TAMPA — It was one of cyclist Kris Milster's first trips in the new bike lane on Platt Street Tuesday afternoon and he was already dancing an unsteady tango with a Camaro.
The car tooled along the bike lane in front of Milster. "Dude, what are you doing?" he thought.
The Camaro's driver was doing what driver's in Florida do better than those just about anywhere else — endangering bicyclists.
Road crews this week were putting the finishing touches on the new bike lane on eastbound Platt Street, the first of its kind in Tampa, as city officials continue to combat the area's reputation as one of the least-bicycle friendly area's in the nation. The lane stretches from S Armenia Avenue to Bayshore Boulevard.
Work has begun nearby on a similar lane on westbound Cleveland Street, which will be finished in about 10 weeks.
It's the city's first "buffered" bike lane, meaning the lane offers a striped three-foot divided zone between bicycles and vehicle traffic. The lane close to intersections posing a greater risk to bikers is painted bright green.
The Platt Street bicycle project is part of Mayor Bob Buckhorn's concept of "street dieting"— reducing lanes of car traffic to add space for pedestrians and bicycles.
Buckhorn said he occasionally takes a bicycle out on Tampa roadways, a process he acknowledges can be "a pretty intimidating experience."
"If we're going to be a livable city, we need to be able to share the roads with bicycles," Buckhorn said. "And making the city less car dependant, more walkable, more user friendly for bicyclists and pedestrians will make Tampa a better city."
The city reduced Platt from three to two lanes, narrowed the existing vehicle lanes from 12 to 10 feet, dropped the speed limit from 40 to 35 mph and added 86 additional parking spaces, which the mayor said will help spark retail development. The entire project's cost: $1.4 million.
Tampa has added 22 miles of new bike lanes in the last three years, twice what previously existed. Plans call for an additional 24 miles. But Buckhorn cautioned that Tampa may be unable to create many additional buffered bicycle lanes given a simple lack of space in areas that are already too congested.
"Because we're an older city, the streets weren't designed for bikes," he said.
Florida consistently ranks near the top of the nation in bicycle fatalities. The League of American Bikers reported that Florida six deaths per million residents from 2008 to 2012 was the highest in the nation, nearly twice second-place Arizona's 3.2 deaths per million.
For bicyclists who are used to dodging traffic and have long complained that Florida cities don't think about bicyclists in urban planning, the new bike lane is a positive step forward.
"I think it's a decent try on Tampa's part," said Milster, 29, a Tampa resident who encountered the Camaro. "It's not bad. But you have to be very aware of your surroundings. And you can't ride super fast because of the traffic."
But he said the city lacks an organized network of bike paths. Milster said the existing lanes are too disconnected. "If the city wants to create a bike culture, it needs to do more," he said.
The Platt Street improvements, though applauded by many bicyclists, have created some confusion for drivers negotiating their commute. The city has received some complaints.
Tampa police are writing about 15 to 25 warnings a day to drivers who illegally travel in the bike lane. Most citations have been issued during the morning rush hour. Police will start issuing $153 citations later this month.
"We want to get drivers used to the new pattern, so that everybody can be safe," said Tampa police spokeswoman Janelle McGregor. "Drivers are starting to get accustomed to it."
A couple of warnings have been issued to bicyclists for riding in their lane but going in the wrong direction. The bike lane, like Platt, is one way.
Some residents who live near Platt have complained about the reduction of vehicle lanes and contend the bike lane makes it more difficult to turn right into local neighborhoods.
"I think it's a very dangerous road," said Debbie Zomermaand, who lives on Davis Islands and said the new car lanes are too narrow. "It's only a matter of time before somebody gets seriously injured … People are confused."
Jim Shirk, a minority owner in a bike shop who serves on a panel that advises regional planners on bike issues, said he has little sympathy.
"Frankly, I find that is a non-argument," Shirk said. "Drivers put up with all the changes that are made on Interstate 275. Nobody is going to convince me that putting a few new stripes on a roadway is suddenly going to befuddle drivers. Bicyclists have a right to be on the road. And they have a right not to be killed."
Jack Wyatt, 65, a past president of the Historic Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, said he found the new bike lane a good alternative to riding a bike on taking Bayshore Boulevard into the downtown area and said it might spark increased shopping for businesses on or near Platt.
"I really do think Tampa is smart enough to learn a new trick," Wyatt said.
Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.