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Time for a change in Tampa's deadly bicycle culture

LeRoy Collins Jr. lived 75 impressive years.

Son of a Florida governor, a husband, father and grandfather of eight, Collins served in the Navy, retired as a two-star rear admiral and headed the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

But in the end, the man they called the Admiral could not survive riding a bike on the streets of Tampa.

This is the state of our state, in recent years rated among the deadliest for bicyclists. A report last year named the Tampa Bay area the second most dangerous for pedestrians. And we live in a place where people generally like to be outside.

(Things are a little different in more bike-friendly St. Petersburg, a city with a bicycle-and-pedestrian coordinator. Cycling is so popular that the city actually is cracking down on cyclists about obeying traffic rules. A woman recently ticketed for rolling a stop sign turned out to be from Tampa but preferred to ride in St. Pete. Can you blame her?)

The intersection near downtown where Collins was hit by a driver turning left is heavily trafficked, and not just by cars. Students from the nearby University of Tampa run and bike through it. It is only a stone's throw from where a homeless woman was hit and killed by a teenager who sped away.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio sees it. "I think drivers generally in Florida do not look out for bicyclists," she says. "I don't think they're on their radar." When her husband goes out on his bike, "I don't want him on many of our streets," she says.

But how to fix it?

"You can't take an older city like Tampa with very constricted streets and slap a stripe down them and say, 'This is where a bike lane goes now,' " she says. The county has some great places to bike, the downtown Riverwalk will be bikable, and some change has come, like a bike lane added to busy Nebraska Avenue.

But progress is slow, and cyclists worry it's not a priority.

A week after his father's death, Ed Collins stood before the City Council talking about all his father was and asking for change. He has another plan in mind, too, he told me this week: Helping elect bike-friendly politicians.

"We're looking to contribute funds to candidates who get it," he says. Smart. They should be listening, since come March every City Council seat is up for grabs and Tampa will elect a new mayor.

The city is currently part of a study — yet another study, cycling advocates will tell you — about what to do.

Some suggestions: aggressive PR to get us motorists used to sharing the road, a serious culture change similar to back when we started talking about drinking and driving or buckling up. Share-the-road traffic signs in heavily-biked areas. (In my neighborhood, we have signs warning drivers to watch out for ducks.) A hard look at where bike lanes make sense.

Ed Collins says everyone expected his father to live to be 100, longevity being a Collins family tradition. His dad was looking forward to Thanksgiving with the family.

At that busy intersection, someone mounted what they call a Ghost Bike, painted white.

"They say it's a memorial for LeRoy Collins," his son says. "It's more about: A cyclist was killed at that intersection. Maybe somebody will take that extra second to look both ways before plowing through."

Time for a change in Tampa's deadly bicycle culture 09/16/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2010 9:08pm]

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