Jacksonville’s quest to make its streets less dangerous for walkers and bicyclists is expanding the use of what are called road diets to slim down the number of automobile lanes. But some residents aren’t willing to stick to the plans.
One such road diet, on Soutel Drive in northwest Jacksonville, is running into opposition from residents who say shrinking the number of lanes for cars would be a loss for the community.
“The only thing we want them to reduce is the crime rate,” neigbhorood leader Eunice Barnum said as she watched cars travel down Soutel Drive. “The people are not ready to reduce the road to three lanes.”
Barnum’s opposition to the road diet concept for Soutel Drive struck a chord with City Council member Terrance Freeman, who has scheduled a Sept. 4 town hall meeting for residents to sound off on what the city plans to do on a 3-mile stretch of Soutel.
The end result could be an early test of how widely Jacksonville uses road diets, which have gained favor nationally and are emerging in Jacksonville as a component of efforts to reduce bicycle and pedestrian fatalities that have plagued Jacksonville for years, landing the city on lists of the most dangerous places to walk.
Freeman’s town hall will take place as construction moves forward on a different road diet project on the downtown Southbank, slimming five-lane Riverplace Boulevard to three lanes. City Council member Lori Boyer strongly backs that conversion, saying a more pedestrian-oriented street will encourage growth of restaurants and stores in a landscape dominated now by office towers.
Mayor Lenny Curry’s proposed budget also contain $2.2 million to undertake a road diet for a stretch of Park Street in the Brooklyn neighborhood, a plan that grew out of a study done by the Downtown Investment Authority about making streets in fast-developing Brooklyn more friendly for walking and bicycling.
That study, done last year, also examined road diets for Riverside Avenue and Forest Street where they run through the Brooklyn neighborhood, but Park Street between Forest Street and Stonewall Street is the only one that made the cut for funding so far.
Freeman, whom Gov. Rick Scott appointed as District 10 council member while Reggie Brown faces federal charges, said he is gathering information and hasn’t taken a position yet on Soutel Drive. ”The voice of the residents is definitely resonating in my heart,” he said.
The city has funded $720,000 of the $6 million project so far. The remainder of the money would come from the city over the next two years, provided City Council supports the expense when it approves those budgets.
Freeman said the town hall meeting will show off designs for Soutel Drive and get feedback from residents who use the road on a daily basis.
“We want the road to be safer, but what are our options in doing this?” Freeman said. “I think once we get the community’s opinion and they take ownership in the project as well, we can come back with a project that everyone feels they had a say in, and it’s good for the community and the city.”
The idea for a road diet came out of a 2017 study by the city on creating a long-range bicycle and pedestrian plan.
Jacksonville has suffered for years from deadly roads. Last week, an 11-year-old middle school student died when he was struck while crossing five-lane University Boulevard in Arlington, the 101st traffic fatality in Jacksonville this year.
The bicycle-pedestrian study, which was done in 2017, found that more than 100 people die each year on Jacksonville roads. An average of 30 percent of the victims were walking or bicycling. That percentage is nearly double the 16-percent rate for traffic fatalities nationwide. The study noted that Smart Growth America’s annual report “Dangerous by Design” regularly shows Jacksonville as one of the most deadly for pedestrians. The most recent survey showed Jacksonville as the fourth-worst among 102 metropolitan areas based on fatalities per resident.
The classic design for a road diet entails taking a four-lane undivided road and reducing the automobile lanes to three lanes — one lane in each direction and a center lane for left-hand turns, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That reduction in automobile lanes enables other features such a wider sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and raised “pedestrian islands” in the middle of the road where pedestrians can safely pause while crossing the road if necessary.
The Federal Highway Administration says such changes also make the roads safer for motorists, reducing crashes by 19 to 47 percent.
But the concept typically faces concerns that businesses will be less accessible and that the reduction in automobile lanes will cause traffic congestion.
Barnum, who is president of the Sherwood Forest/Community Park Community Association, said road diets can work on some streets, but it’s the wrong fix for Soutel Drive.
“This is our business corridor,” she said. “We’re trying to bring business and traffic to the area.”
As for making room for bicyclist lanes on Soutel Drive, Barnum said, “Do you see anybody out here riding bicycles? I don’t hear anybody saying bicycles are what we’re in need of.”
She said one of the biggest problems for walking across Soutel is the long distance between signalized intersections. She said residents would support adding more designated crosswalks where beacons flash when people cross the road, alerting drivers. Those are part of the city’s plan for Soutel Drive.
Barnum said Soutel Drive also needs bright lighting at night by putting streetlights on both sides of the road, which is not part of the city’s plan.
“We’re still asking a lot of questions and seeking a lot of answers,” she said.
The town hall meeting about the Soutel Drive road diet is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. on Sept. 4 at the Legends Center, 5130 Soutel Drive.
David Bauerlein (904) 359-4581