The Bottom of the Barrel for Commuters

It should come as no surprise to our many Tampa Bay-area readers, but the Tampa/St. Petersburg metropolitan area took a beating in Forbes Magazine when it was announced that we are DEAD LAST (60th out of 60 places) — the worst of the U.S. cities for commuters.

Folks around here know it stinks…where the few bicycle lanes and infrastructure are hard-fought concessions, bus service is spotty and inefficient, there is no light- or commuter-rail (yet) and millions of dollars are being poured into widening existing highways rather than alternatives to the motor vehicle. And statistically, we’ve been proven time and time again to be decidedly dangerous to the lives of bicyclists and pedestrians: 1 in every 10 US pedestrian fatalities is in Florida. 1 in every 6 US bicycle fatalities is in Florida. And within these deaths, the Tampa/St. Pete metro area is #2 in “Pedestrian Danger Index” (right behind Orlando).

One thing mentioned in the Forbes study is that the sweltering heat contributes to the unfriendliness of commuter choices such as bicycling and walking, and while that heat CAN be rough, I’d argue that it is much easier to deal with than the brutal cold faced by many other cities — and in those cities, choices abound for commuters. Some of the most bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly cities such as Minneapolis, Chicago, Portland, Toronto and Seattle have horrendous weather…cold, rain, snow and ice. Meanwhile, in a state which is blessed with nearly year-round nice weather, we suffer from a lack of choices and an out-of-touch political mindset. Florida just doesn’t get it…what little improvements we’ve seen are an afterthought, despite some very powerful and knowledgeable advocacy organizations and the ugly fatality statistics staring us all in the face.

There may be hope on the horizon, what with the Obama Administration announcing over $1 billion to create ahigh-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. But, as with all such projects, more money is needed to complete this line and taxpayers are going to be asked to vote for a penny sales tax increase. As you might imagine, this isn’t sitting well with a lot of area residents who can’t see a benefit to commuter rail and other improvements.

All this makes me want to pull up stakes and head somewhere else where the residents and the politicians understand and appreciate alternatives to the car. What do you think?


  1. Tracy

    Stay and fight. We need you where you are.

  2. Graham

    My commute every day involves traversing the Unfriendliest Bridge in the World. I know that you all are much more savvy and hardcore commuters than myself, so if I can keep the faith that people will eventually start to get it, you can too!

    As an aside, does anyone else find it humorous that the spam emails advertising a custom writing service are poorly written? Not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it?

  3. Ghost Rider

    @Graham — where is the Unfriendliest Bridge in the World?

    You’re right, of course…we can’t give up hope. It is demoralizing at times when I read about other cities making HUGE progress towards commuter-friendliness while my city lags so far behind. Luckily, we’ve got some good people “fighting the good fight” and positive changes are coming, slowly but surely.

    And I’m right there with you on the spam — we’re plagued by that stuff (poorly-written as it is).

  4. Matt

    Well, we in VA just suffered the abrupt defeat of a 3-foot-passing bill after everything looked great. Apparently the VA House Republican leadership decided the law was too liberal(or something?)… a similar bill passed unanimously in the VA Senate, but it was voted down on party lines in the House.

    However, we have recently made some progress in getting a few more bike lanes, etc… so it’s not all bad. But it’s definitely not rosy either – and like everyone, I’ve gotten my share of honks and name-calling and close passes.

  5. Elizabeth

    I was thinking about this very topic — bike commuter friendliness — just yesterday. Even in Chicago, we have our share of headaches and setbacks. But we need to keep fighting – someone does. It’s a good fight. Too bad political party lines have to get involved – a 3 foot passing law hurt no one and potentially saves some of us! Since all this legislation is political, we are a democracy – let’s vote in candidates who do get it! πŸ™‚

  6. Elizabeth

    Have you seen this campaign?

  7. Iron_Man

    It’s a little shocking to see how far down the list of most active states (which is at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least 5 days per week, or at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise at least 3 days per week) that Florida lands. Colder weather states actually dominate the top 20, while Florida falls in at 34th in the country. Still the difference is within ten percentage points of the top. Alaska at 56.7%, Vermont at 55.9%, Wisconsin at 55.6% making the top three versus Florida at 44.4%. Still that seems strange because every time I’ve visited Florida towns it seems everyone is out for a jog, a bike, or a skate. Perhaps Florida leaders are of the mindset that Floridians want to exercise in specific locations near the beaches or green spaces, and haven’t connected exercise with commuting like the more northern states have. The top three states with the most bicycle commuters are again colder weather states. Still we all know how woefully low the bicycle commuter percentages are regardless of ranking or state…..

    Is it the chicken and the egg? Did the infrastructure come first and people got active, or were the people active which spurred the infrastructure? I don’t know, I’m just spit-balling.

