Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Life of a Tampa Bicyclist

Funny how shitty bicycle conditions on roads in Tampa will either cause people to simply refuse to bike on those streets or cause them to adapt and do unorthodox things to stay alive.

Me? I adapted.

And I do unorthodox things.

Like playing the role of smiling bicycling ambassador and using friendly hand signals while cycling to wave drivers behind me to go ahead of me or flashing the peace sign to oncoming drivers in the opposite lanes.

I know I must look like an idiot.

But I'm not going to let Pam Iorio and everyone below her in the Tampa city government pecking order who blow off bicycle infrastructure improvements keep me from doing what I love and comes so naturally -- ride a bicycle, safely.

I realize I chose Tampa as my home base, which means cycling on the city streets around here to the places which are really great to bike -- like Flatwoods or hilly Pasco County. It also means I have to bike on these roads to do shopping or go to the post office or visit a friend. I can't accept driving a car for two or three or five miles when a bicycle is so much more efficient and enjoyable. It also saves fuel and wear-and-tear on the car.

I don't like throwing my bicycle in a car to go to a place to bike that's around the Tampa area. In fact, I have lived all over the country and I never lived in an area that has so many people who drive with their bicycle to another place to use their bicycle.

So I use those ambassadorial techniques to become instant friends with drivers so that we can safely co-exist on the very narrow streets of Tampa.

It works. I call it the Snel Interface Bicycle System -- or SIBS for short. I offer amiable hand gestures to every driver who sees me -- flashing the peace sign, throwing them the power fist, giving them the number one index finger. (I know, some of you are thinking that giving the middle finger is the finger you'd like to use).

I'm tired of confrontations with drivers in Tampa who are poorly educated about a bicyclist right to the road -- including being in the middle of the lane if that lane is too narrow.

To reach Flatwoods from my house, I bike through the Rowlett Park/Sulphur Springs area of Tampa where bicyclists on the road are usually not treated too well. When I first moved here nearly six years ago, I used to get yelled at and screamed at and harrassed to get off the road.

About five years ago, one idiot was so upset that he had to wait five seconds behind me to pass that he buzzed me, then turned off the road along the grass and assumed the boxer's fighting position to actually engage me in a fistfight.

What an asshole. It was so ludicrous a situation that I just passed him on my bicycle and laughed.

My SIBS technique has improved the situation. So much so that one driver in Sulphur Springs actually smiled and called me Lance Armstrong. That's a long way from the dolt who wanted to fight me on the road.

Too bad the city of Tampa won't help. City government employees who oversee road building resist designing streets that are wide enough and hospitable for bicyclists because they began their careers when the goal was to move only one form of transportation fast -- namely, cars.

But that era is gone and people want to get around by many ways -- except the city of Tampa's mayor, Pam Iorio, has a lovely public persona but gives lip service to making our streets more hospitable and safer for bicyclists. Nice lady. But she gets an F for helping bicyclists.

In my nearly six years of living in Tampa, only two CITY streets have new bike lanes:

-- less than a mile of bike lanes on Manhattan Avenue.
-- a section of 40th Street.

It was the Florida DOT that put bike lanes on state-controlled Nebraska Avenue and Tampa Street and on Jackson in downtown Tampa.

The city of Tampa VIOLATED its own master plan by failing to put bike lanes on Cass and Tyler in downtown Tampa even though utilities are being installed below the downtown streets and those two streets are earmarked for bike lanes, according to the city's own planning document. The roads will be re-surfaced and it would have been an ideal opportunity to stripe bike lanes as part of the utility project. Most cities would put bike lanes on roads designated for bike lanes when they're re-surfaced -- but not Tampa city government, which blew it off.

There are other wide one-way roads in Tampa that are ideal for bike lanes -- southbound Armenia and Platt heading towards downtown. But the city's public works transportation employees turn a deaf ear.

