Top urbanist shares vision for making Tampa more walkable

The Tampa Bay region is abuzz about the billion-dollar project Tampa Bay Lightning Owner Jeff Vinik has in the works for the Channel District in downtown Tampa.

Vinik snagged renowned Urbanist Jeff Speck to take a leading role in the district’s re-design. Speck, who penned the book  "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time," has big ideas for the district and beyond.

83 Degrees caught up with the Boston-based city planner to talk about what he's got in mind for the Channel District -- and his thoughts on how our region's largest city can become more walkable.

Does Tampa have the foundation for walkability?

Speck says yes. 

"I think Tampa is poised for change more so than other places, and not in small part because you have an excellent downtown grid," he says, adding that the city’s relatively short blocks lend themselves to both safe and useful walking. "But I think the feeling one gets walking around large parts of Tampa, even downtown, is actually one of true danger from the automobile."

Just walking over the Platt Street bridge to get from his downtown hotel to the Oxford Exchange for a recent book signing, Speck says he experienced a "spine-chilling adrenaline rush."

"Even though I was protected by a steel barrier, just the number of cars going all in the same direction at high speed just a few feet from the sidewalk is just extraordinarily intimidating," says Speck.

Making pedestrians and bicyclists feel safer

Something as simple as adding parallel parking, which would serve as a barrier between traffic and the sidewalk, could have a huge impact on the sense of safety for the pedestrian. Even adding more trees supports walkability.

"Shade trees have a clear impact both on walkability and on real estate value, and on storm water absorption, returns to retail businesses, crime reduction and on human health," says Speck. "So there's every reason to plant shade trees."

He adds that when bicycles are safely implemented into street systems, it actually makes both pedestrians and drivers safer. He recalls one case in New York in which adding a bike lane to a street reduced the number of speeding vehicles from 71 percent of all vehicles to just 17 percent. It also brought down the number of injuries to all users by a whopping 63 percent, he says.

"The type of bike lanes we're proposing in the [Channel] district are all protected by parallel parking; so you have the cars driving on the street, you have the parking lane, then you have a door-zone buffer, then you have the bike lane against the sidewalk," says Speck. "The way that you generate a biking population is with these protected lanes."

Plans for the Channel District
According to Speck, plans for "the district," which is how Vinik's team is referring to it these days, are shaping up. They're essentially bringing to life a vision plan they inherited from Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh.

While Speck is unable to share specific details of the project just yet, his enthusiasm is palpable.

"As a vision plan, this will be a neighborhood of a full variety of uses and activities in a framework of completely welcoming and comfortable public spaces, such that any human with two feet is going to want to walk around there," says Speck. "And if they're in a wheelchair, they're going to want to roll around there."

In its current form, the district's biggest problem comes down to the fact that when walking from one destination to another, pedestrians are surrounded by nothing but high-speed streets and parking lots. In contrast, a walkable city is one that encourages walks that are useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.

"The only time you see pedestrians is before and after a Lightning game; that's going to change," says Speck.

Transit's role in walkability

Speck likes to say that a walkable neighborhood doesn't need transit — but a walkable city absolutely relies on it.

"If you can't connect the walkable neighborhoods to each other, then those people who want the walkable lifestyle, and who also want access to all their city has to offer, will buy cars," says Speck. "Then the city reshapes itself more around driving, so transit plays a very important role."

Transportation overhaul is top of mind for community leaders in both the public and private sectors in anticipation of a 2016 half-cent sales tax referendum designed to support and expand mobility options in Hillsborough County. As is, it would earmark 25 percent of funds collected for revitalizing the public bus system operated by HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit).

"Frankly, transit never functions particularly well in the absence of walkable neighborhoods because if you can't exit the train or bus into a walking area, then you need to have a car once you get there," says Speck. "The work we're doing at the district to create a neighborhood in which you exit the vehicle and be totally effective on foot is the first step to creating a more robust transit system."

The rise in the popularity of Uber and the driverless car only supports a more walkable city, Speck says, especially because more and more people are moving to downtown centers.

"I do think that the most dramatic change we're going to see in our cities in the short-term, especially cities like Tampa, is a dramatic drop in car ownership," says Speck, a graduate of Williams College who earned masters degrees in architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design and in fine arts from Syracuse University.
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Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.