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Broad road, narrow thinking

That's how bicyclists and mass-transit advocates view the plans for an eight-lane

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published November 4, 2005


[Times photo: Mike Pease]
Who would commute by bicycle on Bruce B. Downs? Murray Maitland, for one. The 47-year-old physical therapist bikes 8 miles from Hunter's Green to his job at USF.
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HUNTER'S GREEN - As designers draft plans for a $172-million expansion of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, there is one clear winner: the passenger car.

The losers? Bicycles and mass transit. By extension, some say, the environment and public health are losing out as well.

When New Tampa's main drag jumps from four lanes to eight in a job that begins in 2007, there will be, at most, a 3-foot-wide shoulder for those who dare to cycle to and from work. The design also calls for only 20 feet of transit space, confining high-speed bus or rail to a one-way service that would render it virtually useless.

Road designers are violating county and state road design policy by omitting the bike lanes. They blame a lack of money. Yet they have chosen to make the car lanes 12 feet wide instead of the 11 feet that traffic-calming advocates recommend. The result, critics say, will be a freeway hostile to anyone not in a car.

"It is galling to hear that they're still building roads like this in Florida," said Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. "It's folly not to set aside space for cyclists on a project of this size."

Braving it

Who would commute by bicycle on Bruce B. Downs?

Murray Maitland would, and does. The 47-year-old physical therapist believes strongly in daily exercise. He chose his Hunter's Green home on the premise that he could bike the 8 miles to his job at the University of South Florida.

"I see about 10 people out on bikes," he said. Sharing the road with 60,000 cars and trucks a day, he has had his share of near-misses.

One van driver, pulling onto Bruce B. Downs, never saw Maitland coming. The driver checked car traffic from the left. Maitland approached from the right. He still doesn't know how the van missed him.

Maitland and other cyclists say the absence of bike lanes doesn't just pose a threat to them; it's also a blown opportunity to provide transportation options in an era of rising gas prices, dependency on foreign oil, obesity and motorized gridlock.

Cyclists currently make do with a bike path set apart from the road that they share with strollers, joggers, dog walkers and inline skaters. The path would remain when the road is widened. But that's not a safe alternative, Maitland said.

"In the bike path, I can travel at 25 mph," he said. "It's not safe for me or other people in the path who are moving at slower speeds."

Bike paths can be downright dangerous for cyclists at intersections because motorists tend to monitor traffic on the road, not movement on a path separated from the road, said Christopher Hagelin, a research associate at USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research.

Bruce B. Downs has only one bike path, so cyclists who use it must pedal against traffic if they travel south. As the path ends at intersections, cyclists continue to ride through - on the wrong side of the street. About 75 percent of cycling crashes happen at intersections, Hagelin said.

"Bike paths are good, but the more curb cuts, driveways and intersections you have, the more chance you have that a car will hit a cyclist," said Hagelin, who heads the county's Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

Cyclists prefer bike lanes, striped passageways that are at least 4 feet wide on the right side of roads. They consider lanes safer because they put cyclists on the road where motorists can see them, especially at intersections, where cyclists have the same right to the road that cars do.

Lanes trump paths because they also set fast-moving bikes apart from slower-moving pedestrians, Hagelin said.

But Florida Department of Transportation officials concluded nearly five years ago during the preliminary engineering and development of the Bruce B. Downs project that it would be too costly to preserve 8 feet for the lanes.

"We made the decision based on costs," said Ming Gao, a DOT engineer who oversaw the project's development phase.

Built for speed

Twelve-foot-wide lanes for cars also killed the bike lanes. "You don't want 11-foot lanes," Gao said. "They have less capacity, and you get bumper-to-bumper traffic because cars and tracks must go slower."

But Hagelin said the DOT's allegiance to 12-foot lanes encourages speeding, a problem on Bruce B. Downs and its 45 mph speed limit.

"You don't need 12-foot lanes," he said. "The best way to slow down traffic is with narrow lanes, where people feel they have less wiggle room. The more comfortable they feel, the faster they will go."

Gao said the DOT was also instructed to set aside space for a future mode of mass transit, be it a rapid bus lane or railway.

Yet the DOT ended up reserving only 20 feet of transit space, which is not enough for any round-trip system.

"Twenty feet of right of way is not enough," Ray Miller, the executive director of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, said during a June interview. "Typically you need 11 or 12 feet each way for transit to be feasible."

Again, space for motorized vehicles took precedence, Gao said.

"That's what we had left, the 20 feet," Gao said. "We had meetings out in New Tampa, and 99 percent of the citizens told us they wanted a highway. There was zero support for transit."

Gao said the DOT didn't conduct a scientific poll of New Tampa residents. It held one public meeting at Wharton High School and several workshops at various locations.

"Did people get enough information about this project?" Gao said. "Yeah. I would walk into Publix and people would grab me and say, "Hey, when are you going to build that road?' They knew what we were doing."

But many of New Tampa's residents had jobs, and it was difficult for them to attend these meetings, said Jim Fleming, the vice chairman of the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

"At the time of the public meeting, we did try to mobilize them," Fleming said. "We sent out an alert. For whatever reason, I was the only one who ended up going."

Cars "R' Us

The last opportunity cyclists have is in the project's design phase, which county engineers expect to wrap up by spring.

County officials are negotiating with the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee about a 3-foot shoulder, not marked, that bikes could use. For that, however, they must approve whittling down the width of six of the eight lanes from 12 feet to 11 feet.

Project engineer Scott Passmore said that even if that bike space is reserved, cyclists would still have to ride a bike path for about a half-mile under the Interstate 75 overpass.

Fleming said the compromise would be suitable only if the shoulder is marked for cyclists through intersections, so motorists turning right don't cut them off.

"It's better than nothing," Fleming said.

But in Tampa, and the entire state, activists say compromises are not what's needed to shake a reputation for nurturing an automobile monopoly on public streets that imperils cyclists and pedestrians.

The nonprofit Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington, D.C., regularly ranks the Tampa Bay region, along with Orlando and Miami, as the most dangerous in the country for pedestrians and cyclists. According to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Florida ranked second, with 101 cycling deaths, in 2003. The state that had the most, with 106, was California, which has twice as many residents as Florida.

Other cities are aggressively pursuing programs aimed at getting residents to choose the bike over the car. Chicago has striped more than 100 miles of bike lanes on its streets while installing more than 10,000 bike racks in the last five years. In states like Oregon, California and Minnesota, the typical bike lane width starts at 6 feet.

"Cities that cater to cyclists will have an advantage," said Clarke, the League of American Bicyclists director. "They tend to be affluent, high-tech employees with an expectation for a rich quality of life. Competitive cities will have those amenities to offer employers. The faceless suburban office parks from the 1960s and 1970s that can be reached only by car won't have the same appeal."

Hillsborough County recognized the need for bike facilities in the late 1970s when the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee was formed. But lately, major road projects seem to be discarding space for bikes, said Gina Torres, a bicycle-pedestrian coordinator for the Metropolitan Planning Commission.

"A trend we've noticed lately is that even though they are standard, bike lanes are the first thing that gets cut in a road project," Torres said. "If we don't keep an eye on it, the lanes won't be there."

It's a trend that defies logic, said Maitland.

"For all we hear that America needs to improve its health and change its gas-guzzling ways, to build a road like this without bike lanes is tremendously hypocritical," he said. "They don't make cycling a viable option by keeping it this dangerous."

- Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 4, 2005, 14:09:38]


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