Commuting by cycling
Seasoned cyclists give encouragement and advice to commuters who want savings and exercise.
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
Published April 30, 2007
TAMPA - Bicycle to work? In Florida? Are you nuts?
That's a reaction that every bike-riding commuter has heard at one time or another. Nevertheless, a new campaign called Tampa BayCycle is trying to get 1, 000 people in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to try pedaling to work at least once during May, which is National Bike Month.
Organizers are building an army of bicycle ambassadors on both sides of Tampa Bay - they have 93 so far - to recruit others from beyond the circle of hard-core biking fanatics.
The goal is to get more people to view their bikes as a useful mode of transportation rather than just an exercise toy.
"If you work 3 to 5 miles away from your house, you could be biking to your job. You'll save money, you'll feel better. You just have to give it a try, " says longtime bicycle commuter Alan Snel of Seminole Heights.
But he adds a note of caution: "You have to be extremely careful and bike very defensively. I take evasive action on a weekly basis when cars cut me off."
A surprising number of people - more than 10, 000, according to the U.S. Census - regularly commute by bike in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Many will tell you it's environmentally sound, economically thrifty and great for health and fitness. Others do it because they have to; they can't afford a car.
But it can intimidating to try it in the land of heat, thunderstorms and scary drivers.
Seasoned bike commuters offer this advice:
- Gear up. Wear a helmet and equip your bike with lights.
- Ride on the street instead of the sidewalk. It's actually safer, they say, because most bicycle accidents happen when drivers turn off a road and don't see a cyclist on a sidewalk. Use the street unless you're not confident on a busy or narrow stretch of road. Also, ride with the flow of traffic, not against it.
- Plan ahead. Map out your route ahead of time. Try to find streets that have bike lanes or at least a shoulder. "Try it on a weekend when there's not going to be a lot of traffic, " said Nick Griffiths of New Tampa, who bikes 10 miles to his research job at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.
Hillsborough County has put together an elaborate "bicycling suitability map" of roads that are hospitable to cycling, and St. Petersburg is working on one.
- Wash up. "If your employer wants to support cycling, you need a shower. It's humid outside here, " said Julie Bond, who pedals to work at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at USF. Other riders scout out health clubs or YMCAs near work. Still others make do with sinks, bathroom stalls and alcohol wipes, but that's obviously not for everyone.
- Get help. "Look to someone else who rides a bike and get advice, " said Bond. That's why she's helping to spearhead Tampa BayCycle, which seeks to recruit 100 cyclists who will encourage at least five friends, neighbors or co-workers to try two-wheel travel.
Individual riders and businesses can sign up and log their miles on the campaign's Web site, www.tampabaycycle.com, to be eligible to win prizes. The site is putting together a schedule of cycling events, including group rides during Bike to Work Week, May 14-18.
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What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, two public-interest groups in Washington, D.C., labeled the Tampa Bay area as the most dangerous metropolitan area in America in which to ride a bike.
Fast-forward to this May, when the League of American Bicyclists will present St. Petersburg with an award for being a "bicycle-friendly community."
A five-year project called CityTrails which, among other things, increased the city's bike lanes from 10 miles in 1993 to nearly 50 miles today and an expected 93 miles next year, said St. Petersburg bicycle coordinator Cheryl Stacks.
Tampa is way behind St. Petersburg on this front, cyclists say. Hillsborough's most bike-friendly areas are around USF and the northwestern suburbs around the Upper Tampa Bay Trail.
But bike lanes are being added to Nebraska Avenue and to Tampa and Jackson streets downtown by this summer, said Gena Torres, bicycle coordinator for the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization.
"We need more, " she said. "The people getting hurt on bikes out there are hard-working, blue-collar people. They're cleaning hotel rooms, serving food, working at Jiffy Lube. They're on bikes because they can't afford gas."
About 3 percent of Florida traffic deaths are bicycle fatalities. Between 2001 and 2005, there was an annual average of eight bicycle deaths in Pinellas, nine in Hillsborough, three in Pasco, and one each in Citrus and Hernando counties.
Of the 119 Floridians who died while bicycling in 2005, 90 percent weren't wearing helmets, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
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Other plans are afoot to open up the Tampa Bay area to bicycles. During the next decade or so, there are plans to link the 34-mile Pinellas Trail, popular with cyclists, with an eastern loop to complete a 75-mile circle around Pinellas County that will also connect to the Friendship Trail on the old Gandy Bridge.
As it is, 60 to 70 percent of people on the Pinellas Trail are using it not for recreation but to get to work, to school or for shopping, said Bert Valery Jr. of Indian Rocks Beach, who pushed to get the trail built.
Valery, who rides a half-mile to his insurance agency, became a bicycle safety advocate in 1983 after his teenage son was killed by a car while bicycling.
Census figures in 2000 showed that 7, 279 people in Pinellas and 3, 731 in Hillsborough usually commuted to work by bicycle.
Of course, that's still a tiny percentage of all travelers. But when gas prices hit $3 a gallon last summer, local bike commuters saw a surge in other people riding to work.
Now that local gas prices have crept back up to near $2.90, they're starting to seeing more riders again.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at 813 226-3435 or email@example.com.
2007 Bike Month
On Tuesday, a team of bicyclists will participate in the Proclamation Bicycle Relay. They will carry a proclamation to several Tampa Bay area cities, where officials will sign the document, declaring May as Bike Month. The stops include:
8:45 a.m.: Center of Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida, 4202 E Fowler Ave.; to be signed by Temple Terrace Mayor Joe Affronti
10 a.m.: Lykes Gaslight Square at Kennedy Avenue and Franklin Street, Tampa; to be signed by Mayor Pam Iorio
1 p.m.: City Hall, 175 Fifth St. N, St. Petersburg; to be signed by Mayor Rick Baker
3:30 p.m.: City Hall, 100 S Myrtle Ave., Clearwater; to be signed by Mayor Frank Hibbard
- For more information on this event and other Bike Month activities, visit www.tampabaycycle.com
- To get a copy of Hillsborough County's bicycling suitability map mailed to you, call the Tampa Downtown Partnership at (813) 221-3686 or the Hillsborough MPO at (813) 272-5940.