Traffic on Southside Boulevard is nothing new. It backs up often and barely crawls at morning and evening rush hours, as drivers stifle the urge to let their road rage escape or distract themselves digitally — some more successfully than others.
But one recent morning, more than a dozen cars waited patiently for about 20 pedestrians to cross from The Avenues mall to a large wooded area hiding a retention pond across the street.
They were short, no more than 3 1/2 feet. They weren't using a crosswalk — not that one exists there, not even several yards north at the Deercreek Club Road light. And they weren't in a particular hurry.
Yet no drivers leaned on their horns to hurry them across. Some even smiled at the sight of this flock of Canada geese waddling across the four-lane divided boulevard, seemingly oblivious to the drivers' busy schedules or the danger lurking within those roaring, metal giants.
I wonder how patient those drivers would have been if it had been humans disrupting their routes.
Jacksonville doesn't have a good track record when it comes to vehicle-pedestrian relationships.
In fact, a 53-year-old man died in nearly the same spot on April 22, 2004, according to a database on Transportation for America as part of its 2011 "Dangerous by Design" report. Jacksonville ranked third in the nation's most dangerous metro areas for pedestrians. Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Miami-Fort Lauderdale took first, second and fourth on the list.
Nearly every day, police report pedestrians hit by vehicles in Northeast Florida. Many of the crashes are fatal. I've had a few close calls in my low-traffic neighborhood with distracted drivers who didn't look for a runner facing traffic even though there are no sidewalks.
Some pedestrians don't use crosswalks: They either find them inconvenient detours from their destinations, or they don't realize the added danger they face without them. I often encounter students on their way to school who dart across five lanes of Fort Caroline Road rather than walk a block or two to a light.
But even those who take precautions are not safe from drivers who aren't paying attention or who see a green light as a signal to go without using their eyes to see what's in front of them.
On Yom Kippur Sept. 13, Esther Ohayon, 57, and her 16-year-old daughter, Orly, were struck by a driver at the intersection of Haley Road and San Jose Boulevard. The mother was killed; the daughter lived.
Orthodox Jews usually live close to their synagogue so they can walk on the Sabbath. Because the Torah says after creating the Earth in six days, God rested on the seventh day, Jews are told they cannot work or create energy after sunset on Friday. That meant that the Ohayons could not push the crosswalk button that would extend the time from 11 seconds to 49.5 seconds to cross eight lanes of Friday night Mandarin traffic and a median.
The 66-year-old driver who hit the Ohayons, Michael Fortunato, had about 20 Duval County traffic citations. He hit and killed a 6-year-old girl a half-mile away a few years earlier.
Sprawling Northeast Florida — built on a backbone of car-dependent strip malls and suburban cul-de-sacs — is filled with dangerous intersections like these. Even in newer communities and shopping districts that should know better, pedestrian needs are often ignored. And if you ride the bus, assuming you can get where you want to go, you often face a daunting walk from the bus stop to your destination.
Our older core neighborhoods — Downtown Jacksonville, San Marco, Riverside-Avondale, Springfield — are easily walkable and include a mix of residential and commercial that should be emulated in newer areas. Imagine if the St. Johns Town Center and surrounding development had been envisioned as a pedestrian-friendly destination, where apartments and condominiums were built above stores and restaurants and structured around pedestrian-only roads with parking structures placed at the outside borders.
Jacksonville approved a mobility plan in 2011 that provides a framework for land development that takes all modes of transport — pedestrians, bicycles, transit and roads — into account and gives incentives to developers who embrace smart growth principles. It includes a mobility fee developers must pay: Projects further from the core that put more stress on infrastructure pay higher fees; infill and adaptive reuse projects could reduce or eliminate fees. The development community lobbied City Council to place a one-year moratorium on the collection of the mobility fee to help spur development. When that expired, a new compromise waiver was put in place in April that doesn't fund the mobility plan as it should.
So Jacksonville, like much of Florida, continues to be pedestrian-unfriendly.
Meanwhile, pedestrians should be aware they are walking some mean streets. And drivers: Even if a light is green, you must yield to pedestrians who are in the middle of crossing the street. It's the law, but it's also just common sense.
Back at Southside Boulevard, not all of those geese make it across safely. A few yards south lay a deadly reminder of what can happen when crossing the street: a goose carcass smeared on the asphalt.
It was a sad, sickening sight. But there's hope when that many people are willing to brake for a few geese.
Now if we can just get drivers to treat human pedestrians as well they treated those geese.