  8. Ellen

    I am actively looking for employment in a bike friendly area outside of Florida. I commute in Miami and am sick and tired of the lack of ANY Bike infrastructure. I will deal with inclement weather & higher taxes rather than the idiot third world drivers down here. If I worked for the FDOT, I would be ashamed of myself.

  9. Dave

    Jack don’t give up the fight.

    However as someone who lives in Wisconsin and commutes in temps from -5 to 105 I gotta say it’s a lot easier dealing with cold rather then hot. Tingling toes and fingers won’t keep me from a meeting with my boss. I can’t say the same thing for how I arrive at work some hot and humid August days. After a ride in the extreme cold I always feel energized, after a hot ride I often want to just lie down.

    Then again I never have to worry about the snow plows leaving 3 foot high piles of snow at the ends of the bike path in July.

    And I might just be the crazy one. Come winter I see very few other riders. I think cold is more intimidating to most people even if I find it easier to deal with then hotter weather.

    But in the end we all just have to deal with the situation we have. Keep trying to make yours as good as possible.

  10. Aaron

    I visited my girlfriend’s family in the Tarpon Springs area this winter. I really enjoyed the Pinellas trail and felt fairly comfortable in the downtown St. Pete area. The suburbs however were a different matter entirely. A car actually ran into a traffic calming device trying to pass me on a quiet residential street. In the short two mile or so strip between the trail and the house I was staying at I was screamed at, honked at and generally intimidated by at least half the cars that passed me on narrow roads with low <45 MPH speed limits. I consider myself a fairly competent urban rider but that experience left me shaken. Have you noticed this contrast between the urban core and the suburbs or was my experience abnormal?

  11. Ghost Rider

    @Aaron — I don’t really know if there’s a contrast between urban and suburban areas, as I live, work and do all my business within Tampa’s “urban corridor”. Besides, at this point my nerves are so deadened to crappy/uncaring drivers that I’m not sure I’d notice!

    @Dave — it could be that I am biased, having lived in the deep South my entire adult life. I’m certainly not designed for cold weather (ultra-low bodyfat index)…for me, I can always cool down but can’t always warm up.

  12. Graham

    @Ghost Rider: You make me laugh. I have the opposite problem. I can shovel snow all day in a T shirt, but as soon as the temp hits 70, I’m miserable. Lucky I moved to the NC beach, then, huh? πŸ™‚

    Also, the Unfriendliest Bridge might be a bit of hyberbole on my part, but it is the bridge between Beaufort and Morehead City, NC. I looked for a good picture of the roadbed, but I couldn’t find one and I don’t dare stop and take one myself from my bike. The actual speed on the bridge is unknown as no one ever pays any attention to it and the 18 inches between the guard rail and the lane are entirely consumed by a large step (supposed to be a walkway?).

    Anyway, it is just possible for a smaller vehicle to pass a bicyclist on the two lane bridge without hitting oncoming traffic and they do so, without slowing down. I tried taking the lane on the bridge once, but people just passed me by swerving into oncoming traffic and I figured that when there is a head on collision I was going to lose anyway, so I let them squeeze past me.

    I’m sure there are worse bridges, but that one has me white knuckled if I hit it at rush hour.

    Also, if it makes you feel any better, I have never seen a bike lane in eastern NC, either.

  13. BluesCat

    I’ve always wondered at the fact that Phoenix is NOT a Bicycling Mecca. In the afternoons, at any time of year, you can ride in a t-shirt and shorts. It’s a relatively “new” city as far as the size of the street rights-of-way go; so you have these big lanes crisscrossing the entire valley.

    Yet support for bicycling is schizophrenic at best. While there’s an ADOT program for informing bicyclists about the existence of various resources for biking in Arizona — and promoting their use — our Senator McCain is in cahoots with Senator Coburn of Oklahoma as coauthor of the “Out of Gas” manifesto which touts eliminating Federal funds for nationwide bicycling infrastructure.

    And even though there are a lot of marked bicycle lanes and excellent MUPs in Phoenix, it seems as though a lot of law enforcement people don’t really know how they are supposed to work (as you can see by the entry in my blog: A Real Jaw Dropper.)

    I have to admit, I don’t have a clue as to what is going on.

  14. Doug Jesseph

    I’m lucky that my Tampa commute is extremely easy by just about any standard: only eight miles each way, bike lane for at least half the route, nearly all the remainder on decently paved residential streets with low traffic. What makes the Tampa Bay area suck so badly for cyclists is the unending sprawl, which is in large part due to the city’s history as a cheap retirement destination. In FL, they build out rather than up, so we have ridiculously low housing densities and countless miles of roadway connecting it all into one big snarl. The iconic driver here in the winter months is a senior citizen in a white Buick whose atrophied driving skills pose a danger to all and sundry, but especially to cyclists.

    On the positive side, much of the recent road construction has included reasonably good bike lanes. If gasoline would get back above $4/gal they might just complete the streets around here.

