People, places, perspectives: Sharing experiences at Bike/Walk Tampa Bay

Bike/Walk Tampa Bay -- a regional coalition of citizens, professionals, and allied organizations that advocates for bicycling and walking as preferred modes of transportation in the Tampa Bay Area -- brought together some of the region's most remarkable and dedicated cyclists to share their expertise and stories about traveling on two wheels.

Among them was Keynote Speaker Leo Rodgers, City Bike Tampa bike mechanic, whose left leg was amputated at the hip following a motorcycling accident on Fowler Avenue in 2007. In the aftermath of the accident, the now 32 year-old says he found in cycling a freedom he thought he'd lost when he struck a guardrail on his motorcycle and, at 23 years old, lost his leg.

"It's very depressing to go through something like this, but cycling helped me get back to feeling like a normal person. Being on a bike made me feel like I was back on a motorcycle again," Rodgers says. 

These days, "it's my wheelchair, it's my car, it's my prosthetic -- I use it for everything," Rodgers says of his bicycle -- or, more accurately, of his bike collection: Rodgers notes his garage now holds ten bikes in place of the two cars he previously owned.

Tall and athletic, Rodgers is naturally nimble as he weaves his way through a crowd on one foot -- with or without the aid of crutches. When he's on a bicycle, blink and you'll miss him as he sprints by at speeds that can leave even experienced cyclists with a bipedal advantage in the dust. Rodgers recently competed in the 2017 U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling Open in California, and hopes to represent the U.S. in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

Rodgers is a recognizable face cycling the streets of downtown Tampa. The one-legged cyclist is used to the attention as he pedals to his job at City Bike Tampa from his home in the University area, or around his neighborhood with local kids seeking a lesson in bicycling street smarts. Prior to relocating to Tampa, Rodgers says he made the 50 mile round-trip cycle trek across the Gandy Bridge to work at the bike shop daily.

"At first I didn't know the impact that I was having every day on other people," Rodgers says, "but at least once a week someone would stop me and I'd have a conversation with them. When I found out I was the reason why someone bought a bike -- that was really inspirational to me. It motivates me every day to keep going."

Insightful discussions

A diverse panel of local leaders in the bike-ped scene including WellBuilt Bikes founder Jessica Brenner, Tampa-area daily cyclists Tajuana Cox and Hector Santiago, and SWAMP bike club president Ron Zajac, tackled audience questions and gave advice rooted in their experiences cycling Hillsborough and Pinellas streets -- a metro area ranked among the top 10 most perilous places to be a pedestrian or ride a bike in the United States.
Tampa resident Michael Schwaid was awarded Bike/Walk Tampa Bay's Cyclist of the Year after hopping back on his bike following a collision with a drunk driver in March 2016 that left his pelvis shattered in four places, a broken sacrum, two broken ankles, and road rash over 60 percent of his body. 
Panelists agreed that their most prevalent concern as daily bike commuters is getting to their destination alive. Santiago says that "finding a safe route from point A to point B" is his primary concern, and advises planning routes that avoid heavy motorist traffic when possible.

Cox says that in her daily bike commute to work or to the grocery store, determining which motorists may put her in danger on the road is her greatest challenge. 

"Ultimately it's not their responsibility [to keep me safe] when I'm on the bike -- it's mine -- so I have to know: Is this person paying attention? Can they see me? How fast are they going? Those three questions are always on my mind when I'm riding my bike," Cox says.

Tampa resident Michael Schwaid was awarded Bike/Walk Tampa Bay's Cyclist of the Year after hopping back on his bike following a collision with a drunk driver in March 2016 that left his pelvis shattered in four places, a broken sacrum, two broken ankles, and road rash over 60 percent of his body. 

The concerns Tampa area cyclists voiced about their safety while sharing the road with motorists cuts to the crux of a deadly problem in Hillsborough and Pinellas County -- and across the United States -- as evidenced by Vision Zero data: Speed kills.

"99 percent of fatal crashes occur on roads with posted speed limits higher than 35 miles per hour," says Hillsborough MPO Executive Director Beth Alden. "Just a 10 miles per hour change in travel speed doubles chances of survival. That's where our data point is." 

Alden was joined by Forward Pinellas Executive Director Whit Blanton and Bike/Walk Tampa Bay Chair Jane Castor, former Tampa Police Chief, in a conversation about Vision Zero -- a program adopted in 2016 by the Hillsborough MPO to work toward eliminating traffic fatalities in the Tampa Bay region. 

The dialogue sparked by cyclists who shared their experiences and wisdom in the 'People, Places and Perspective' panel highlights the value of storytelling and community engagement in the Vision Zero initiative. 

"In most cities, the mayor has been the champion with Vision Zero -- but that's not the case with Hillsborough and Pinellas," Castor says, noting that the Vision Zero effort in Hillsborough County is strongly rooted in collaboration among the MPO, public works departments, local law enforcement, and vocal and highly engaged citizen advocates.

This collaborative effort, says Alden, is what she believes will drive Vision Zero to successful outcomes in Hillsborough that include: increased traffic calming, context-sensitive installation of bike lanes and pedestrian facilities, better driver and cyclist education, and -- over time -- a significant reduction fatalities and injuries.

"A lot of folks in our public works departments and over at the DOT are very actively looking at our safety programs already. We're blessed to have a lot of great energy in this community, and to have community activists raising the profile of this issue. It takes all those folks pushing the levers [to facilitate change]," says Alden.

Celebrating cyclists

Bike/Walk Tampa Bay closed out the 'People, Places, Perspectives' evening with its annual awards ceremony recognizing standouts cyclists and bike-ped organizations in the Tampa Bay area. 

Award winners included:
  • Social Bicycle Ride of the Year: Tour de SHINE
  • Bicycle Club of the Year: History Bike Tampa
  • Pedestrian Advocate of the Year: Ronnie Oliver, Walking School Bus advocacy
  • Bicycle Advocate of the Year: Eric Trull, Coast Bike Share Program Director
  • Outstanding Volunteer: Jeff White, Swamp Bike Club Trail Boss
  • Bicycle Commuter of the Year: Leo Rodgers, City Bike Tampa
  • Bicyclist of the Year: Michael Schwaid
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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.