New technology, web apps engage users in making local streets more accessible, safer

Getting from any point A to any point B in the Tampa Bay region poses its own unique share of concerns for almost anyone traveling on modern roadways: traffic jams, tricky potholes, parking availability, bus schedule snags, narrow or nonexistent bike lanes and sidewalk safety issues are just some of the troubles that motorists and pedestrians encounter during their daily travels.

But smartphone-powered citizens are now paving the way for safer streets as city and county governments explore software and social media-based solutions to address transportation issues and improve road safety.

From reporting potholes and street light outages to renting a bike to tracking a bus to summoning a car, getting connected with Bay area streets has never been easier with a smart device in hand.

Apps like SeeClickFix, OneBusAway and Waze Connected Citizens represent a new wave of data collection, civic communication, and tech-based convenience that make streets safer for everyone, while Social Bicycles and Urban Pathfinder make them more accessible and fun without a motor vehicle.

Explore "touch of a button" solutions in the Tampa Bay area with these handy apps.


Snap a pic to get your sidewalks fixed Faded crosswalk paint and broken sidewalks may seem like the kind of things that might 'slip between the cracks' in the greater scheme of city improvement -- but these 'minor fix' issues aren't just unsightly. For pedestrians and bicyclists in particular, they can translate to major safety hazards. 

That's why government officials in St. Petersburg and Sarasota County adopted the digital communications system, SeeClickFix, to enable citizens to report infrastructure issues in their communities to the appropriate channels. The app was established in New Haven, CT in 2008, and today operates in thousands of towns and neighborhoods across the U.S. and internationally. 

SeeClickFix works exactly as its name implies: when users see a problem in their neighborhood (for instance, a patch of damaged asphalt) they can snap a photo on their smartphone and submit a complaint, along with the location -- all with the click of a button. The only thing required to register is a valid email address, though complaints may be filed anonymously.

App users no longer need to spend time tracking down elusive phone numbers for the public service departments best suited to address their concerns: SeeClickFix streamlines the process, ensuring that each complaint is forwarded to the appropriate civic response team on the first try -- without the guesswork.

In Sarasota County, which launched SeeClickFix in April, transparency is among the app's most valuable assets.

"It's really a citizen issue management issue system. It empowers citizens to take their issues directly to county," says Glen Zimmerman, Chief Information Officer for the Sarasota County IT Department. 

"We recognize that how we respond to the issues is really important. This is social media, and once you say it, it's out there for everyone to see -- so it's important that we respond quickly," he adds. 

On average, SeeClickFix directs about a dozen inquiries to Sarasota County offices daily, says IT Project Manager Jean Miles. She adds that the county typically acknowledges complaints within working hours, and provides a reference number so that users can check on the progress of their issue.

"It allows other citizens to see what's being reported," says Dan Wuethrich, who manages service requests as the county's Contact Center Operations Manager. "Users can see what's happening -- so they never have to feel like nobody is taking care of this. It provides a complete cycle from start to finish."

Notably, the app software is customizable to the unique needs of each area that adopts it, and Zimmerman says that he hopes SeeClickFix will eventually become a robust "mobile portal of info" in Sarasota County. Additional perks in the app already include a portal for Sarasota County residents to pay their water bill, information about county parks, storm evacuation maps, and a waste management portal.

SeeClickFix is currently available to residents of Sarasota County and its cities of Venice and North Port, the City of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, including the communities of Pinellas Park, Belleair and Treasure Island. Manatee County utilizes a similar app called MyManatee Mobile. The Hillsborough MPO also recently rolled out an interactive map that allows users to pinpoint and report pedestrian and bicyclist safety concerns on Hillsborough streets.


Waiting for the bus to arrive can feel like a drag -- but having up-to-date scheduling information available at the touch of a button may take the edge off that wait. 

OneBusAway was developed in 2008 by two PhD students at the University of Washington, in civil engineering and computer science, who shared a simple desire to improve their daily commute in Seattle by developing an app that provides real-time transit information. Together, Brian Ferris and Kari Watkins developed OneBusAway's open-source software, which today is utilized widely around the U.S., including by the New York City MTA and transit organizations in San Diego, Atlanta, D.C., and most recently Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties.

Sean Barbeau, Principal Mobile Software Architect for the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) at USF, is the technical lead for OneBusAway Tampa and leads the app's Android development.

"All these apps are open source, which means that developers in different regions can use them to create an app that works for their area," Barbeau explains. 

Developers for the Tampa OneBusAway app built in a SeeClickFix-integrated protocol called Open311, which allows users to snap pics, describe and submit their complaints about unsafe conditions at public transit stops -- or anywhere else on the road. Currently, the CUTR is working on a project funded by the FDOT and National Center for Transit Research (NCTR) focused on how using the app's Open311 function can help promote roadway safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.

"The motivation for the research we're doing [in Hillsborough] was the bicyclist and pedestrian fatality rate. A lot of people who are biking or walking are also using transit, so that's an exposed link for those riders. Our goal is to get more feedback from those riders about what could be done for their trip as a whole to potentially increase safety and avoid fatalities," Barbeau says.

