Across Tampa Bay, expanding transportation options to improve health and safety

Longtime Hyde Park resident Paul Ganoung bought his first electric bicycle about four years ago. He loved it so much that he bought a second one recently. 

“I need two bikes,’’ he explains. “If somebody comes by, we can go ride bikes together.’’  
Ganoung, 76, uses the e-bike to go to the grocery store and on other short trips.

“It’s easier than jumping in the hot car,” he says.

Ganoung is ahead of a trend the City of Tampa hopes to create: to get people out of their cars and on some alternative form of transportation. Though Ganoung was not a participant, 180 Tampa residents this year received vouchers from the city for $500 to $2,000, depending on income, toward the purchase of a Class 1 e-bike or e-cargo bike. The e-bike costs about $1,200, and the cargo e-bike can cost more than $5,000, says Austin Britt, parking planning coordinator for the city. The program ran out of money in about three months. 

Britt says he expected the voucher program to draw young adults in the 18 to 30 age bracket, but 72 percent were between 31 and 50.  

“It’s one of the most surprising and really awesome data points that we’ve collected from the application process,’’ he says. 

A transportation vision for the future

It’s a small move toward the big vision incorporated in the Tampa MOVES Citywide Mobility Plan, released in July. The plan paints a picture of a transportation utopia, especially considering Tampa’s traffic crawl today: By 2050, half the trips around Tampa will be by walking, biking, public transportation and other alternatives to the car, and no one will die in a traffic accident.  

“We really wanted to set ambitious goals that reflected a lot of what the community was telling us throughout all of our engagement that went into formulating this plan,’’ says Alex Henry, interim chief planner with the Tampa Mobility Department. “This is really a community-focused plan.’’ 

City planners asked Tampa residents in a series of public meetings what they wanted the city’s transportation system to look like in 30 years.  

“Overwhelmingly, what we heard from folks is they want more options, more choices to get around,’’ Henry says.  

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the cost of achieving the goal, an estimated $2 billion over the next 30 years. If the dream comes true, it will mean safe, stress-free bicycle paths throughout the city and more buses and routes to take everyone in the city where they need to go. New neighborhoods will be designed to make it comfortable for people to walk or ride bikes. 

It’s a long road ahead. According to the mobility plan, Tampa is the fourth most dangerous metro area for pedestrians in the nation. The city averaged 54 fatalities and 224 life-altering injuries in traffic accidents between 2018 and 2022. Tampa drivers spend 48 hours a year waiting in traffic, making it the 20th most congested city in the nation and the third most congested in Florida. Twenty-two percent of Tampa’s non-limited access roads have bike markings or barriers but only 10 percent are deemed comfortable for bicyclists. Ganoung rides on sidewalks. It’s too dangerous on busy roads, he says.  

“They put paint on a line and draw a picture of a bicycle,” he says. “I still haven’t understood that, whereas if you’re in France, they have a little curb there that sticks up, separates the bikes from the traffic.’’

Hyde Park resident Paul Ganoung on his e-bike.He says he would use bike lanes if he felt protected on the road. Two bike lane projects that Tampa completed this year, along part of Cass Street downtown and along 14th Street in Ybor City, use rubber curbs to separate cars from bikes. Concrete curbs protect bicyclists along the “green spine,’’ most of Cass Street from Rome Avenue through downtown and Nuccio Parkway to 7th Avenue in Ybor. Henry says there are plans to extend it to 15th Street.

 The same barriers protect bike lanes along Cumberland Avenue from Jefferson Street to Meridian Street and, through a Florida Department of Transportation project, along Jackson Street from Ashley to Nebraska Avenue. Bicyclists can also get to their destinations, such as from the University of South Florida area to downtown Tampa, by using a less stressful network of neighborhood streets.

Grassroots push for safety

Tampa’s reputation as a deadly place for bicyclists and pedestrians spurred the creation in 2015 of Walk Bike Tampa, says Janet Scherberger, board member and former president of the organization. 

“We wanted a grassroots organization, a volunteer organization to start advocating for safer streets for everybody,’’ she says.  

The group wants to see the city’s plans realized: a network of safe bike lanes and sidewalks throughout Tampa, especially the busy thoroughfares, and a redesign of neighborhood streets that adds speed tables, frequent crosswalks and more narrow lanes to slow down vehicle traffic. Scherberger mentions a study that estimated the likelihood of death of people hit by cars at various speeds. 

“At 40 miles per hour, it’s 46 percent. At 30 mph, it’s 20 percent. And at 20 miles per hour, it’s eight percent,” she says.

Walk Bike Tampa will host Tampa’s first-ever World Car Free Day event on Sept. 23. Some 2,000 cities in 46 countries in the world celebrate it annually. People will be asked to give up their individual cars that day in favor of walking, biking, riding public transit or carpooling. Celebrations will be held in Ybor City, downtown Tampa and the Westshore area, and will feature live music, food trucks, farmers’ markets, a bike giveaway, a bike rodeo, kids’ games and street hockey sponsored by the Tampa Bay Lightning. People can bike along paths connecting the areas. More details will be available at Walk Bike Tampa’s website in the coming weeks. 

Henry says 40 percent of the roads in the city are in poor condition, and the city’s current budget can pave only 30 miles a year. Plans to address the road congestion do not include adding a lot of additional lanes. 

