What’s keeping Gainesville from becoming a more bike-friendly city?
Gainesville’s bicycle community is a bustling one. Ten-speeds, cruisers, mountain bikes and more zip around campus, traverse across town and tear up the trails.
The extremely active bike community has organized everything from participation in the worldwide bike movement, Critical Mass, since the ‘90s, to regular alley cat races since 2009. In 2013, Gainesville became one of three cities in the state to achieve a silver ranking from the League of American Bicyclists.
Despite its achievements, Gainesville isn’t resting on its laurels.The city, along with community organizations like the Gainesville Cycling Club, is working toward becoming the first gold standard community in the state, according to City Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls.
The League of American Bicyclists has a five-tiered system for ranking bike-friendly businesses, communities and universities. The ranking ranges from bronze to diamond, but to achieve a rank at all, communities must meet a detailed set of criteria. Doing this puts them on a competitive spectrum, ranking everything from safety to a general encouraging, bike-friendly atmosphere.
Gainesville, with its active bicycling clubs, advocacy groups and government support, is well on its way to the gold standard. This would put the city among the likes of San Francisco and Seattle.
The problem is money, said Roger Pierce, chief of staff of Gainesville Bicycling Club. Without funds available for bike projects, Gainesville can’t implement facilities and programs that would make the city eligible for a higher ranking. For example, Gainesville does not have paid staff on hand to handle bike affairs, which is a requirement for a gold standard.
“Resources are scarce,” Pierce said. “We are backlogged approaching half a billion dollars. That’s a lot of money. It’s going to take generations to get out of that hole.”
Hinson-Rawls echoed Pierce’s concern. One solution, she said, is to institute a one percent sales surtax to fund transportation projects for Moving Alachua County Forward. Five percent of these projects would improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The eight-year tax is part of the Nov. 4 election, and if passed, will take effect Jan. 1.
“We really need to pass this sales tax here in November or we’re never going to get out of that hole,” Pierce said. “Every time we don’t pass one of these, the number goes up by $100 million it seems.”
However, Hinson-Rawls, head of Gainesville’s Public Works Committee, said she wants to avoid putting pressure on taxpayers. She has been seeking solutions to fund bike projects without relying on a tax.
“Bikers need what they need, but they should be able to get it without overburdening taxpayers,” she said. “People are homeless. People are trying to stay in their homes. People are trying to keep their lights on.”
However, her most recent effort brought enormous backlash from the bike community. Early this year she proposed a program that involved mandatory bike registration, which had been successfully enforced in Fort Lauderdale, Daytona Beach and Saint Petersburg, Hinson-Rawls said. With this system, citizens would pay a fee to register their bikes, which she said would improve safety and generate money.
In September, after a scathing Gainesville Sun article, angry emails and disapproval from her fellow commissioners, Hinson-Rawls withdrew the proposal, bringing the city back to square one.
Pierce said the proposal was impractical to begin with, in part because of the transcontinental bike route that runs down 39th Avenue. Had the proposal gone through, Pierce said, anyone from outside Gainesville who travels the route would be subject to citation.
“All studies show that mandatory registration … barely generates enough revenue to pay for the registration process,” Pierce said. “It doesn’t generate any revenue to do anything else … it just puts a big burden on the people who have to comply with it.”
Another solution, Hinson-Rawls said, is to increase civil citations for bikes. Indeed, bicycle violations have increased from 126 in 2013 to 287 so far this year, according to GPD records. The fees go toward future bike projects while also promoting bike safety, Hinson-Rawls said.
Sgt. Jamie Kurnick of the Gainesville Police Department agreed and said citations also promote education.
“Each citation is really a prevention,” she said. “It is often the first time a cyclist becomes aware of bicycling rules.
Pierce also agreed more citations would help the city. If someone is riding on the wrong side of the road, putting both pedestrians and drivers at risk, he or she should get a ticket, he said. However, Pierce said tickets should not be given out frivolously, but with proper discretion to promote safety for everyone who uses roadways and sidewalks.
“If it’s done right, giving out tickets is a good thing,” he said. “It can get out of hand if done wrong.”
Pierce said that two years ago, one of his friends was ticketed for taking his hands off his bars to zip up his hoodie on a deserted campus road.
“Something totally, absolutely ridiculous like that,” he said.
Though the city has worked with GPD in this way, the three necessary components of police, government and community groups have yet to come together to form a unified whole. When told about The Kickstand, a local nonprofit bike organization, Kurnick reacted with surprise and expressed interest in working with members.
Gainesville has also had poor communication with the community as a whole, which has resulted in a loss of much-needed money. For example, in 2013 the city launched a costly initiative that reduced the number of lanes along Eighth Avenue to create bike lanes, Hinson-Rawls said. But a study done later showed only 25 percent of bikers actually used the lanes.
In an attempt to avoid similar situations, Gainesville recently created openGNV, a section of the city’s website created to improve transparency and strengthen communication between local government and the community.
By providing resources like repositories of data and statistics, engageGNV, an offshoot of the program, allows citizens to participate in town hall meetings through email and comments. Citizens can discuss specific problems and areas they would like to see improved. The comments go directly to city officials. Each topic is open for comment over a set period of time.
Currently, citizens can select bicycle parking or walking/bicycling to discuss. These particular topics will be open for comment until Nov. 27.
Depending on the outcome of the surtax this November and increased transparency with openGNV, Gainesville could be on the road to being the first gold-ranked city in Florida. But unless everyone is on the same page, Gainesville’s stuck in a rut.
“I think we’re all doing good things,” Kurnick said. “I just think everyone needs to become aware of what those things are.”