Jack Sweeney, known by bike enthusiasts as "Ghost Rider," has been bike commuting off and on since 1989. The 39-year-old Seminole Heights resident and reference librarian for the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative is also a contributor to the Bike Commuters blog at www.bikecommuters.com, where his "Just Ask Jack" column fields questions from commuters nationwide. We recently asked him about biking in Tampa and for a few helpful tips. — Eric Smithers, Times Staff Writer
Why did you decide to commute?
I first started bike commuting in college. I had a bike but no car, so it made perfect sense to ride to class every day (I lived off-campus). When I moved to Florida in 1992, I continued to ride to work since it was actually faster by bike than by car, and I didn't have to worry about finding a parking spot in busy downtown Sarasota. The same applies today — I can bike downtown in 20 minutes and not spend a dime on gas or parking, or I can drive there in 15 minutes and hunt for a parking spot for another 10.
What is Tampa like compared to other areas?
I've commuted in Mobile, Ala., and both Sarasota and Gainesville, in addition to Tampa. Of all of them, Gainesville wins hands-down — incredible bicycling/pedestrian infrastructure, and the city passed an ordinance many years ago that stated every time a road was repaved or widened, bike facilities had to be included in the new work (where feasible).
What encounters have you had in South Tampa and downtown?
Usually, folks give me the room I am entitled to as a road user, but I've had a couple of encounters with work vans, particularly on the road under the convention center. I have been tailgated, forced over and honked at repeatedly. I tend to avoid things under there due to this, but it's the best way to get back from Tampa General Hospital (where my wife works) or the Davis Islands/Bayshore Avenue area.
What are some of the circumstances you face every day?
Bugs, extreme humidity, roadkill, broken glass, huge puddles, honking, confused motorists, dark of night and a paucity of fellow commuters to wave to. Sounds glamorous, doesn't it? Seriously, the city has made great strides in the past four years as far as signage and new bike lanes, but what is really lacking is motorist education. Bicycles are entitled to share the road, and although I mostly get enough room to do my thing, I've had a couple of close brushes that make me extra cautious.
What tips would you give to other bikers?
• You don't need a fancy bike — just something reliable.
• Invest in two different kinds of locks: a U-lock and a heavy cable. More locks equal more time for a thief to negotiate; they'll move on to easier targets. Alternatively, hound your boss to find secure bike parking inside your work building.
• Stay off the sidewalk.
• Be as conspicuous as possible, both day and night. Bright colors, extra lights, reflectors galore are always good. Most of all, be predictable — hold your line, don't weave in and out of parked cars, and don't be afraid to "take the lane." It is yours, after all. Bicyclists have an equal share to it!
• Keep baby wipes and some extra deodorant at work. No one likes a stinky co-worker.
• Fenders and a rear rack are really mandatory for decent commuting. Don't forget it rains here (a lot), so fenders will keep you cleaner. With a rack and baskets or panniers, that opens up the bike as a perfect utility vehicle rather than just a conveyance.
• Foremost, have fun out there. Bike commuting is great exercise, it's good for the environment and it is fun as hell.