“The traditional style of addressing vehicle capacity – widening roadways, adding more lanes – in the context of Tampa, those types of projects just really aren’t feasible for a couple of reasons,’’ Henry says. “One, we do not have the money … Also, we’re built out.’’  

Instead, the city will prioritize strategic investments at slow points and bottlenecks. 

“So, looking at retiming our signals, installing smart adaptive signal technology that helps optimize our signal timing, looking at strategic additional capacity turn lanes here and there,” Henry says.”Along the Cass Street Bridge in downtown Tampa, a wide sidewalk accommodates pedestrians and barriers separate bicycle and vehicle traffic.

Given the financial situation and other considerations, he says, “We have to be a little more creative in how we address those challenges.’’ The city currently has 1,178 miles and sidewalks and needs 1,300 more, says Henry. Currently, the budget provides enough money to complete about a half-mile of sidewalk a year. 

Health benefits

Research has shown that if people have the ability to safely walk to the grocery store and other neighborhood spots, they stay healthy into old age, says Lindsay Peterson, a research assistant professor of aging studies at USF and the interim director of the Florida Policy Exchange Center on Aging.

Not only are they getting exercise, they’re engaging with the world, which is also important for aging well. Peterson points to a National Geographic project on “blue zones,’’ places around the world where people live long lives and stay healthy into old age. One is Okinawa, Japan, she says. Another is in Greece. 

“One of the things was that activity was just part of daily life. They had to go out and herd the sheep or they had to walk to do this and walk to do that,’’ Peterson says. “They had strong friend networks. They ate a plant-based diet.’’  

St. Petersburg’s efforts

Across the bay, St. Petersburg started implementing its Complete Streets transportation plan in 2019, with the goal of making the city’s streets safe for bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists.

An example of that is one-way eastbound First Avenue South in downtown, which has a curb protecting the bicycle lanes, sidewalks for pedestrians, a dedicated lane for buses and lanes for other motor vehicles. Cheryl Stacks, transportation manager for the City of St. Petersburg, says the city is installing bike lanes of various types around the city, including painted designations on safer streets, rubber posts separating bicyclists from traffic, sidewalks wide enough for bicyclists and pedestrians and concrete curb barriers. The western stretch of First Avenue South near Park Street has curb-protected bike lanes. The city is about to begin construction to add bike lanes protected by concrete curbs along Sixth Avenue South from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street to Third Street, Stacks says.

To increase pedestrian safety, the city is adding more mid-block crosswalks on busy streets and sidewalk “bulbs’’ downtown – an extension of the sidewalk that shortens the distance to cross the street and also slows traffic making turns. Like Tampa, St. Petersburg is using neighborhood streets as part of the bicycle network. The city also wants to connect the existing bike trails, including the celebrated Pinellas Trail, with a combination of separated bike lanes on the thoroughfares and neighborhood streets.  

“That would build a low-stress network across the city,’’ Stacks says.  

Evan Mory, St. Petersburg’s director of parking and transportation, says that the rising costs of construction are hampering progress.  

“We’ve gotten a lot done, but with the cost going up so much, that’s a barrier to rapid change,’’ he says. “It takes more time because things are so expensive to implement.’’  

Perhaps the work accomplished is already having an effect. Stacks says traffic fatalities in the city are half what they were this time last year. The city has other options for people to get around downtown. They can rent scooters or one of the city’s Lime e-bikes by downloading apps on their smartphones. Low-income riders who qualify can get 70 percent off the price, Stacks says.

People can still ride the Looper for free. It makes a series of stops downtown. Also free is the Downtown Trolley, which runs along Central Avenue from downtown to about 31st Street. The SunRunner system connecting downtown and the beach, is a popular fixture of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. SunRunner is considered bus rapid transit because it has a designated lane, can communicate with traffic signals to extend the green light if it’s running late and has a raised platform at stations so that the driver doesn’t have to lower the bus for people to get on.  Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority's SunRunner is the Tampa Bay region's first bus rapid transit system.

“We believe that it can be a catalyst for other bus rapid transit in the region,’’ says Stephanie Weaver, public relations manager for PSTA.  

For a little while longer, the SunRunner is free. The authority had planned to start charging the standard bus fare on Nov. 1, Weaver says. But  PSTA will now start charging Oct. 1. That change comes after recent complaints by business owners on the beach that homeless people were taking the free ride to the beach and being disruptive and also a verbal appeal from Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to the PSTA board.

The cost will be $2.25, $1.10 for seniors.

In Tampa, as in the 1920s, streetcars ferry people from downtown to Ybor City and back. The city runs replicas of the early streetcars plus, on occasion, a restored antique streetcar.  In October, people will be able to ride to more than 20 different locations around downtown Tampa in bright yellow Tesla SUVs. The Tampa Downtown Partnership is launching the ride-share program, called DASH (Downtown Tampa Shared Hub). 

A fleet of six Teslas will carry passengers to their destinations for “a few dollars per trip – far less than a trip using a traditional rideshare app,’’ states a press release. Britt, the Tampa mobility planner, was so encouraged by the first e-bike voucher program that he would like to see the funding for another round of the program. With the Class 1 e-bike, riders pedal to get the motor to assist. They can reach about 20 miles per hour, Britt says.  

“It’s a lot of fun. Those things will go,’’ he says. “You don’t have to pedal very hard to get the motor to help you out.’’  

For more information, go to Tampa MOVES, St. Pete COMPLETE STREETSDASH,  SunRunner and Car Free Day Tampa.
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Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.