Jacksonville: Not so Driver-Friendly

May 30, 2008 11 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

A guest article by Michael Lewyn questioning whether Jacksonville is a driver-friendly or unfriendly city.

 Commentators on transportation policy sometimes write as if drivers and nondrivers are locked in a zero-sum game- that is to say, what benefits one group always hurts the other.  For example, I recently read a book that repeatedly referred to public transit and other pro-nondriver policies as “anti-automobile.”

But after driving for a year here in Jacksonville, I have discovered that policies designed to speed up automobile traffic are not good for all drivers all the time, even if they are bad for nondrivers.
For example, San Jose Blvd. (the main street of my Mandarin neighborhood) is up to nine lanes wide in some spots.  Such wide streets are of course obnoxious to pedestrians, who have to cross twice (once to the median, once from the median to the other side of the street) unless they are very fleet of foot indeed.

But is this sort of road good for drivers? Yes if you are a long distance commuter, just passing through San Jose to get to their exurban home in St. John's County.  But what if you actually want to shop on San Jose? Even if you know exactly what you are looking for, you have to plan your trip by getting in the center lane (if you know your shop is on the left).  Then you have to make a left turn across several lanes of fast-moving traffic.  Even if you are lucky enough to be looking for a shop on the right lane, you have to remember to get in the right line a few minutes in advance.

If you don't know where you are going you are much worse off - for example, if you've heard about some interesting shop or restaurant on San Jose. If San Jose is uncongested, you have to drive so fast in order to keep up with the traffic that it is very difficult to find the shop you are looking for and still not be crushed by someone else's vehicle. Often, you will have overshot your intended destination by the time you know where you are.

And if the roads are congested, you face another problem: even if you do not have to drive 50 mph to keep up with the traffic, you will have a difficult time switching lanes, because the lanes to the left and the right of you will be clogged with traffic.

By contrast, if streets were narrower you might not be able to drive as fast (bad news) but you could switch lanes to get to your destination more easily (good news) since there would be fewer lanes to cross.

Jacksonville also requires many shops to be set back 20 or more feet from the street. In some ways, this policy is good for drivers; driving is obviously less of a hassle if you can park in front of a shop.  But this policy too creates problems for drivers.  The further the shop is from the street, the less visible its street number is. So if you are searching for a small restaurant at 9854 San Jose Boulevard, and that restaurant is 20 or 30 feet from the street, you might not be able to see the shop’s address in time to switch lanes.

Our city also speeds up traffic by creating large numbers of right-turn lanes. These lanes are not particularly helpful for nondrivers, because they effectively widen the road.  But separate right-turn lanes can create problems for drivers as well. Jacksonville is full of turn lanes that end in some sort of concrete barrier. If you know exactly where to turn these barriers are safe; you know enough not to get into the turn lane until right before your destination. But if you are not intimately familiar with every inch of a commercial street (especially at night) the turn lanes turn driving into an adventure. Several times, I have gotten into a turn lane thinking I was in the right place to turn - but in fact I am turning one intersection too early. As a result, I almost ran into the concrete barrier.

Residential street design can also make Jacksonville driving an adventure.  In most neighborhoods built in recent decades, residential streets tend to be cul-de-sacs instead of grids- that is, no street connects with more than one or two other streets.  Even commercial streets do not always run from one end of town to another; for example, St. Augustine Road dead-ends at its intersection with San Jose Blvd. instead of running all the way from downtown to the county line.

Neighborhoods dominated by cul-de-sacs are good news for drivers in their role as homeowners: if your street only intersects with one other street, there will be fewer cars on it, and you will have less traffic noise to put up with.  But if every homeowner lives on a cul-de-sac, drivers have a problem. Suppose you live on a residential street in Mandarin, and are trying to reach your job in Baymeadows.  If Mandarin had the same kind of grid street network as Riverside, you would have a wide variety of routes to choose from.  But because of the predominance of cul-de-sacs, there is only one way to go north if you live in Mandarin:  you have to use San Jose Blvd. for at least some of your trip.  Because virtually all neighborhood trips are forced onto one street, that street can become highly congested during rush hour.   In sum, cul-de-sacs are like tax evasion: fun if you are the only person to do it, not so good if everyone else does it.
So is Jacksonville a driver-friendly city or a driver-unfriendly city?  Yes and yes- depending on where you want to drive and what time of day you are driving.

 Guest article by Michael Lewyn