that everybody understands the importance of the safety of their students, faculty and staff and is putting that at the top of their priority list,” Orlando said.

Florida State University

Florida State University students and administration called for changes, such as more police enforcement and better signage, WCTV reported.

According to WTXL Tallahassee, after the accident, FSU’s Police Department stepped up the enforcement of traffic laws around the campus.

University of Central Florida

According to UCF’s website, the university added “Stop for Pedestrian in Crosswalk” signage at five locations across campus. Flashing yellow lights were also added to five crosswalks across campus.

After a study led by Orange County, the university, county and state allocated about $8.8 million to make upgrades, according to their website.

These included pedestrian fencing and landscaping, a bike path, increased visibility on crosswalks, improvements at major intersections, wide sidewalks, pedestrian scale lighting and more.

Complete Street Initiatives & The Florida Department of Transportation

Brenda Young, a transportation safety engineer with FDOT, said the new guidance available to local governments will allow them to plan and design roadways for the safety of all students who walk or bike on college campuses.

The initiative was recognized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the gold standard program, Young said. It included safety advocates and federal, state and local partners.

“This was immediately followed by a complete streets implementation plan that included revising guidance, standards, manual policies and other documents that guide our roadway planners and engineers to support bicyclist and pedestrian safety specifically,” she said.

Florida does not currently have laws mandating traffic safety zones around college campuses similar to those found around elementary and high schools. FDOT encourages all college campuses to use context sensitive designs on all roadways to ensure the safety of all travelers.

“We encourage that the design of the roadway matches the context within which the roadway is located, so that all of our expected customers that are traveling there can be the safest as possible,” Young said.

Despite the state’s response to fatal traffic accidents, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has shown that traffic accidents in Florida have continued to increase since 2010.

“Each victim of a traffic crash is someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, friend or co-worker, and we take that very seriously,” Young said. “And that’s why we’ve adopted as our target of zero traffic fatalities on our roadway and why we’re working hard to get there.”

One group is pushing FDOT to do more: Gainesville Citizens for Active Transportation.

Chris Furlow, the president, said that the organization is working with the city of Gainesville, the University of Florida, and advocacy groups like Gators Against Student Pedestrian Deaths and Florida Not One More to persuade FDOT to make streets like West University Avenue and 13th Street, which usher in a significant amount of traffic and can be considered more dangerous, into complete streets.

Complete streets are designed to accommodate all types of travelers, whether the mode of transportation they are using is a car, any other type of motor vehicle, a bike, a bus or even their own legs, he said.

“Compared to normal FDOT responses to our concerns, this one has been moving much more quickly,” Furlow said.

While Furlow said that FDOT has expressed interest in transforming West University Avenue into a complete street, it’s not set in stone yet. So, Furlow doesn’t anticipate reaching the finish line yet.

“A lot of times when we’ve asked FDOT to look into dangerous intersections, they come back and say not enough people have died to bother changing that,” he said.

If the process of implementing complete streets was to go perfectly, it’d probably be a two-to-three-year process, Furlow said. However, he said it’s likely to take much longer than that. He estimated 20 years.

“It takes forever,” he said. “University Avenue has been at the top of the MTP low priority list for a number of years and FDOT hasn’t given $1 until these tragic crashes and deaths occur.”

GCAT has encouraged people to contact state representatives and senators backing the potential conversion of high-risk roads into complete streets, he said.

“And those out of state, we’re just asking to keep pressure on the University of Florida, and city of Gainesville, to make sure that they’re continuing to focus, and not let this slide into the background, as so often happens with various crises that emerge as a front of mind for a month or two,” he said.

Road Ownership Comes with Responsibility

“Whoever owns the road is responsible for designing and maintaining it and typically that also means that whoever owns it, their own design standards would apply,” he said.

Sometimes, these conventional rules may come at a cost of making it difficult or unsafe to cross the street or walk out on the street, McCahill said. Increased safety on roads might require changing some of the principles on how roads are designed.

Florida stands out for having good Complete Streets guidelines because it dictates that designers should pay close attention to the surroundings of the road and use those surroundings to design the road, McCahill said.

FDOT’s Context Classification system details how the surroundings of the road impact road design. Photo courtesy of CNU.org.

Yet Florida may not be using these guidelines because some of the older rules may be guiding the design and some designers may not have caught onto the principles yet, he said.

With pedestrian deaths on the rise nationally, there’s a lot of conflicting notions as to why that’s happening, he said. Some are pointing to larger vehicles that might be more deadly. Distracted driving or walking is another possibility.

“I don’t think that really plays out in the data, like, it just doesn’t make sense that suddenly distraction would be on the rise to the extent we are seeing,” he said. “There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that the worst problems are happening in areas where the roads are designed wide and fast, but they are kind of like urban areas where there are people walking around.”

No One-Size-Fits-All Solution

“We wouldn’t recommend that as a universal solution necessarily because states need to be making the same changes, too,” she said. “It’s within their power and many of them have the funding needed to do it.”

As far as reducing speed limits and the planned changes on West University Avenue, Bellis says that it has to be paired with design changes because simply changing the posted speed isn’t going to necessarily change people’s behavior.

While Florida does rank as the most dangerous state for dangerous by design, it has many of the most dangerous metro areas. But more broadly, most of the top dangerous states in metro areas are in the southern U.S., she said. Bellis said that trend has a pretty clear answer.

“A lot of the development that happened in those states occurred after car ownership was widespread,” she said. “So, those cities are just built more at a driving scale than some of our older cities and that has a huge impact on safety for people walking.”

Smart Growth America’s rankings show the southern states with the most dangerous metro areas. Bellis says this trend is clear because development happened after car ownership was widespread. Photo courtesy of Smart Growth America.

According to Bellis, another issue adding to the problem is state infrastructure.

“A lot of southern states are at a point where almost all of their highway funding just has to go to repair of their existing infrastructure because they have limited resources and their highways legitimately are crumbling,” Bellis said.

Florida, on the other hand, is in a much better condition because the state has the means to fix the roads if there are delay or congestion issues, she said.

“I think they’ve just been able to build out their highway network over the past couple decades in a way that some other states haven’t.”

To get change to happen on the local level, advocates, like Florida Not One More, can continue to get involved, she said.

“When a decision maker is facing political pressures to widen the road for instance, something that advocates for safety can do is just really emphasize the importance of safety over speed of cars, and the fact that there’s a trade-off between the two,” she said.

As far as the next steps, Smart Growth America is working to get the Complete Streets Act of 2021 passed in Congress, which according to their website, would “help set aside resources for Complete Streets projects, require states to create a program to provide technical assistance and award funding for communities to build Complete Streets projects and directs localities to adopt a Complete Streets policy that meets a minimum set of standards to access that dedicated funding.”

“I think we have an administration currently and Congress currently that are thinking in the right direction, but we need to actually get those changes to happen.”

We are a team of journalists at the University of Florida College of Journalism & Communications.