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A community stands against the city council and stands “up” for cyclist and pedestrian needs

October 12, 2012

The past few days were laced with equal parts hope, desperation, and that feeling you get way down in the pit of your stomach similar to the anticipation of asking someone out on a first date – you’re excited and your mind is abuzz with the possibilities, but you’re also battling tooth and nail with the fears of rejection.

Last Tuesday, the Jacksonville City Council held the first of their biweekly public hearings of the month. Before you begin nodding off, or for that matter, running for the hills over the subject of politically-charged atmospheres notorious for shunning the cycling advocate, please continue reading. The “hope” aspect of what’s been churning within my stomach may have more resilience than futility after all.

I know many of you let your voice be heard at a very similar meeting last year, only to be served with a pretty hefty helping of disappointment. But this year’s meeting embodied two significant differences – 1) There were even more cyclists and more non-cyclists-but-pro-mobile-fee-individuals represented, and 2) and here’s the real kicker, we weren’t too late this time.

The bastards didn’t sneak it past our radars this year. The only reason we were too late with our argument last year is because the council treated the mobility pool of money much like how an iron-fisted boss would treat someone lower on the totem pole of corporate greed – unimportant, dispensable, a peon. Last year, they withheld 100% of the bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure funding (the mobility fee) for what they lovingly called “an emergency” which supposedly “justified” the act of pulling these funds, not only right out of our pockets but right out from under our noses. Their theory for suppressing the mobility fee was that it was supposed to be an incentive to help grow businesses and build new buildings by ridding regulations of said new businesses which the mobility fees tend to implement.

I cannot think of a better quote in response to such a theory than the words of Mr. Sidney Wang of Murder by Death:

Sidney Wang: Very interesting theory, Mr. Charleston. However, leave out one important point.

Dick Charleston: What’s that?

Sidney Wang: IS STUPID! Is stupidest theory I ever heard!

Guess what happened during the year these business-growing incentives took place? “Not much”. You can find that quote right here from the Times Union. Not. Much.

You see, folks. Jacksonville, amongst the high murder rates, the high pedestrian and cyclist fatality rates, and low public education ratings has another pretty serious problem. It’s called urban sprawl. Jacksonville administration: Say this out loud with me, kiddies. Urrrrrrbaaaaaan Sprrraaaawwwwl. Instead of trying to give people more incentive to build out… and out… and out and out and out, ignoring preexisting buildings, clearing more acres of trees, and kicking Downtown in the nuts while it’s already down, how about not doing that. Try preserving our precious mobility fees to make the urban core more attractive for new businesses and preexisting businesses alike by promoting common urban core staples such as, oh I dunno, walkability and bikability? Try building up. Boy, you really know how to put the “down” in Downtown Jax, councilmen.

I arrived at the meeting at about 5:30pm, walked through the double doors and immediately spotted several cyclist colleagues sitting in the audience. However, the crowd was largely unfamiliar to me. The hearing began with a multitude of other cases of which the council previously reviewed, conjuring up their own conclusions, the future of some poor sap’s case hanging by the thread of a simple yea or nay.

After the voting, the council addressed the mobility fee moratorium and announced that there will be no voting on that particular issue that night, but all are welcome to approach the podium with their two-minute arguments regarding that case or any other case.

One by one, individuals approached the council. Again and again, each argument pertained to the vehement opposition to the moratorium. Stephen Tocknell, Chairman of the Jacksonville Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee then approached the podium. He wore a charming little plaid bow tie, blazer, and pinned upon his lapel, a wire bicycle pendant. He presented his case like all the others prior with one unique interactive difference. He asked all those in favor of sunsetting the moratorium to please stand up. To my surprise and heart-warming delight, the majority of the audience stood up, quietly pensive as we glared at the council members.

At once it went from a largely unfamiliar audience to an endearing fellowship.

More and more of my colleagues approached the podium. Another highlight speech was presented by Bert Shaw of the NFBC. Bert, the ornery old firecracker that he is, held no punches as per his usual. He spoke with passion, he spoke with proven statistics of which he had on paper and handed over to the council, he spoke with a skillful balance of diplomacy and subtle but biting condescension, and he closed with an applause-worthy statement of which the audience cheered, clapped, hooted, and hollered.

Still more approached the podium, many of whom are cyclists, but many of whom are against the moratorium for other reasons: There were business owners of the urban core that shamed the council for trying to give incentives to those who don’t even live in Jacksonville and have no intention of building within the urban core while current business owners are already hurting. There were representatives from several urban-core and/or historic preservation organizations who shamed the council for continuing to ignore the importance of making these areas walkable and bikeable. There were pedestrian advocates who reminded the council of how dangerous these streets are for everyone, not just those riding upon or within vehicles. There were Downtown advocates who guilted the council for, well… kicking Downtown in the nuts… again.

Reluctantly, I had to leave early, but stayed as long as I could get away with. I was glad I did.

The grandest highlight of the evening, even after all that, was Carmen Godwin’s daughter. But first Carmen. She got up to speak on behalf of the Riverside Avondale Preservation Society. She kept it short and to the point, explaining that the organization already wrote the Council a letter, but she ended her speech with a pretty striking comment and gaze. Paraphrased: “If you choose to vote against sunsetting the moratorium, at least give us some fair warning this time”. That final sentence was followed by the most sincere look. No one else paused for as long as she did after their speeches to just simply look the council, the silence deafening.

Then Carmen’s daughter. Oh precious one! She insisted she also speak. With pre-written speech clutched in tiny hand, she pep-stepped up to that panel of council people as if she’d been doing it for years. Paraphrased points such as “my brother and I walk to school where there are no sidewalks” to “my family and I love to ride bikes all the time” to “I really wish it were safer to walk and ride bikes on these streets”. It was perfect. Carmen has a full family and they own cars, but she chose to take on a personal challenge by riding these notoriously dangerous streets every single day for a year, never using a car. She reached that goal like a boss. It’s no wonder her daughter was especially empathetic toward the issue of funding for better infrastructure – her mom is out there all the time.

At the end of her speech, another round of much-deserved applause.

Soon after, I got up to leave, making sure to let that little girl know how awesome she is and how proud I am of her.

The pride I feel for this cycling community is ever-present, but this night, just like the same night last year, filled up that pocket of pride to the brim, fueling this fire with another much needed douse of hope. To all who came and showed support of killing this damnable moratorium, I thank you so much and I’m so proud of each and every one of you who had enough guts to show up, stand up, fill out comment cards, write letters to the council, and speak on behalf of your community.

I sincerely hope these feelings do not get squelched by yet another year of rejection by the decision-makers of this city.

October 19th the Jacksonville City Council will make their decision on whether or not to allow this moratorium to beeline its way to Hell’s gate.

We’ll keep you posted.

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