Commuter story: Bicycling to work in Tampa

Editor's note: The Florida Department of Transportation, District 7, in partnership with the New North Transportation Alliance, the Tampa Downtown Partnership, and the Westshore Alliance kicked off a five-month campaign called Tampa Bay Commuters in February that highlights a different mode of transportation each month. 83 Degrees asked Christine Acosta, a local transportation advocate and Founder of Pedal Power Promoters, to keep a journal of her commute as part of  #commuterchallenge19 with the theme “fall in love with your commute.” Here is what she wrote:

Biking along with the Ybor riders at Bayshore Trail.I began bicycle commuting during the Great Recession while attending classes at Hillsborough Community College. To academics, I was something called “non-traditional,” a student pursuing a long-postponed bachelor's degree in my late 40s. To this day I am grateful to HCC for granting me bike-commuter access to the women’s locker room, which was normally for use only by the school’s athletes.

Years later, after graduating from the University of Tampa, where I also had bike-commuter privileges, I started a social enterprise, Pedal Power Promoters. The business works with public and private organizations on a variety of initiatives, all aimed at improving bicycle friendliness.

While I often ride my bike from my home office to business meetings and life’s daily activities, this week I made a special effort in honor of Commuter Challenge Week.

Many people, including my friends and family, are frightened by what is reported often about Tampa Bay Area’s dangerous roadway conditions for bicyclists. There is truth to those reports; however, it is possible to safely ride and enjoy being a bicycle commuter in Tampa. Having been one for 10+ years, I take my safety very seriously and will share some of my safety tips within the diary below.

In addition to riding in Tampa, I have ridden bicycles in 22 cities in 8 countries. I do this out a deep love of riding, and as a way to feel immediately connected to the city that I’m visiting. Some of the cities I’ve pedaled are places where a large percentage of the population bikes as a normal course of everyday life. I strive to model my own behavior, wardrobe, and attitude after places like Amsterdam. It is my vision that Tampa Bay will continue to grow in bicycle friendliness, and become a world-class place for bicycle commuters.

Preparation and essential gear:

1. Shoes with heel straps -- I dress for the purpose of my ride, a business meeting, dining out, going to the grocery store, etc., not the ride itself, including my shoes. So, they’re fashionable, but they have to stay on my feet should I stop suddenly, or worse, fall. 

2. Gloves -- I know I’m going to fall down at some point! No sense getting gravel-palms. Plus, my gloves prevent my age spots from getting sun!

3. Fully charged front and rear lights -- Using my USB rechargeable lights all day every day keeps me visible to motorists.

4. Side/rearview mirror -- This is the most important safety feature on my bike. I have a constant awareness of vehicles coming A wall of cars can be seen approaching in bicycle's rearview mirror.from behind. When I sense they do not see me or may pass too closely, I wave my arm or do a slight zig-zag to get their attention. After I make this kind of motion, drivers are much more likely to pass me with more than the state-required 3 feet; more slowly too.
5. Water, nutrients, or a good plan to get them.

6. An awesome playlist! Great music makes my rides that much more fun. Rest assured, I never wear earbuds!

7. Check the weather, check the weather, check the weather.
Bicycle commuting journalDay 1: 11.84 miles, 1 hour 16 minutes

9:07 a.m. -- Departing home in South Tampa for downtown, heading for drivers license and tag renewal at County building. No matter how carefully I plan my routes, there are inevitably portions that are not very bike friendly. Most days, that’s a few blocks on Howard Avenue. Fortunately, a new traffic light feature, called a Leading Pedestrian Interval, enables pedestrians and bicyclists to go a few seconds before cars. The short headstart means I’m a block ahead of the drivers that may follow too close. I can make my turn to go east on Bristol Avenue without slowing folks down too much. Then it’s north on Albany Avenue, where I use a crosswalk with a signal at Swann Avenue, and up to Platt Street.

Most cyclists I know won’t consider riding in the buffered bike lanes on Platt and Cleveland Street. I don’t blame them. It took me a while to get comfortable along there because of the car speeds -- much faster than the posted 35 mph. Another factor that is somewhat nerve-wracking is that cars come in big waves, like a fleet tsunami. This is because we have a light grid of intersections, rather than roundabouts, which keep traffic flowing more stretched out.

