Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Florida Weekly: "Southwest Florida's deadly streets

Southwest Florida's deadly streets


Toni Ferrell was nearing the end of a morning bike ride with a friend when she stopped at a busy Southwest Florida intersection to wait for the pedestrian go signal.

“Everything changed for me after that,” she admits.

Which intersection is less important than this troubling fact, in Ms. Ferrell’s mind: her fateful crossing could have occurred at any one of scores of intersections in a region where roads have been planned and built for decades without thought of walkers or bicyclists.

Traveling without a motor vehicle here can be more dangerous than almost anywhere else in the United States, new research reveals.

Charlotte County ranks as the most dangerous place for pedestrians in Florida and the second most dangerous in the nation; Lee County ranks 23rd on the list of the 360 most dangerous American places for pedestrians and bicyclists and among the top 10 in Florida; and the Naples-Marco Island corridor, although the safest urban zone in Southwest Florida, is rated twice as lethal for pedestrians as the national average, according to a recently released report, “Dangerous By Design.”

Co-authored by Transportation for America (, the title is a reference to the tradition of building roads only for cars and trucks, without thought of any other vehicles.

“A bicycle, by law, is as much a vehicle as a car, truck or transit bus,” with the same rights and obligations, notes Michelle Avola, executive director of Naples Pathways Coalition. That doesn’t mean that planners here or anywhere else have given bicycles or pedestrians much credence in the past, however.

But insistent voices from Naples to Fort Myers to Charlotte County are now helping pave a new path to change. They represent such groups such as the Naples Pathways Coaltion, Bike- WalkLee and Reconnecting Lee, and the Coastal Cruisers Bicycle Club, among others in Charlotte County.

FERRELL Ms. Ferrell, a 40-something architect who now sits on the steering committee of BikeWalkLee, did not volunteer to join any of those groups or to promote a general cause. Instead, she was forcefully drafted — like Earl Lang, a Punta Gorda bike shop owner and activist.

“I got hit by a truck when I was finishing a 400-mile bike ride, and it made me mad, which is why I started this,” he explains of his efforts to make Charlotte County leaders change their view of transportation essentials.

In Ms. Ferrell’s case, she used a sidewalk that emerged from a bike path frequented by cyclists and walkers attempting to cross Summerlin Road in South Fort Myers.

But no road signs existed warning drivers to beware of pedestrians and bicyclists, which is the standard rule in many American cities where road planners hold walkers and bikers in the same esteem as automobiles.

What happened next was cataclysmic, Ms. Ferrell remembers.

She got the go-ahead signal and started into the intersection. Her friend screamed a warning. Ms. Ferrell tried to get back and failed. She was then run over by a driver rushing to turn right on red — a woman who glanced left at oncoming traffic but never looked to the right, where she was headed, to see her way clear or to note that Ms. Ferrell had the right of way.

In fact, bicyclists were at fault in only 13 percent of accidents with motor vehicles, and pedestrians in only 20 percent of accidents in 2008, according to a report by BikeWalkLee. In most of those cases they were hurt or killed trying to navigate roads with no accommodation for their walking or pedaling.

“It’s taken me a full six years to get through the medical issues,” Ms. Ferrell revealed last week, while describing her 2003 accident. She lost most of the hearing in one ear when her head was bounced under the car — her helmet saved her life, she says. Her lower jaw was detached from her upper jaw and had to be rebuilt. She now suffers bursitis in the hip that took the first impact.

The economics of accidents

Her voice, however, reveals little complaint when she tallies the results, because she’s alive and back in the saddle. “It’s expensive and painful. It takes time out of your life,” she says. “But it’s behind me now.”

Happily, Ms. Ferrell continues to ride, and to encourage other adults to do the same thing.

“You forget if you haven’t gotten on a bike in a while as an adult how far you can go and how easy it is, especially here,” she explains. “The main reasons I ride are that it’s fun, it’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s simple, and it’s very convenient.”

And in her case, it did not result in an ultimate tragedy. Others, however, have not been so fortunate.

“Only a few months ago, here in Naples, a bicyclist was riding on a sidewalk near Goodlette and Fifth Avenue North when a truck was leaving the parking lot of a quick market and hit him,” says Ms. Avola. “He died. The driver didn’t see him coming — he was faster than a pedestrian but too close up to be seen when the truck pulled out.”

