In his popular TED Talk, author Jeffrey Speck says, “The worst idea we’ve ever had is suburban sprawl…By that I refer to the reorganization of the landscape and the creation of the landscape around the requirement of automobile use.” He points out that at one time, having a car signified freedom, but now it is simply a necessity for most Americans. We are dependent on our automobiles, and this is especially true of many First Coast residents. Without a car, it can be a challenge simply to get to the grocery store.

When Speck recently visited Jacksonville, he felt like he was traveling into “the belly of the beast.” As an urban planner and author of Walkable City, Speck is very outspoken about creating sustainable cities and towns and advocating for pedestrian-friendly communities. Although he feels downtown Jacksonville has “good bones,” he says that the city’s practice of continuously developing outward is troublesome.

In an op-ed piece published in the Florida Times-Union, Michelle Tappouni, Chair of the Jax2025 Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Task Force, wrote, “Jacksonville ranked 49th out of 51 major US cities for bicycle safety and had the second-highest pedestrian fatality rate. Only Orlando and Tampa were rated as more dangerous than Jacksonville…it goes without saying what state was rated at the bottom.”

So why are cities like Jacksonville so unwalkable and so unsafe for cyclists? Designing communities around cars definitely accounts for it, but some believe that it’s an attitude. Tappouni says, “a major difference between Jacksonville and the nation’s safest cities for cyclists and pedestrians is the absence of a culture that emphasizes awareness, understanding and empathy.”

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Culture or Design?

“It’s not cultural; it’s mainly design,” argues Steve Tocknell, First Coast Chair of the American Planning Association. “People say, ‘well, this is the culture of Jacksonville.’ But it’s just how most of the state is laid out. This could be London if you laid the streets out right.”

While Tocknell’s background is in transportation planning, he’s also the First Coast Chapter Director of the Florida Bicycle Association. Currently, he’s working with the Riverside Avondale Preservation, Inc., (RAP), and the 5 Points Merchants’ Association to further improve the pedestrian experience in the Five Points area of Riverside.

At his office in downtown Jacksonville, Tocknell tells me that the city of Jacksonville Beach clearly illustrates his point about the significance of design. He quickly sketches out a simple map of the area. If you divided Jacksonville Beach into four quadrants, using Beach Boulevard and 3rd Street (A1A) to divide the sections, you would see that one of the areas is very pedestrian friendly. “Everybody is walking and riding bicycles up here,” he says pointing to the northeast quadrant. “People are driving in the other three sections.”

The difference is simply in the design: all of the blocks north of Beach and east of A1A are very short and everything is gridded out, whereas big subdivisions, fewer entrances and long blocks dominate the other sections. Long blocks, he says, are a major deterrent to walkability.

This is a crucial point. Florida tends to be unsafe for pedestrians because the state’s roads have fewer access points to the highways and main roads. “A block shouldn’t be more than about 600 feet long and we have blocks that are 1,000 feet long.” The roads just go on and on without opportunities for walkers and bikers to cross safely. Take Baymeadows Road as an example, Tocknell suggests. Between Southside and I-295 there are very few cross streets. “It’s one continuous sidewalk. How are you supposed to safely cross the road? It’s almost impossible.”

On the other hand, Jacksonville also has few pockets of exemplary design. “You don’t have to be familiar with Chicago or New York to appreciate what Jacksonville has in terms of walkable urban neighborhoods,” Tocknell says. In 2010 the American Planning Association designated Riverside-Avondale as one of the Top Ten Great Neighborhoods as part of their Great Places in America program.

Learn more about the new Unity Plaza development at Riverside 220 and what it is bringing to the urban core.

A Model of Walkability

Riverside is a good place to start when it comes to walkability and urban planning; just look at the plans for the 220 Riverside Avenue apartment community and the Unity Plaza urban park. Slated to open in late 2014, Unity Plaza will be a Central and Performing Arts Park situated within the 220 Riverside Avenue development.

Unity Plaza Executive Director Jen Jones agrees with Tocknell’s theory about good design. “We also have to fill in the gaps to connect the community in order to make pedestrian and bicycle traffic safe and viable…creating a walkable and bike-able core in and around Downtown Jacksonville is central to the development of small business and sustainability of social activity, commerce and health.” Jones says.

“The leadership of Unity Plaza will continually be advocates for increased walkability. As NAI Hallmark Partners separately continues to create work/live/play environments in the core, they will be intentionally building walkable and bike-able infrastructure.”

As former president of the Avondale Merchants’ Association, Jones was already involved in shaping a walkable city. She says, “We revisioned and restored the merchant district and massively overhauled its marketing campaign to both support and attract walkers and bicyclists, which raised the profitability of the neighborhood.”

In terms of bike-friendly options, Jones shares the latest news about an innovative program that will soon be available in Jacksonville: bike-sharing. “Jacksonville is ideal to be connected through a bikesharing system by virtue of its grid streets and the road widths that can be harnessed into lanes…The bikeshare station locations will overlay the historic streetcar lines with the cultural institutions, the Skyway hubs, as well as obvious city assets such as our stadiums, major corporations and Unity Plaza.”

Public Transit

Public transit is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving walkability, especially in a city with such a large land mass. Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nat Ford agrees, and acknowledges that our bus system does not reflect the major residential development that has happened far beyond the urban core in the last thirty years.

“For the last twenty to thirty years we’ve had the same route structure, but downtown looks a lot different (now); there has been a lot of development outside the core city, and so we’re doing a once-in-a-generation route restructure.” Ford says this fall there will be a total restructuring of the bus system. His vision for the very near future is a “vibrant downtown, a transportation network that includes public transit, cars, bicycles and pedestrians, and a healthy core city.”

He also plans for the Skyway to be a fixture. “It’s clearly part of our operation; it was just built well before its time.” In April, JTA applied for a TIGER grant (the US Government’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) to expand the Skyway to Riverside, a plan that would enhance Unity Plaza and make the park more accessible to the rest of the city. Jen Jones has been working closely with JTA on this. She says, “The Skyway Expansion plan will add a new Skyway station adjacent to the existing maintenance facility.” It will complement the system by connecting the west side to the downtown area, and help to facilitate the bikeshare program.

Although Skyway development has been criticized in the past, the new JTA administration has openly embraced new plans for the system. Since making the Skyway free of charge, the ridership has doubled, and what JTA lost in fare, they have earned back in advertising, according to JTA’s Bill Milnes. During One Spark 2014 ridership was the highest it has been since the Super Bowl.

Solutions

So how do we make things more walkable outside of the urban core? “Part of it will have to be market-driven,” says Steve Tocknell. “The trend is that people do want to move to places like this, as opposed to 30 or 40 years ago when residents valued space and privacy over walkability, so I think the market will begin to favor places like Riverside and Avondale and slowly other communities will begin to make changes.”

Steve Rankin, JCCI Program Director and member of the Jax 2025 Bicycle Pedestrian Task Force, explains that after finishing up their work in December the task force reported significant efforts that will position Jacksonville as a more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly community.

In addition, the city has recently hired its first full-time Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, Denise Chaplick. Michelle Tappouni says, “She is charged with coordinating all issues related to bicycle and pedestrian use, as well as reviewing and recommending improvements in high priority areas throughout Jacksonville deemed the least bicycle and pedestrian-friendly.” But, she adds, “There is no doubt that public support and policy are key and necessary ingredients in making our community safer for cyclists and pedestrians.”