From Platt Street, I turn north onto Plant Avenue, east on the Kennedy Bridge sidewalk, and connect to the Jackson Street Cycle Track, which is awesome!  I arrive at 9:30 a.m.; my trip took me 21 minutes, door-to-door.

Even though I forgot my proof of insurance, the fine folks at the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles are able to confirm my policy online and allow me to renew my tag and my driver’s license. Bicycle commuter tip: use the hand dryer in the restroom to fluff your helmet hair for your photo. You might feel silly, but hey, I’m talking about an important photo that will be around for a long time!
Happened across the Ybor riders, a great group of boys with 2 leaders enjoying Bayshore Trail.Speaking of hair, my next appointment is with my hairdresser Maria’s on Henderson. I return mostly by reversing my route, except I use Cass Street westbound to leave downtown. (I’ve found east on Kennedy Boulevard does not work well.) From Cass, I go south on North Boulevard, where I’m delighted to see construction and obstruction of the bike lane through The University of Tampa is almost complete! In general, I am very comfortable on this stretch because cars are very slow-moving due to student crossings that force frequent stops for drivers.

In minutes I’m back on Morrison Avenue, which I use to go west to Sterling Avenue, then south to Neptune Street. Crossing Dale Mabry Highway requires careful planning and execution. I have found the intersection at Neptune to be the least horrible, although crossing The Dale also puts a cyclist into a much more car-centric zone, one in which motorists seem more agitated at having to spare my life. Fortunately, the Dale Mabry and Neptune piece of my journey is less than a minute, and shorter than 2 blocks until I’m on Church Street, southbound to San Miguel Street, which takes me directly to Maria’s salon. Downtown Tampa to Henderson at San Miguel takes me 34 minutes.

I had planned to get lunch downtown, but Maria wanted me to come early, so once I’m at her place I treat myself to a delicious So Fresh lunch via Uber Eats. Life is good!

Next, I’m due on a conference call. My plan is to join the call at my home office, but I am really pedaling hard to make that happen. A key safety principle I deploy is to avoid rushing. A rushing bicycle commuter is in danger. Instead of making it home for the call, I detour to the Charles Fendig Library on Neptune. Afterward, I pop into Yogurtology, where I lie to myself about how healthy the ice cream substitute is, especially as I receive mostly a bowl of candy with a dollop of yogurt somewhere at the bottom. 

Day 2: 6.86 miles, 49 minutes 

8:03 a.m. -- Departing home for downtown Tampa Bank of America building. I try to leave earlier but my neighbor stops by for a quick hello. A rushing cyclist is a cyclist at risk! I take a slightly different route into the center of the city. This time I turn north from Platt onto Boulevard all the way to Cass Street. I use the bike lane on Cass until I get to the bridge where I divert onto the sidewalk. Entering the Cass Cycle Track at the Poe Garage is wonderful! Then I turn south on Tampa Street. Believe it or not, I love the bike lane on Tampa Street during rush hour. Despite it being in the dreaded “door swing” zone, I get to zip past all the backed up motorists looking for parking. Peak congestion means slow-moving vehicles, so it’s easier and safer to avoid obstacles in the bike lane, for instance, a Brinks truck today. It’s funny to me that it’s OK to keep money safe while putting cyclists at risk!

This day I pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a late breakfast following my 8:30 a.m. meeting. The rest of my day is a work-at-home day, but I do have errands to do: banking and the post office, which I am able to do downtown.

A bonus to biking: I can extend my time downtown without worry about paying additional parking fees or getting a ticket. Today, I choose a quiet coffee spot for my PB&J before riding the 3 miles home. 

I decide to use Bayshore Boulevard on my return from downtown to South Tampa so I can check the status of ongoing bicycle The Bayshore to Riverwalk connector under construction.
and ADA ramp construction. This is a major connector for people coming from South Tampa connecting to the Tampa Riverwalk, and its construction has been very disruptive. It looks like it won’t be much longer until it’s finished.

To my delight, I happen across a fun-loving group of boys with leaders biking the Bayshore Trail. They call themselves casually Ybor riders. I pull ahead to take their pictures. Then I have to ride fast to catch up to their leader and give him my contact information for sharing the photos. What a blast!  