That’s why sidewalks are so dangerous for bicyclists, who are not supposed to use them in commercial areas in Naples, adds Ms. Avola.

Still, a little foresight from planners might have saved a life.

“If there had been a bike lane, or if there were signs or things had been marked, it might have been different,” she notes.

In other communities east and west, from Portland, Ore., to Boulder, Colo., to Chicago, to Louisville, Ky., “cyclists are embraced and people look out for them,” says Ms. Avola. And in those places both the destruction in human terms and the cost ultimately are much lower.

In St. Petersburg, for example, a massive effort by city leaders this decade to retrofit roads for bikes and pedestrians with pathways and underpasses reduced pedestrian crashes between 2000 and 2008 by more than half, and cut incapacitating injuries from 60 to 18 the last two years in a row, according to a report in the St. Petersburg Times.

The value of that becomes apparent in savings — not only savings of red blood but of green money.

When a pedestrian or a bicyclist is killed, the economic cost of the death is about $4.1 million, according to estimates by the National Safety Council. Those numbers take into account both the cost of the accident itself and the economic loss of a productive life. Even injuries that do not incapacitate the victims still cost about $53,000, on average.

For both Collier and Charlotte, where nine pedestrians and two bicyclists were killed in each county in 2007 and 2008, the cost of those deaths alone amounts to more than $44 million.

In Lee, where 32 pedestrians and 10 bicyclists died from auto crashes in 2007 and 2008, the fatalities alone cost $172.2 million. The cost of injuries in Lee added an extra $32.4 million to the butcher’s bill there, estimates Bike- WalkLee, which puts the total tally at $204.6 million.

And retrofitting, although likely to save money in the long run, is nevertheless very expensive. Since no sidewalks were planned along U.S. 41 north of Daniels Parkway in Fort Myers, for example — a job officials say could have been completed for less than $600,000 in today’s dollars — a retrofit is now planned. Estimated cost: $4.9 million.

Changes on the horizon

Ironically, perhaps, all of that is why the last three weeks have been among the most exciting in memory, not only for Ms. Ferrell, but for thousands like her across the region. Evidence of change is on the ground — or at least in a blueprint or a county resolution here or there — and in the air.

“We’re just beginning the culture change, the philosophy change, and that’s the biggest or the hardest part,” explains Darla Letourneau, a spokeswoman and director for BikeWalkLee.

In this first week of December, her organization is delivering letters both to Gov. Charlie Crist and to the Lee County Legislative Delegation headed by Rep. Gary Aubuchon asking that the state take firm steps to reduce fatalities in pedestrian and bicycle accidents by half.

Among other requests, the letters also insist that the Florida Department of Transportation hugely increase spending to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians. Since they account for 22 percent of all traffic fatalities in Florida, 22 percent of state funds should be spent to make roadways safe for them, argues BikeWalkLee. [Clarification from BWL: Our letter states that 22% of FDOT's safety funds (HSIP & Section 402) should be targeted to make the roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists.]

“We haven’t really had land-use planning here in the past, we’ve had road construction pushing development,” Ms. Letourneau surmises of the history.

But she expresses cautious optimism, especially since Lee County commissioners in November passed a “Complete Streets” resolution that could alter the way life works for pedestrians and bicyclists for ever after — and encourage many more to join their ranks.

“Complete Streets,” according to the written resolution, “are no more expensive than incomplete streets.”

The new resolution calls for county roads “to be planned, designed and operated to provide safe access for all users.”

There will be many more well marked paths, and major roads — the three most dangerous in the county are U.S. 41, Del Prado Boulevard in Cape Coral, and Palm Beach Boulevard in Fort Myers — will be retrofitted for safer travel on foot or bike.

“We now expect planners (at FDOT and LeeDOT, as well as in Collier and Charlotte counties) to think about something other than just moving cars fast and multi-lane or wide roads,” says Ms. Letourneau.

As it stands, now only parts of the puzzle are in place, she adds.

“From the cyclists’ perspective, it’s like, there are lots of pieces but they aren’t connected. Shoulders are often poor and sidewalks are even worse. Developers might have had to do a piece of it, so now you have pieces of sidewalks that aren’t connected, bus stops not connected to sidewalks, bus stops in a swale or the drainage ditch, and you can’t cross a road if it’s raining because you’re in the water.”

