Southwest Florida's Deadly Streets
BY ROGER WILLIAMS
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 places for pedestrians and bicyclists in America 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 refers to the tradition of designing 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 Port Charlotte are helping pave a path to change via groups such as the Naples Pathways Coalition, BikeWalkLee, Reconnecting Lee and the Coastal Cruisers Bicycle Club.
Ms. Ferrell, an architect who now WalkLee, 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.
“I got hit by a truck when I was finishing a 400-mile bike ride,” he explains about his motivation for urging Charlotte County leaders to change their view of transportation essentials.
In Ms. Ferrell’s case, she was using 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 warned drivers to beware of pedestrians and bicyclists.
What happened next was cataclysmic.
Ms. Ferrell got the go-ahead signal and started into the intersection. When a friend screamed a warning, she tried to get back but failed. She was hit 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.
That was in 2003, and Ms. Ferrell still suffers the effects. 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.”
She continues to ride and encourages other adults to do the same thing. “The main reasons I ride are that it’s fun, it’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s simple and it’s very convenient.”
Ms. Ferrell was lucky. Others, however, have not been so fortunate.
A few months ago in Naples, Ms. Avola says, a bicyclist riding on a sidewalk near Goodlette Road and Fifth Avenue North was hit by a truck leaving the parking lot of a convenience store. 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,” says says
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, she notes.
In communities across the country where cyclists are embraced and people look out for them, things are different, she says.
In St. Petersburg, Fla., 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 of blood but of money.
When a pedestrian or a bicyclist is killed, the economic cost 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 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.
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 exciting for Ms. Ferrell and 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 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.
“We haven’t really had land-use planning here in the past, we’ve had road construction pushing development,” Ms. Letourneau surmises. 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 — and encourage many more to join their ranks.
“Complete Streets,” according to the written resolution, “are no more expensive than incomplete streets.” It calls for county roads “to be planned, designed and operated to provide safe access for all users.”
“We now expect planners (at FDOT and Lee DOT, 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, only parts of the puzzle are in place, she adds.
Ms. Letourneau moved to Sanibel Island after retiring from a federal government job in Washington, D.C. She decided on Sanibel, she says, because “I could roll out of bed and bike the entire island, and get what I needed without getting in a car.”
But it still isn’t perfect.
“They spent $22 million on the toll booths, but they paid no attention to cyclists,” she says about the new Sanibel Causeway. (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 in the works, Ms. Avola says.
And in Charlotte County, where Punta Gorda 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 on the planning board.
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 says. “When my daughter wants to practice riding her bike without training wheels... 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, Ms. Farnham suggests:
“The better solution involves planning that goes well beyond road-building and puts people back into the picture — planning that promotes compact, walkable neighborhoods and transitoriented 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 that where there are sidewalks, and especially where you have them on both sides of the street, property values are higher,” she says.
Also, she says, “It’s easier to make five stops on your bike, too, than it is in your car.
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.”
Which is why Ms. Ferrell moved to downtown Fort Myers, where the redesigned city center includes bicycle friendly streets as well as 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,” she says.
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 someday that will prove to be a 21st century attitude on the southwest coast of Florida, too.