Day 3: 7.57 miles, 52 minutes

Today I commute by driving and biking. This is often the case for covering the entire region for my work. I prepare my essential bike gear early this morning. I recharge my bike lights and plan my outfit. I drive in my car to St. Petersburg to meet with the folks who run Trip’s Diner there. I appreciate the manager’s observations and testimonial about the new buffered bike lanes on MLK Street! Then I drive back over to Tampa, to my pre-loaded bike basket, including a healthy lunch. 

Pedal and picnic for me today! I ride to the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts to teach bicycle safety. The group there is super-excited about the growing bike culture in Tampa! It is extremely inspiring to me to hear so many people talk about their joy of cycling, and their desire to move about the city or their neighborhoods on a bike. This is Culture shift with a capital C. I co-present with the Tampa Downtown Partnership’s Alana Brasier, who frames the conversation by explaining that our city is growing and so too must our transportation mode options. (Since this story was originally published, Brasier has left the Partnership and moved on to Kittelson & Associates, Inc.) 

The Straz’s Chief Operating Officer Lorrin Shepherd explains that The Straz is applying for Bicycle Friendly Business certification. “The number of visitors and residents downtown is growing exponentially, and some of our employees live within several miles and commute by bike, so we are working to better accommodate cyclists,'' Shepherd says. "The knowledge of bike safety is important to us and we will share it with our entire staff.”  

Next, I head to West River Flats, an apartment complex on West Spruce Street. I ride north along the Riverwalk, past Armature Works, and west on Main Street.

The West Tampa redevelopment master plan only exists on paper right now, so riding along Main Street and Rome Avenue is OK, but not great. The streets are very wide, but there is no delineation between bike space and car space. It’s a super fun area when the schools are letting out, lots of kids and lots of parents. Riding home is event-free except for a big truck that just had to get to the intersection ahead of me, and therefore races past me at a very high speed. The vehicle distance is ample, but the speed and loud volume are a little unsettling. 

Day 4: 3.86 miles, 29 minutes

I am up late the night before, researching because I am heading to a destination I have biked to only once before, and I do not want to use the same route. I use Google to map my route. I click on the bike symbol, and bike routes appear. I notice the bike routes are improving all the time. I choose neighborhood streets with very little traffic, but crossing major arterials is always necessary, and often stressful, which is why I plan carefully and give myself plenty of travel time. Google predicts a 10-minute ride for the 1.7 miles, but I’m usually 50 percent slower! I think they have a lot of athletes upon which they base their estimates.

A check on the weather for the next morning shows a 50 percent chance of rain. I may have to abandon my bike plans.
But a check on the weather first thing in the morning reveals no rain predicted until later in the day. Yippee! I depart at 9 a.m. for a meeting near MacDill Avenue and Cypress Street, just under 2 miles. Thanks to my planning, it’s a delightfully comfortable and smooth trip on side streets, with pushbutton crossings at the busy Azeele Street and Kennedy Boulevard intersections. It’s just after peak commuter time and not a single motorist passes me. Bonus: I feel very connected to my community when I ride. Today I pass another schoolyard, and, unlike when I drive by, I actually hear the children playing!
Having returned home, I’m glad there is still no rain at 2 p.m., so I bike to lunch and pop in at the grocery store. Then, the wind. I often forget to consider that, but my windy lunchtime ride leaves me glad that I am done with my appointments for the day.

Day 5:

Only one morning appointment today, but it gets canceled. Truthfully, I would have driven to my destination due to rain. Thanks to sudden doses of precipitation, I’ve biked in the rain plenty of times, but never on my way to a business appointment. As an aside, I’ll share my best “caught off guard” story. Mother Nature surprised me one day, not with rain, but with wind! Riding that day was like being a hamster in a wheel. Lots of effort, little movement! I realized there was no way for me to make to my appointment on time, so I locked the bike and hailed a Lyft! Voila! Ridesharing on demand made it possible for me to enjoy some air conditioning, regroup, and arrive (nearly) on time. I would do it again if needed.

Christine Acosta is an active transportation advocate. She is the founder of Pedal Power Promoters, a small business social enterprise that works in the public and private realms on bicycle-related initiatives, and the former executive director of Walk Bike Tampa. She serves as a board member on the regional nonprofits Bike/Walk Tampa Bay and the newly-formed Tampa Bay Mobility Alliance.

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