Armed with magic markers and inspired by daily experience, the students parked their backpacks, pulled up a chair and filled blank pages with colorful visions of what a safe, livable roadway should look like.
In Disney parlance, it might be called "Imagineering," where creativity and practicality intersect in new and innovative ways.
Here, at the University of South Florida
's Marshall Student Center, metro planners captured the attention of the lunch crowd one day last week with an issue of compelling interest to all who navigate the most-traveled -- and least pedestrian-friendly -- corridor in the county.
The summit was a coming-out party of sorts for the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization
's (MPO) Livable Roadways Committee -- the first time the group has taken its Complete Streets
plan to the people who have the most at stake: the car-less masses that use them every day.
"Streets are about moving people, not moving cars, and people move in many ways," says Lynn Merenda, a public engagement specialist for MPO.
On and around the USF campus, that might entail a bike, a skateboard, a bus, a wheelchair or a sturdy pair of feet -- all of which present unique challenges and opportunities for roadway design.
Local transportation planners have been keenly interested in sharing proposals and gathering input from stakeholders for some time, but engaging the public in the process has been a daunting task -- especially when the very people they'd like to hear from are the ones least likely to have access to reliable transportation.
"This is about people who don't have cars," says Stephen Benson, a student, a citizen and a planner on the MPO roadways committee. Not everyone can afford a car or has the ability to drive one, he says, and finding ways to address their needs "is how we should be spending our transportation money."
Planners everywhere are beginning to recognize that too many streets are designed for speeding cars or creeping traffic jams, resulting in a growing national "Complete Streets" movement that aims to ensure roadways
are designed with all kinds of users in mind.
MPO has embraced the Complete Streets concept and Lisa Montelione, chairwoman of the Livable Roadways Committee, was ecstatic with the amount of information collected and shared at the summit, the result of setting up shop in a high-traffic area frequented by a critical target population.
"People don't come to the County Center at 9 a.m. for board meetings -- especially if you're a busy student with limited transportation options," she says.
The scenarios supplied by the USF travelers at the April 2 summit will provide the vision for changes in the county's comprehensive plan next year.
A number of projects are in progress, among them a University Area Transit Circulator Study to improve bus service in an area that encompasses USF, Moffitt Cancer Center, Florida Hospital and other large employers in the area.
"We already have the ridership," says Montelione. "The issue at the end of the day is money."
Scale And Precision
As federal funds dwindle, local governments will have to get more creative, says Merenda. There is a possible referendum on the horizon, as well as public/private partnerships that are being explored.
Other ideas are floating around, like bus toll lanes, where cars could pay to gain access to exclusive rapid transit lanes.
"There are probably things we haven't even thought of yet," she says.
Certainly the participants at Tuesday's summit weren't short on ideas about making roadways more safe and efficient for all users.
Many scribbled suggestions on index cards, while others sketched out crude grids, roads with crosswalks and sidewalks lined with lollipop trees; others produced detailed renderings executed with the scale and precision that betrayed a background in engineering. All revealed more than a nodding acquaintance with Life Without a Car.
The budding Imagineers drew walkways in the middle of parking lots, wide bike lanes, raised crosswalks that served as speed humps and dedicated bus corridors that would allow mass transit to breeze past cars choked in traffic.
Multiple elevated walkways were envisioned to allow safe passage across Fletcher and Fowler avenues. Medians -- green with grass and lined with trees -- supplied aesthetic appeal with an underlying practical agenda.
"If you have a beautiful environment, people (driving cars) tend to slow down," Merenda says.
USF junior Dani Kaminiski, an environmental education major, took a comprehensive approach in completing her streets: The roads themselves were porous to prevent flooding, with tunnels beneath busy streets for the passage of wildlife.
There should be more bike racks, and they could be more artfully designed, she says. "Bike racks as art -- why not?"
Meanwhile, the USF campus police presented one of the more popular exhibits, where a continuous video loop played an astonishing -- and horrifying -- array of encounters between cars and pedestrians, caught on tape by security cameras in various places around the country.
For many communities, injecting a Complete Streets policy into urban planning addresses efficiency and aesthetics. But for Florida, which occupies the top tiers of the nation's most dangerous roadways for pedestrians and cyclists, Complete Streets are literally a matter of life and death.
That's what brought David Bottomley to USF last week. Bottomley uses a wheelchair and has spent five years on MetroPlan Orlando's pedestrian and bike safety advisory committee.
He came to Tampa for the USF summit and left with fresh perspectives from the region that shares an unfortunate national distinction with his own city: Tampa is second only to Orlando in the number of pedestrian/vehicle collisions.
"We have got to take the 'duh' out of Florida," he says. "It's going to take time."
Jan Hollingsworth is a Valrico-based freelance writer working from a restored Victorian parsonage built in the mid-1880s for a Methodist circuit rider. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.