  15. Ben W

    If you feel the cause is just and worthy then by all means, get politically involved and do what you can to improve the circumstances for cyclists there in Florida. However you aren’t under any obligation to stay and fight for anything. If the culture is actively hostile to your way of life, there’s nothing wrong with getting the heck out of there. Life’s too short to spend fighting an unappreciated battle. Sometimes you just have to let the ignorent and narrow minded wallow in their own miserable creations, for the sake of your own sanity and happiness.

  16. Kagi

    BluesCat — Seriously, have you really got no idea what’s going on? I grew up in Florida, which is pretty similar to Arizona, and it’s not hard to figure out:

    1. Developers want to build auto-centered sprawl because it’s cheap and easy. They want to keep doing it endlessly.

    2. Developers own the government.

    3. Everyone else suffers.

    It’s not too different where I now live in NC, either — I just witnessed a truly sickening display here in Greenville, where the city council just completely rolled over and contradicted its own development Master Plan because somebody wanted to build a Walmart.

    Until we all tell the developers that we don’t want what they’re selling, it won’t change.

  17. Gabriel

    Don’t lose hope, Jack. You’ve got a lot of support with good organizations in the bay area, and mayor Iorio seems to “get it”. I’m lucky enough to live near downtown St. Pete, and the last 10 years have transformed this part of the area, in terms of cycling infrastructure. It can be done. Now what we need to do is figure out how to win over the automobile drivers…

    In Florida we’re always going to have to live with the fact that most of the infrastructure was built during our nation’s love affair with driving between downtown and the suburbs at 75 MPH. The UP side of this is that most roads have room to have a bike lane painted on them. The downside is that few of them DO have a bike lane, there are many, many deathtraps for pedestrians and cyclists alike. I fear that we’re going to have to wait for the next road-repair cycle to turn before certain areas — like the Tampa urban core, and mid-Pinellas county, and much of Florida built in the last half of the 20th century — can become even remotely traversable by bike without nerves of steel.

  18. Ghost Rider

    @Gabriel…Iorio doesn’t get it. She sure talks a good game, though. I’m not sure if you follow my friend Alan’s blog, but he regularly posts articles that show just how much the City of Tampa is unwilling to accomodate anything but cars.

    But yes, there HAVE been improvements — Rick Baker was a godsend for St. Petersburg and I think with a few more people like him in political office, we could see some real positive changes.

  19. dukiebiddle

    Matt and Elizabeth, it should be noted that VA does already have a 2 foot passing law. Certainly not ideal, but much better than most states. Still, the response to the bill from the Republicans was moronic. All they did was stand up and grouse about libral bicyclists not respecting drivers. Nobody actually addressed either the strengths or the weaknesses of the proposal. Too bad nobody in the chamber pointed out to them that those commie pinko states Utah and Oklahoma already had a 3 foot passing law. Darned liberal Mormons… they were all born in Kenya, ya know.

    I’ll agree with those that are saying hot/cold/pleasant/miserable is relative. Personally, I feel the cold is something I can adjust for, while gulf coast humidity terrifies me. And Portland and Seattle have much better weather then they or anybody else claims. I doesn’t even all that rainy compared to the stories we all hear [every east coast city from Houston to Boston get more average annual rain]… overcast and misty/drizzly, sure, but everybody can ride in that. One of the reasons I think the Pacific Northwest is so far ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to bicycle infrastructure is the the more temperate climate.

  20. Raiyn

    The Pinellas trail extension into downtown was a nice thing from Mr. Baker, but the rocket scientists he had painting bile lanes were MORONS. (I’ve griped about this before here so I’ll leave it at this: bike lanes are supposed to follow the traffic lane NOT the frakking curb.)

    I can only hope that the clown they voted in(he wants to cut the library and some other departmental budgets by 25% while keeping a do nothing cronie on the payroll to the tune of 200k a year)does nothing to harm the progress already made and set into motion prior to his unfortunate election. Did I mention I don’t care for the guy?

  21. BluesCat

    Kagi – I know you are right in your analysis of the HISTORICAL power of the developers in Arizona.

    I’ve always thought that McCain, as one of the notorious “Keating Five” congressmen who were responsible for the collapse of the Savings and Loan industry in the late 80’s, had lost a lot of his power over the rubber-stamping of developer’s interests. And with the recent total collapse of the housing market in Arizona, along with spiraling gas prices and the bankruptcies in the automobile industry, I thought I had detected a willingness by government and private enterprise to pursue a different agenda as far as forms of alternative transportation.

    But, you may well be right, and the only thing I was seeing was the fat cats taking a breather before attempting to return to business as usual. (sigh)

  22. Steve

    2 decades ago, I also commuted across the MHC/Beaufort Bridge and immediately thought of that very bridge when you wrote “Unfriendliest Bridge in the world”. Still commuting on that 1990 Bridgestone MB-2, but in the MOST bike-friendly city in the world: Amsterdam.
    Steve – in MHC for the holidays – flying back to A’dam tomorrow.

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