Light rail success rides on sidewalks

Published September 16, 2006

Light rail! Yes, let's jump on the latest bandwagon, this time one that runs on rails.

True, it will take a gazillion dollars and years to get light rail going, especially for a metro area that hasn't figured out buses, but the truth is, if light rail were dropped into place tomorrow, almost no one would ride it.

Now, why would that be?

Because unless you're going to the airport or even to the University of South Florida, an inclusive one-destination trip, you can't get there from here, "here" being where you get off the train. First, you need good public transportation. Hop off San Francisco's BART light rail line and hop onto the metro, which gets you around the city, or onto a bus, cable or street car. And then you walk.

Here - forget the cable and street cars please! - we don't have the buses, and we can't walk.

The buses are easy, or should be, and will cost less than a zillion dollars.

The walking is trickier.

Let's say you get off a slick Euro-designed train at Bay to Bay Boulevard and MacDill - there's a railroad crossing there now. Even without a stop along the rail line to make the location more desirable, you could walk around 10 blocks or less to a dozen restaurants - Japanese, high-end Italian, new American, Middle Eastern, pizza and sports bars. You could walk to bakeries, wine shops, a natural foods market/cafe, salons and day spas, boutiques, antique shops, home design/furniture/carpet stores, a linen shop, jeweler, kids' clothing boutique. And I've not listed them all.

You could do that if the streets - MacDill, in particular - had a continuous sidewalk uninterrupted by strip center parking lots that make walking a real danger sport. I use the word parking "lot" loosely. The worst are not really lots - cars just park on the asphalt between the building and the street. So you have to walk between street traffic and cars whose drivers are backing out into that street traffic. And they're not watching for you.

Even if there is a sidewalk, the parking area may have no entrance and exit, so cars are pulling in and out everywhere. And you're walking between them.

And even if the parking lot has a clearly identified exit and entrance, some less than civic-minded strip owners try to block access to their lot from the adjoining lots with low walls, hedges and fences. If you're walking, you're forced to veer right into traffic.

The heavier retail streets, like Dale Mabry, I'd almost say just forget it. But we can't just forget it. These are places people should be able to go to on the bus, get off and walk.

True, at a store like Wal-Mart the whole point is that you park in its lot and buy and do everything under the sun inside their store.

But neighboring big box stores would have crossover business, if you could get from one to the other. Try it at Borders and CompUSA, next door on N Dale Mabry. I did try once, but there's fence and a ditch between them.

A little farther south, Barnes & Noble and Office Depot are yards from each other in the same general retail - I don't know what you call it - area? You can get from one store's parking lot to the other, but you have to traverse a no man's land of grass and dirt.

The last time I made this trip, a man heading in the opposite direction quipped, "Out for a walk?"

Only in a city with no serious public transportation would that be a joke.

Sandra Thompson, a Tampa writer, can be reached at sthompson125@tampabay.rr.com. City Life appears on Saturday.