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Editorial: Maybe Bayshore, but somewhere Tampa needs pedestrian oases

Bayshore Boulevard may not be the right spot for a once-a-week, car-free zone, but the Tampa City Council was right when it instructed its staff to keep an open mind. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2011)]

The idea of closing off Bayshore Boulevard to cars every Sunday, proposed by an advocacy group for pedestrians and bicyclists, sounds a bit extreme.

But itís heartening to see that members of the Tampa City Council didnít dismiss the idea out of hand when it was presented to them at their most recent meeting. Maybe not the South Tampa lifeline that is Bayshore, or maybe not every week, but designating thoroughfares for the use of pedestrians and bicyclists is an idea Tampa should embrace.

The nonprofit group Walk Bike Tampa proposed the restrictions as a way for families, bicyclists, older folks, disabled people and children to enjoy a communal space free of traffic whizzing past.

Thatís a worthy goal.

Car-free zones can also draw attention to this transit-starved communityís nearly exclusive reliance on the inefficient, gas-guzzling, fume-belching, single-occupant automobile to get around. We would be forced to confront unhealthy routines, if only for a day, when pulling up to a road block to see crowds on foot and on two wheels enjoying themselves on the other side.

Closing roads for any reason risks road rage on the part of motorists and a backlash that can prove counterproductive. But all kinds of routines will need busting if progress is to be made in reducing our reliance on the car.

City Council member Mike Suarez drew out this point during the recent council meeting in his exchange with the city staffís transportation chief.

It seems the staff was cool to the idea of closing Bayshore Boulevard, ticking off a litany of ó yes ó roadblocks, including costs, insurance, permitting concerns, limited police resources, and the failure of Bike Walk Tampa to be specific about how many lanes would be closed for how long.

The refreshing response from Councilman Suarez: "You ought to open your mind a little bit on this."

Council member Yolie Capin said the Bayshore proposal lacks common sense and suggested West Cypress Street as a possible alternative, as reported by staff writer Charlie Frago of the Tampa Bay Times. She may be right, and maybe a better choice would be a stretch of roadway where thereís more for revelers to do than along largely residential Bayshore.

Still, the idea may be worth trying. With its signature sidewalk, this long, graceful, bayfront stretch already is a mecca for pedestrians and bicyclists. As Walk Bike Tampa notes, it would connect with the popular Tampa Riverwalk. Whatís more, the community already embraces the idea of closing Bayshore for the Gasparilla parades and road races. It wouldnít even have to be for an entire day.

Whether a Sunday shutdown ever comes to pass, changes are on the way to make Bayshore Boulevard more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, council members reassured the advocates. These include a speed limit of 35 mph, adding a stretch of bike lane, and installing more mid-block crossings to ease the mad dash across the wide boulevard.

Through the same international initiative that inspired the Walk Bike Tampa proposal ó known as Cyclovia, Ciclovia and Open Streets ó the cities of Tampa and Temple Terrace have closed major roads for a day to vehicles before. Eight Florida cities including Clearwater are regular participants, the initiativeís website says.

Itís a fledgling effort here, with crowds just a fraction of the 50,000 people reported in some communities. But itís one thatís worth expanding in Hillsborough County, and beyond a city already sympathetic to alternative forms of transportation into more suburban areas ó like Brandon, Carrollwood or Apollo Beach.

To be sure, this is a small and largely symbolic step toward the sweeping improvements in transportation that the Tampa area so desperately needs.

But in time, these temporary oases for pedestrians and bicyclists might blossom into permanent zones where people can stop and smell the flowers ó and where we can show that the pathways connecting us need not be the exclusive province of the automobile.