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A transportation planner learns a hard lesson about Pinellas' bike trails

CLEARWATER — Time slowed down as Whit Blanton was launched over the handlebars of his bike, flew over the hood of a Honda Fit and crashed onto the surface of the Duke Energy Trail.

"You're surprised at how hard the pavement is from 6 feet up," he said.

Moments before, Blanton was on his way to work as the executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county's agency for coordinating transportation and land use plans.

Then he suddenly found himself lying on the ground near Old Coachman Road in front of Spectrum Field, waiting for paramedics to arrive.

The driver, a Philadelphia Phillies intern starting his first day of work, was pulling out of the spring training complex's parking lot. He was trying to see whether Old Coachman Road was clear of traffic.

From the trail, biking along at 10 mph, Blanton said the car was invisible to him, blocked by hedges and a fence. Blanton later learned he wasn't visible to the driver, either, as the Honda pulled forward onto the trail and into the bicycle's path.

Blanton said Clearwater police gave the driver a ticket for failing to yield the right-of-way in that collision on Monday. But the 52-year-old transportation planner later wrote on his blog that "we all recognized that design problems contributed to this crash."

Pinellas' bike and pedestrian trails are a crowning achievement for the county, but Blanton said there's still work to be done to make them safer. The trails were shoehorned into a sprawling, built-out county, and some segments have not been designed to mesh well with Pinellas' busy roads.

"We spend a lot of energy on our trails under the guise that they're the safe place to ride," Blanton said, "but this is kind of an object lesson that the trail isn't always the safe place."

He said the safest place for a bicyclist may not always be on the trail. The road can be safer, he said, where the cyclist rides with the flow of traffic, is visible to drivers and controls the lane right down the middle.

But roads pose other risks for bicyclists.

"It's rare that there's ever a crash from a car overtaking a bike," he said. "If you're willing to tolerate angry, screaming motorists, that's the safest place to be."

Blanton was able to ride away from the scene of the collision, riding the last 5 miles of his 7-mile commute to downtown Clearwater on a wobbly front tire.

Many others are not as fortunate. Bicycle crashes are a commonplace occurrence in Pinellas despite the addition of bicycle lanes and shared-use trails like the Duke Energy and Pinellas trails.

In 2016, 582 crashes involving cyclists were reported to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. There were two fatalities reported that year.

"We kill and injure way too many cyclists and pedestrians in this county," Blanton said.

It's a problem that's grown statewide. In 2011, there were about 5,000 reported bicycle crashes in Florida, where favorable bike-riding weather can be found year-round. By 2015, that number had ballooned to more than 7,000. Cyclist deaths statewide also surged 24 percent in the past five years, jumping from 120 fatalities in 2011 to 153 deaths in 2015.

Zain Adam, transportation planner for the city of Clearwater, said the city needs to look at these "conflict areas" such as the driveways that intersect bicycle trails.

"We have to look at the big picture, not just this site," he said, adding that the city later inspected the site of Blanton's crash, painted stripes on the roadway and will add a sign to alert drivers exiting the Phillies' complex about the trail.

Blanton said he still has a few bruises and scrapes from the crash, and his left shoulder doesn't move the way it used to.

"I'm still in a lot of pain," he said from atop a loaner bicycle he rode to work on Friday. His other bike is in the shop getting its front tire straightened out after its encounter with the car.

Dressed in a runner's shell, a high-visibility shirt and cycling gloves on a chilly Florida morning, Blanton continued on past the field while the Philadelphia Phillies began pulling in trucks for spring training.

"The trail is a tremendous accomplishment," Blanton said, but he added: "About 70 to 80 percent of its potential hasn't been tapped into."

Part of the problem, he said, is that the trail crosses so many jurisdictions, so fixing those issues will require cooperation among the county's many municipalities.

But he volunteered for the task ahead: "That's a project I'd like to undertake."

Contact Nathaniel Lash at Follow @Nat_Lash.

A transportation planner learns a hard lesson about Pinellas' bike trails 02/11/17 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2017 10:20pm]
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