On many roads, a shoulder will come to an abrupt end, leaving the biker in traffic. Then it will resume somewhere down the road, she explains.

But a good shoulder is where bicyclists feel safest in lieu of a bike path, since once they’re in traffic they can be easily seen and Florida law requires drivers to give them at least three feet of clearance when passing.

So when a shoulder ends abruptly, the road becomes very dangerous, bicyclists say.

Ms. Letourneau moved to Sanibel Island after retiring from a federal government job in Washington, D.C. ,because “I could roll out of bed and bike the entire island, and get what I needed without getting in a car,” she says.

But it still isn’t perfect. “If Dan Moser hadn’t been there we wouldn’t even have shoulders,” she admits. (Mr. Moser, a longtime bike and pedestrian activist, also writes a column about biking for Florida Weekly.) [BWL note: this statement is referring to the Sanibel bridges.]

“And the worst part is that they spent $22 million on the toll booths — but they paid no attention to cyclists.” (The bidding process to remedy that opened last week, she adds. The likely cost: $500,000.)

In Naples, meanwhile, a plan to push a “greenways” bike path parallel to U.S. 41 all the way to Miami is now in the works, says Ms. Avola.

And in Charlotte County, where Punta Gorda itself received an award as a bicycle friendly town while the county around it took the honors as the most dangerous in Florida, a new plan to create a 15.2-mile loop around town is now on the planning board. With various access points, it will help riders or walkers reach shopping, parks and other attractions, notes Mr. Lang.

In all the changes to come, there’s a philosophic undercurrent about how and where we live, says MerriBeth Farnham, an official for Reconnecting Lee, and a Fort Myers resident.

“When I walk in the streets of my neighborhood, there are no sidewalks,” she explains. “When my daughter wants to practice riding her bike without training wheels, it’s ironic, but it’s safer to drive her to a park. Our streets need to be people friendly, not just focused on moving cars. It’s just not right that a parent has to act as a human shield against oncoming traffic whenever they want to walk with their child to a nearby store or park.”

Here’s what to do, suggests Ms. Farnham.

“The better solution involves planning that goes well beyond roadbuilding and puts people back into the picture — planning that promotes compact, walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented design.”

Notably, too, that kind of planning is economically smart, says Ms. Avola in Naples — and not just because injuries from accidents and the massive attendant costs go down.

“It’s been shown also that where there are sidewalks, and especially where you have them on both sides of the street, property values are higher,” she says.

“It’s easier to make five stops on your bike, too, than it is in your car. On your bike you can go for a coffee or a book or a few groceries — you can stop here and there with no trouble. But when people are in cars and traffic is a problem and parking is a hassle, you want to get in and out and do what you have to do in one place and be done with it.”

The way to create more liveable, pedestrian and bike-friendly communities is not only by providing bike paths, but by providing sidewalks that bicyclists don’t have to use.

“Sidewalk riders are dangerous to everyone,” says Mr. Lang in Punta Gorda. “And the other issue is green. If we want to reduce emissions and become green we have to have some kind of bicycle infrastructure that goes where we need to go. You can’t continue to plug in vulnerable users to a system where anybody not surrounded by 2,000 pounds of steel is in danger.”

Which is why Ms. Ferrell, in Lee County, moved downtown, where the redesigned Fort Myers city center includes not only bicycle friendly streets but shopping and other uses.

There, as in some other places, bicycles can be accepted as a mainstream part of the culture, she says.

“It’s most important now that cyclists finally become part of the mainstream,” she insists. “You learn when you’re mainstream that you don’t have to be part of some subculture” — you don’t have to buy fancy biking duds or expensive racing or mountain bikes, for example.

“Instead you can buy an urban upright bike and go down to the green market on Saturday,” says Ms. Ferrell.

Or just about anywhere else — at least, once the roads are made safe for walkers and bikers with paths and walks and ample signage, and a culture of respect between the operators of bicycles and motor vehicles arises.

“I went to a seminar and somebody told me that in Copenhagen, Denmark, people don’t think of themselves as ‘bike riders’ any more than they think of themselves as ‘bread eaters,’” Ms. Ferrell says. “Everybody eats bread. Everybody rides a bike.”

Perhaps that will prove to be a 21st century attitude on the southwest coast of Florida, too, someday. 

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