The road to fear
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The road to fear

Apr 19, 2023

Christine Acosta has spent a decade advocating for safer streets and improved mobility in Tampa, a city long criticized for its car-centric planning, slim transit offerings and traffic-clogged roadways. A board member of nonprofit Walk Bike Tampa, Acosta founded her business Pedal Power Promoters in 2014 to spearhead bicycle-friendly initiatives in the Tampa Bay Area.

She knows that, by many metrics, she is navigating a region, state and country often hostile to those who walk and bike.

Nationwide bicyclist fatalities continued their decade-long climb in 2021, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. More cyclists died on American roads in 2021 than any year since 1975.

People are killed while riding bicycles in all 50 states, but the five states with the most deaths account for more 50% of deaths: Florida, California, Texas, New York and Arizona. The Sunshine State has the highest rate of bicyclists killed per capita, more than twice the rate of the next worst-performing state, California.

Still, Acosta remains hopeful.

May is National Bike Month, promoted by the League of American Bicyclists and celebrated in communities from coast to coast for more than 60 years. Acosta spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about the promise and perils of Tampa's roads, and how the city's streets could be safer for all. This conversation has been lightly edited.

The quality of the city staff excites me. They really are advancing at a faster pace now, building out a connected grid across the city. And of course, the e-bike voucher program is very exciting. The voucher program will help the city advance mobility options for a lot of people.

The city has built some good stuff but it is not well connected. It's almost like being in a beautiful place, like a tropical island, and then all of a sudden you’re at a cliff — in real peril, in real danger. And almost all of those cliffs are state roads and county roads. Nobody wants to ride on those, but we at least need to be able to cross them.

Hillsborough, Dale Mabry — you name it, frankly any state and county road. Those are the monsters and the dragons we have to slay. Nobody wants to ride on them. They people who get hurt there wish they didn't have to be there. But there are not enough alternatives right now.

Well there are too many possibilities, but let me tell you what the characteristics are. They’re low-traffic neighborhood streets that are typically parallel and nearby the state monsters. What we need to do is help people cross those horrible roads and the rider in a neighborhood for the next mile or two of their journey. These small neighborhood greenways, or sometimes they’re called bike boulevards, is where we have slow traffic and few cars and we can slow the traffic through, frankly, paint and bollards. This is where we need to aim, we don't need really big expensive infrastructure except where we need to cross these horrible roads.

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I say more and faster. That's a good example, it was a gap that was outstanding for many years so I’m delighted that it's there. I use it 10 times a week. Before I had to go up on a cracked, crumbling sidewalk dodging utility wires. I’m delighted that it is there and I’m delighted at the model they are using. But I think everyday citizens might ask: Well, if we have a quick build model now, why aren't we doing everything quick build? Why is there still a category of slow build?

The Cass Street Bridge is a much enhanced connection to the Riverwalk and the business districts. For years the city has also been saying that they want to connect the two primary business districts — Westshore and downtown. Right now, the Cass cycle track terminates at Rome. Say you were going westbound from downtown, you would terminate at Rome. Then, if you wanted to go south, say to Hyde Park, you lose the Rome buffered bike lane. I think that's a pretty good bike lane. It is very wide and there's a lot of stop signs along Rome so the traffic is not moving too fast. It is comfortable for most people. You can tell if it is comfortable if people are in the bike lane or on the sidewalk. If they’re on the sidewalk, they’re not comfortable — and you’ll see that along Cass Street even.

But when I travel south on Rome, I get to Kennedy Boulevard and it's awful there. It's a state road. At the intersection you have to push a button to get the walking signal, and you can't reach it from the bike lane. So there are these tiny nuances that we haven't perfected yet. And then there's no bike facility for the next two blocks to get to Platt or Cleveland. There's a lot of chaos there.

So it's like I’m in heaven, I’m in a delightful, safe state of mind when I’m on that Rome bike lane. Then I’m at the cliff when I’ve got to cross Kennedy and I can't reach the push button.

There’re problem spots that can be resolved with paint and bollards, and the city should program the signals to include the walk phase automatically. All the lights should have an automatic rotation on the walk signal. Some cities are eliminating the push buttons altogether. The devices are expensive. An automatic rotation of the walk signal trains motorists, too.

Let's get started.