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Are roads ready for commuter biking?

I got in the spirit of National Bike to Work Week last Friday and decided to put my cycling enthusiasm to the test. With city officials boasting about our new bike lanes, I figured I'd take the challenge.

So, I took a 13-mile trek from my New Tampa apartment to the St. Petersburg Times' downtown Tampa office (bike week actually started Monday and ends today.)

Normally, my Friday morning starts at 9 with a slow wake-up, a 10:30 departure to the office and an easy 20-minute drive on Interstate 275. But that day I gave myself some extra time. By 9:30, I was weaving through the back streets of East Tampa, taking a route recommended by a local biking expert.

The morning greeted me with a balmy 80 degrees, some slight wind and anxiety — if there's one thing a cyclist hates, it's wind.

Before graduating from the University of South Florida, I regularly biked to class, so I knew what to expect. Bruce B. Downs Boulevard was fast-paced and nerve-racking as usual; the same was true along Fowler Avenue. The vast, car-choked pseudo-highways aren't my idea of nice commuter roads, but the fresh asphalt was nice on the saddle.

I turned south onto McKinley Drive, the street separating Busch Gardens and Adventure Island. I had traveled 4 miles, surprisingly all in bike lanes.

From there, I weaved past Rowlett Park, crossed a shimmering Hillsborough River and waved at a group of mothers with strollers on 22nd Street. When was the last time Hanna Avenue was paved? I thought, rolling over the road's bumps and cracks.

More than once, I thought I would get forced off Rowlett Park Drive. There was a general disregard for the 3-foot buffer law that's supposed to separate cyclists and drivers, and traffic was far too fast for my liking. It amazed me how many people either didn't know or didn't care that I had a right to be on that road. The Share the Road signs must only be visible by bicycle.

As I made my way across Hillsborough Avenue, I slowed down to take in the aroma of a jacaranda tree in Old Seminole Heights. Unfortunately, my moment of bliss was cut short when a putrid smelling garbage truck cut in front of me. Stop and smell the flowers, and life reminds you that there are more pressing matters.

Central Avenue was the most enjoyable part of my ride. Wide lanes make for a comfortable trip through this historic part of Tampa. The road is lined with oak trees that lead you past one of the oldest and most visually stunning schools in the state, Hillsborough High, and dozens of vintage bungalows. It would be a perfect location for some bike trails.

I finished my trip on Tampa Street, which took me just outside the office. Isn't someone in charge of clearing the trash? I thought while biking along the strip. The street was a prime example of a common theme throughout our Tampa road system: litter.

Nonetheless, I made it to work in 53 minutes. After a quick and cold shower at a gym in the office building, I was at my desk with five minutes to spare. Not bad.

Today, a few thousand people will decide to dust off their bikes and give bike commuting a try, like I did. In cities like Portland, Ore., and San Francisco, it will be just another day in bike utopia.

But Tampa is a different story. So is it ready to handle a sudden surge of bike commuters?

Not quite.

It takes the average Tampa Bay area commuter 27 minutes to get to work during the morning rush hour, according to a 2007 bizjournals Web site report. The national business publication ranked us as one of the 65 worst commuter

markets.

Sure, we have more bike lanes and trail connections than we did before, and that's important. While gas and food prices are pushing all of us to cut back, bicycles seem like a great option, especially for those living 3 to 5 miles from work. But for the rest of us, it's not feasible, and I think these streets will be littered with more than trash if influxes of people start biking to work everyday.

For the League of American Bicyclists, Tampa's new bike lanes, Share the Road campaign and greenways and trails connections are keys to putting us on the map. The organization gave Tampa an honorable mention last year in a nationwide list of "bicycle friendly" cities.

Bill Nesper, director of the group's bicycle-friendly community program, said if Tampa can keep up the good work, it has a chance of moving up from its honorable mention to a bronze medal.

If there was some kind of competition for bike-friendly cities, Portland and San Francisco get the gold medal. Even Florida cities like St. Petersburg and Orlando got a bronze from the national bicycle group, a symbol of changing times.

But when it comes to Tampa, I think it would be better suited in the varnished tin can category.

Eric Smithers can be reached at esmithers@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3339.

Are roads ready for commuter biking? 05/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2008 1:20pm]
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