One new safety function that Barbeau says is unique to Android users of the Tampa OneBusAway app is "Walk Bright" a flashlight-style app that blinks to make the user more visible at night.

"Android is our testing ground because I have direct control over that app, but we want to see these features move on to other platforms," says Barbeau, noting that one of OneBusAway's greatest assets is its availability across mobile platforms.

Currently, OneBusAway is available for Android, iPhone, Amazon Fire Phone, Amazon Alexa, Windows phones and Pebble smartwatches. OneBusAway operates in partnership with Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) and is currently in 'soft launch' beta mode with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA). 

Waze Connected Citizens

Currently, Hillsborough County has the highest traffic fatality rate of all counties with populations greater than 100,000 in the U.S. -- a statistic county officials are hoping to change through a partnership with Waze, the world's largest community-based traffic and navigation app.

The idea of the partnership, which launched in November and is called the Connected Citizens Program, is that in exchange for information provided to Waze by the Hillsborough MPO and City of Tampa about road closures, construction zones and special events, Waze will provide the MPO with a real-time data feed that shows the speeds at which traffic is moving through Hillsborough County, and where traffic congestion occurs.

"Waze collects data actively and passively -- but we're mostly interested in the passive data collection, so you don't need to press buttons," says Johnny Wong, Community Planner with the MPO. 

The MPO encourages drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road while Waze does all the data collection for them on its own by recording travel speeds and stopping times.

Wong says that the data should illustrate the "hotspots" where motorists are regularly speeding and creating unsafe conditions on Hillsborough roadways. The data will also show where the most congestion is occurring, and illustrate how it impacts driver behavior. 

"Waze is part of a much bigger picture, but we haven't really gotten to the point we can sit down and look through the data set just yet. This is a first step. Just being a participant in the program will open us up to data from other places in the future," says Wong.

Wong says that once the MPO receives the data from Waze, the county organization can undergo internal analysis to pave the way for improvements that make the roads safer for everyone -- including bicyclists and pedestrians.

Social Bicycles: Find, rent, and ride

For pedestrians seeking bike rentals in Tampa and St. Pete, the Social Bicycles app provides a hassle-free way to sign up for the nearest available bike and take a spin around town. The app works with Coast Bike Share in St. Pete and Tampa and Share-A-Bull Bikes at USF, which offers Coast Bike membership discounts to USF students.

Coast Bike Share rolled out in Tampa in spring of 2014 and in St. Pete this November, featuring bicycle hubs around the cities with wheels for rent. Currently, there are 300 city-owned bikes available across 30 locations in Tampa neighborhoods, as well as 10 bike hubs along the waterfront and Central Ave. corridor of St. Pete, which has 100 city-owned bikes for rent. In 2017, Coast Bike Share St. Pete aims to expand its fleet to 300 bikes across more than 30 bike hubs. 

Access to these bikes simply requires a membership to Coast Bike Share through the Social Bicycles app, or by signing up online to set a personal pin and reserve a bike. Users can sign up for longterm or shortterm memberships, opting to ride for as little as $8 on a one-time, hour-long spin. 

GPS technology tracks each bike in real time, providing info for users on where bike hubs can be located and how many bikes are available, as well as interactive heat maps that illustrate the most popular spots for cruising on via pedal power. The app can also track ride statistics, including miles traveled, CO2 emissions reduced, calories burned and money saved by traveling by bike versus driving.

Urban Pathfinder: Explore St. Pete

When urban and explorer and daily biker, Elsie Gilmore, moved from a small town in Vermont to St. Petersburg, one of her first purchases was a fold-up Bronson Bike from the Twofold Bicycle Shop. However, once she shipped her electric bike down from Vermont -- one she couldn't simply fold into a portable size whenever she was done riding it -- Gilmore quickly found herself in need of bike parking, but says she struggled to find it easily.

Gilmore put her skills to use as a professional web developer to create the web app, Urban Pathfinder, a map of bike routes around St. Pete that included the location of every bike rack she found.

"Once I started cataloguing them, I realized there are easily more than 200 racks around St. Pete. There are also all these interesting things, whether you're on your bike or walking, that you would want to see here. It got me to thinking: what else could I put on this map? I figured I would try to turn it into a kind of 'urban adventurers' map," Gilmore says. 

Gilmore grew the map to include locational pins for murals, statues and other outdoor art she discovered around town. She also added pins for Coast Bike Share hubs, historical sites, event venues, and nature -- as in, perhaps, a particularly cool tree that app users feel is worth noting. 

"There are so many murals here -- even just these little ones that are in corners that you would never think to look for," says Gilmore. "The great part about it is this: I couldn't possibly find every cool thing there is to see, so users will be able to add things to the map. It's very interactive."

Urban Pathfinder does not require an app download. It launches in a web browser, which Gilmore says is modeled to feel like an app when opened on a mobile device.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.