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Urban Bike Scene: Changing The Way Tampa Bay Travels

Florida Ave. bike lane. - Julie Branaman
Florida Ave. bike lane. - Julie Branaman
The number of bicycle commuters across the United States grew by more than 47 percent between 2000 and 2011, and is on the rise. With more than half of the nation's population living within five miles of their workplaces, according to the League of American Bicyclists, bicycling is becoming more popular in America's big cities and small ones too.

The same is true in the Tampa Bay region, where cities and counties are investing in bike paths and lanes to help improve safety and ease congestion on area roads.

"Fifteen percent of trips are within one mile of home and could easily be taken by bicycle instead of car,'' says Karen Kress, Tampa Downtown Partnership Director of Transportation and Planning. "With a helmet, proper safety skills and careful route choice, biking becomes a much more feasible and healthier way to get around.''

Biking Around The Bay

The cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Bradenton, Lakeland and others in the Tampa region are in the process of adding and expanding sidewalks, widening streets to make room for bicycle lanes, creating bicycle paths separate from motorized traffic and building parallel bridges to accommodate two-wheel vehicles as well as four.

By increasing access to alternative transportation options, community leaders are responding to demand coming from commuters and leisure riders who want a more heart-healthy, economical and environmentally friendly substitute to driving.

"Recently, I've seen a lot of changes that have really benefited the area -- the addition of a marked bicycle lane on Florida Avenue from downtown Tampa to Seminole Heights, to name one,'' says Jessica Brenner, who uses her bike to get around town. "This is huge for northbound travel in Tampa!''

The new bike lane on Florida Avenue is just one of many changes underway.

Work continues on a paved path and parallel bridge running alongside the Courtney Campbell Causeway from Tampa to Clearwater. The Hillsborough side, including a 45-feet-tall bridge half way across, is now open to pedestrians and bicyclists.

The first project of its kind in Florida, the $15 million Courtney Campbell Trail was built by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and offers five miles of paved pathway to travel while enjoying waterside views. Another four miles, connecting the Hillsborough/Pinellas county line to Bayshore Boulevard in Clearwater, is slated for completion in 2015.

Though happy with this and other recent improvements, Brenner, a self-proclaimed bike enthusiast, would like to see more multi-use trails like the Green ARTery, an effort connecting the Tampa Bay region's valued parks and public greenspaces.

Green ARTery Loop

Creating a designated network of trails to allow for safe travels along the waterways and neighborhood parks that traverse Tampa's central urban core, the Green ARTery loop is expected to connect Old Seminole Heights, Southeast Seminole Heights, South Seminole Heights, V.M. Ybor, East Tampa, Historic Ybor, Ybor Heights, Palmetto Beach, Tampa Riverwalk, Tampa Heights, Ridgewood Park, Riverside Heights, the Channel District and downtown Tampa neighborhoods.

"We desperately need to cut down on the pedestrian and bicycle fatalities that we have here in Florida -- especially Tampa,'' says Rhonda Triplett-Coleman, Green ARTery media and communications director. "Connecting area neighborhoods gives residents and visitors the opportunity to travel safely to and from all of Tampa's public assets.''

City Bike Tampa, a popular bike shop in downtown Tampa at 212 E Cass St., has become a staple in the biking community for friendly service, fast repairs and affordably priced merchandise. And, when it comes to cycle safety and travel opportunities in the area, owner Jim Shirk has some ideas of his own.

"Leaders need to start recognizing the need for separate cycle tracks to ensure riders' safety and put Tampa on the map as a bicycle-friendly city,'' says Shirk. "This type of emphasis has the potential to make Tampa more attractive to the creative class and more affordable for startups.''

Resources For Riders

City governments are promoting local bike-friendly initiatives, such as Tampa BayCycle, a resource for local bicycling news, events, safety trips and advocacy, and Bike Buddy, a program offered by the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA). Created by joint efforts of the New North Transportation Alliance and the Tampa Downtown Partnership, Tampa BayCycle encourages commuters to ditch their motorized vehicles in favor of biking to work, school, errands and other activities.

"The Tampa Bay area is a great place to ride a bicycle,'' says Julie Bond, Tampa BayCycle Co-Founder and Senior Research Associate at the Center for Urban Transportation Research. "The more we connect our region with safe bicycle pathways and provide education to both bicyclists and drivers, the more people will discover the benefits of bicycling.''

Tampa BayCycle hopes to bring together those who believe owning and riding a bicycle benefits community as a whole; not only do bicycle commuters save money and gas, they're also doing their part to reduce traffic congestion and motor emissions.

"Through Tampa BayCycle, we offer a variety of opportunities for people to get on their bikes -- from bike valet at the Tampa Downtown Market and local event to bike safety classes,'' says Kress, a bike-on-bus commuter herself.

Cycle Safety

According to a recent survey by nonprofit safety advocacy organization Transportation for America, the top four least pedestrian-friendly metropolitan areas in the country call Florida home. The Orlando-Kissimmee region led with more than 550 pedestrians killed from 2000 to 2009, while the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area ranked a close second; Jacksonville and the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach area followed.

"When Tampa Bay's bike fatality rate equals Portland's -- zero -- then, we'll have done enough,” says Shirk.

Brenner agrees, noting how dangerous it can be to ride on roads with no bike infrastructure.

"This creates absolutely no awareness of bicyclists on the road,'' she says. "We need to encourage people to feel comfortable riding while bringing attention to bicyclist presence.'' In addition to access to more bike-friendly paths and trails, Brenner would like to see harsher punishments for drivers who violate bicyclist and pedestrian rights and put their lives in danger.

Pedal Party

In the meantime, as conditions continue to improve for local cyclists, two-wheeler aficionados have found a safe and fun way to get the most out of biking as more and more events dedicated to bicycling have started popping up throughout the area -- Urban Restaurant Tours, the History Bike Tour and Velo Champ's Pub Bike Ride, to name a few.

"I love the pub ride!'' says Tee Hyatt, who, like Brenner, spends the majority of her area travels on her bike. "It's safe, organized and everyone is so insanely friendly and helpful. I don't think I've ever seen so many nice people on bikes in one place.''

Hosted monthly since 2009, the Pub Bike Ride is a free, monthly bike ride sponsored by Georgia-based Sweetwater Brewing Co. and welcomes riders of all skill levels and bicycles. The ride take place on the last Sunday of every month, featuring stops at various restaurants, bars and pubs. Each ride focuses on a different neighborhood from Ybor City, Downtown and Tampa Heights to Seminole Heights and Hyde Park.

"These types of events are a great way to meet locals with the similar interests -- it allows us to get talking about how we can do our part to keep promoting bike use in the area,'' says Nick Thompson, who, like Hyatt and Brenner, tries to stay active in the cycling scene. "Change starts from within: The more events leaders and local businesses create and promote, the more people get interested in biking and out on the streets.''

Alexis Quinn Chamberlain, a Florida native and freelance writer, often can be found shopping local farmers markets, walking around her North Hyde Park neighborhood and daydreaming with her boyfriend and Chihuahua at Davis Islands Seaplane Basin. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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