And how about the city's signature road -- Bayshore? How long do we have to wait for this road to be re-surfaced and bike lanes installed for the entire length of Bayshore from Platt to Gandy? I rarely bike on Bayshore because the road surface is horrible, and one side of Bayshore doesn't have a bike lane while the other side of Bayshore has a bike lane that fizzles out a mile from downtown in favor of a third traffic lane for cars. Shameful stuff city of Tampa.

Every city that has embraced bicycling and supported bicycling has flourished. They can be big cities such as New York or Chicago or smaller cities such as Portland, Minneapolis or Madison or small cities such as Davis, Calif. or Boulder.

If I was Pam Iorio or Steve Daignault, Tampa's administrator of public works and utilities, I'd be ashamed to wake up every morning knowing that Tampa finishes last in the country in pedestrian and bicycle safety. That's not my opinion. That's the opinion of independent reports that come out year after year and rank Tampa near the bottom.

Build all the art museums and light rail systems you want Pam Iorio. Too bad the roads leading to those places are so poorly designed for bicyclists.

I didn't plan to get so involved in bicycle advocacy. I was a reporter for many years and worked at cool places around the country -- from metro New York to Denver. I liked writing and talking with people and reporting and the comraderie of the newsrooms I worked in. But I saw the writing on the wall and realized the newspaper business was dying and had management that failed to grasp the economic consequences of a public that was getting their information through other mediums.

My last stop was the Tampa Tribune and I quit three years ago before the big implosion came in the newspaper business. I like to think that I didn't leave the newspaper business. The newspaper business left me.

But when I worked at the Tribune, I called the Tampa public works department about installing a "Share the Road" sign on Rowlett Park Drive, a very narrow two-lane road I use to bike from my home out to the USF area and eventually Flatwoods.

The woman in public works at the city office told me, "It costs too much to maintain a Share the Road sign."

That pathetic lame answer still drives me to this day to bike to city council meetings and TBARTA meetings and county commission meetings to tell our "leaders" that the Tampa area deserves safer roads and better infrastructure for cyclists.

Despite the city of Tampa's resistance to making its streets friendly for bicyclists, I joined several folks in the Seminole Heights neighborhood to form a bike club last year that encourages local residents to bike in the streets and connect with out neighborhoods and neighbors. The Seminole Heights Bicycle Club was featured in Bicycling Magazine's November edition, is on the cover of the current Old Seminole Heights newsletter and was praised by the Florida Bicycle Association at a recent statewide meeting as the new model for bike clubs.

So Pam Iorio and Steve Daignault and all you other city road engineers who don't like bike lanes and accessibility for cyclists and pedestrians, I'm not going away soon.

I'm going to hound your asses to improve infrastructure for bicyclists. In fact, I'm stepping up my appearances in December at public meetings. The city of Tampa's resistance to helping bicyclists doesn't discourage me -- it makes me more determined.

After all, I'm a long-distance cyclist. I'm used to long trips -- and I'm used to taking the time necessary to get to the places I need to get to.


GhostRider said...


On behalf of the many cyclists who benefit from your tireless ambassadorial efforts and appearances at city/county/regional meetings, please let me offer you a big bikey hug!

Anonymous said...

As a fellow cyclist and bike commuter, I have to say bravo! Great post Alan.

Chip said...

Nice rant, Alan. Sounds like you're mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. That makes two of us.
Funny how Cass and Tyler will not get bike lanes even though they are in the Master Plan, while Himes was recently re-paved but got not b-lanes because it was not identified in the MP. Public Works is a big part of this problem and it's time they got called out. And you're right that Iorio has been a huge disappointment. With that recent study and the headlines it has received, the time is ripe to turn up the heat on planners/politicians...

Picot Floyd said...

For my thanksgiving, I say "Here here!" I am so glad to have you as friend and fellow urban cyclist.

Steve S said...

living in Palm Harbor,I'm blessed we have roads that are much more bike friendly than Hillsborough...but I do ride enough thru Tampa and outlying areas to see that it's pretty bad...thanks as always Alan for taking the stance...