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Instead of free bikes for RNC, Tampa will get pedal buses

TAMPA — Visitors to the Democratic and Republican conventions four years ago were treated to 1,000 bikes they could use to weave around gridlock to their downtown destinations.

Provided by the health care company Humana, the loaned bikes in Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul were a smash, inspiring similar share programs in those cities and throughout the nation in a wave that is helping redefine the urban commute.

But as the popular "Freewheelin" program is set for a relaunch next month, Tampa and Charlotte won't be getting the bikes.

Instead, Humana will promote good health with a supply of 20 peculiar-looking vehicles that seat up to eight passengers who pedal while a driver steers them through an approved route of downtown streets.

"Bikes won't work as well because you don't have the infrastructure support for bikes," said Mitch Lubitz, a Humana spokesman. "Both cities in 2008 had things like bike paths and bike lanes. We don't have much of that here."

Dubbed pedal buses, the vehicles-by-committee look fun. They're certainly a talker. And they do promote exercise.

But for cycling advocates, it's yet another reminder — and a hokey one at that — of how far Tampa is falling behind other cities that are redesigning their streets for bicycles.

"It's perhaps understandable, but it's a shame that Humana has changed the program," said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Cyclists, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. "It's a fun way for people to get exercise, but the buses are impractical. It would have been better to provide a legacy."

It's hard to overstate the influence that Humana's program has had in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver. At the time, no major American city had an extensive bike share program.

In two weeks, visitors at the conventions logged more than 7,500 rides and 41,000 miles on the borrowed bikes. The programs were so successful they flourish in both cities today. Several cities have debuted programs, and New York City will begin one next month with 10,000 free bikes.

"Bike commuting has skyrocketed in the last four years, thanks to bike share," said Steve Sander, a marketing director for Denver who credits Humana with inspiring that city's program. "It has forced the hand of the city in building more bike infrastructure."

Humana's decision is felt more in Tampa. That's because Charlotte already has a bike program. It will provide 200 bikes at 20 stations throughout an area that will be within the Democratic National Convention's perimeter. Charlotte's business district is working with another health care provider, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, in providing those bikes, which will be a permanent program unrelated to the DNC.

By contrast, Tampa is still trying to forget its previous experience with bike sharing — in 1997.

That's when city officials salvaged about 50 bikes from unclaimed police inventory and painted them a garish orange for safety reasons. The "orangecycles" were left unlocked throughout downtown for anyone to ride. But bike share quickly became bike pawn as they vanished from racks within a week. The program was quietly scrapped.

Since then, other local groups have started programs, only to struggle with more theft.

Given that experience and Tampa's reputation as one of the nation's deadliest cities for cyclists, biking advocates may be disappointed with Humana's decision, but don't necessarily fault it.

"It's a shame they won't have conventional bikes," said Alan Snel, director of a coalition of 10 bike shops in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties called Southwest Florida Bicycle United Dealers. "But I understand why."

Pedal buses do have one feature bikes don't: a roof to protect passengers from late-summer rainstorms.

Dr. Scott Latimer, a Humana executive in the Central Florida region, said the pedal buses provide as much exercise as moderate biking. About 380 calories could be burned in 30 minutes with the type of pedaling passengers can do on the buses, Latimer said. Five stations in and around downtown Tampa will be stocked with fruit stands and water. Passengers can also take health screenings that test blood pressure and body mass.

"The hope is that when people take a break, some will walk but others hopefully can pedal," said Latimer. "We're trying to get out the larger message that inactivity leads to obesity."

The Tampa City Council is scheduled to give final approval today for the use of pedal buses in Tampa. But the buses represent a lost opportunity to show Tampa residents that bikes, used on a massive scale, can be incorporated into modern life, said Snel.

"The community has to acknowledge, through public policy, that we are behind," he said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or mvansickler@tampabay.com.

Instead of free bikes for RNC, Tampa will get pedal buses 07/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 18, 2012 11:36pm]
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