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Bicycle safety advocate pushes to change Tampa Bay's car culture

Alan Snel, right, talks to Ed Collins, whose father, LeRoy Collins Jr., was killed in a bicycle accident on July 29. Snel and about 60 others rode Friday in Tampa on a vigil to remember six cyclists who have died since July 29.

SCOTT MCINTYRE | Times

Alan Snel, right, talks to Ed Collins, whose father, LeRoy Collins Jr., was killed in a bicycle accident on July 29. Snel and about 60 others rode Friday in Tampa on a vigil to remember six cyclists who have died since July 29.

TAMPA — Four years ago, Alan Snel transformed from a scribe into a pedaling prophet, foretelling the dangers of bikes vs. cars.

But the bald-shaven former journalist could have grown hair and eaten locusts for all the attention Tampa leaders in this asphalt wilderness paid him.

Once, he says, a public works official told him that a "Share the Road" sign cost too much to "maintain."

But during the past two months, the deaths of six Tampa Bay cyclists — including one Friday — have earned his requests more attention, and Snel has helped galvanize riders and bike shops trying to change the car culture.

"The only tragic part of what I do," Snel said, "is I felt I sounded the alarm."

Snel's blog, "Bicycle Stories: Celebrating Life by Bike," has become a death watch, and on Friday he led cyclists on a vigil through Tampa to remember the six killed since July 29.

Snel, 48, is the director of the South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers, which includes 10 bike dealers and two lawyers who pay him to lobby and organize. He also co-founded the Seminole Heights Bicycle Club.

He has worked with police to put safety messages on electronic billboards and will speak to the Tampa City Council this month about bicycle-friendly roads.

He's not shy about calling out leaders like Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who eliminated a planned bike lane from a street in April.

On Friday, Snel posted a Facebook message: "Sixth bicyclist death in the past 2 months. If you are a bicyclist, call Pam Iorio at 813-274-8903 and demand she identify bicycle safety as a TOP priority."

Iorio called Snel's remarks inflammatory. "It always bothers me that someone takes a personal tragedy of a family and spins it into a cause," she said.

She said her push for mass transit will help bikers by taking cars off roads.

Bicycles have always been Snel's companion since he was a kid on a heavy Huffy in New York. Twice, he rode cross-country, dragging a broken bike like a rickshaw in Wyoming, passing through a bison herd, riding on a rumbling road in the 1989 California earthquake.

"Much like a cowboy and a horse," Snel says of his four bikes.

For 23 years, he was a newspaper reporter, jumping between bike progressive New York, Denver and Seattle, before he joined the Tampa Tribune in 2004. Locally, he discovered roads, politicians and a community that didn't value bicycle safety.

Forbes.com ranked Tampa Bay last this year among 60 metropolitan areas in commuting, which factored in bicyclists.

Here, Snel's hobby morphed into cause, then career. He left the paper in 2006 and took a five-month contract to organize the first Tampa Bay Bicycle Bash festival, now in its fifth year. Afterward, he sold his skills to bike shops, telling them he could unify their voices for clout.

"The average person could not survive on what I make working to promote bicycling," he said. "It's a cause. Emotionally, that's how I keep going."

Not all bike dealers have heard of Snel or met him. Some, including Dave Mulholland, owner of the Bike Room in St. Petersburg, says advocacy starts with more folks on spokes than spokesmen.

Joshua Holton, another bike advocate, agreed but said Snel seems more driven than most. "As far as I know, that's the only thing he does," he said.

Close calls have never made Snel consider hanging up his spokes.

"Just because bicycling is tragically in the news now," he said, "I am in no way rebuffed off the road."

He likens bikes to boats, meant to sail, not sit in harbors.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Bicycle safety advocate pushes to change Tampa Bay's car culture 10/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 11:48pm]

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