I mounted my bike with a bias and started to pedal with a prejudice. • When Neighborhood Times asked me to review the newest section of the Pinellas Trail, which stretches from 34th Street S by Gibbs High School to downtown St. Petersburg and Demens Landing, I expected to hate it — both as a cyclist and a driver. • As a driver I anticipated annoyance that the bike trail and its wide median had squeezed First Avenue S down from four lanes to three east of Tropicana Field. As a cyclist I was worried that I would be taking my life in my handlebars where the path crosses busy intersections between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and Tampa Bay. • I was absolutely wrong. Mostly.
In the car, I haven't noticed any significant difference in the traffic flow. On the bike, once the path diverges from the busy downtown and nears Tropicana Field, I find it a safe and enjoyable way to bike from downtown St. Petersburg to points west and north.
It is, in some ways, the most interesting and fast-changing section of the trail yet built. But it's not without flaws, ones that can get you hurt.
That part of the new trail is a two-way bike path separated by a median from the fast one-way eastbound traffic on First Avenue S. At each intersection between Bayshore and M.L. King, workers have put down an extremely wide, striped crosswalk that serves both pedestrians and cyclists. The bike path does a little dipsy-doodle curve at each intersection, and cyclists have their own traffic lights when heading west. Huge white lights hanging from the masts alert drivers to YIELD TO PEDS (presumably "pedestrians," and maybe "pedalers"). Good luck with that.
The stoplights aren't synchronized for cyclists, nor should they be, but that makes the trip west to the Trop a stuttering stop and go. Once you get going, however, the bike's tires hum along the new blacktop and then make a strangely pleasing rapid pootah-pootah-pootah sound as they slap against the wide white stripes in each intersection.
Heading west feels safer than heading east. Yes, riding the trail against the flow of the cars feels more secure because I could make eye contact with each driver at each intersection. That meant if they were going to run me down, it probably wouldn't be an accident.
The intersections are the new trail's main safety glitch. Even though First Avenue S drivers are legally required to yield to pedestrians and pedalers before turning right, they simply don't. Perhaps a turn arrow would reinforce the point at each intersection.
After crossing M.L. King westbound, the trail travels on a well-marked concrete sidewalk just north of the Tropicana Field parking lot. From this point on, the new trail feels very safe indeed. The path swoops up and over Booker Creek on a footbridge (or whatever they're called when it's built for cyclists) with a pretty view of the dome and of the creek.
Cross 16th Street, then it's into the bowels of a surface tunnel bracketed by warehouse docks. It's startling on a bright day to descend so quickly into darkness. Emerge from the tunnel to ride beneath the Interstate 275 overpass.
Past the Trop, many intersections have a big button allowing a cyclist to get a "walk" (ride?) signal to cross. At the intersection of the trail, Fifth Avenue S and 22nd Street, it's particularly important to push the button.
The path crosses the intersection at an odd angle, and traffic is too heavy to cross without benefit of the signal.
From there it's a nice path that slides along just north of Gibbs High School.
At 34th Street, you have a choice of a signal that stops traffic or, if you feel like a mountain goat, you can roll south for a block and ride up and down the spiral overpass that rises over 34th Street. Then it's on to the parts of the Pinellas Trail that were already there.
A few weeks ago, I rode the length of the trail from its new start point up to where it ends just north of Tarpon Springs and then back to get a feel for the whole ribbon.
It's amazing how the character changes from the urban feel of the new St. Petersburg section, to the quick but pleasant stretch past the Trop, to the first overpass west at Pasadena.
From there the trail flows along the back side of Tyrone Square Mall before going up and over with several flying overpasses that keep cyclists above the Park Street area traffic.
Cross a beautiful bridge just for cyclists across Boca Ciega Bay, and eventually the trail goes almost exclusively horizontal again and alternates between the back of people's yards — think privacy fences — to post-industrial (it is built on an old rail bed, after all) to the sometime feeling that you're pleasantly in the middle of nowhere.
The weakest section, by my lights, goes through downtown Clearwater, where the travel is often on bumpy sidewalks.
Dunedin up the road is quite nice.
And the trail in Tarpon Springs goes right down the middle of town with traffic, safely separated, flowing on either side.
Businesses have grown up to cater to cyclists at several points along the length of the trail. The same may happen in St. Petersburg; an enterprising vendor with a cart selling cold drinks, rather than hot dogs, would be a great start at several spots, though I don't know the city code challenges involved.
It is getting safer and saner to bike in the city, with St. Petersburg putting down more and more bike lanes — Pinellas Point Drive and Snell Isle Boulevard have been welcome additions.
You can still get maimed or killed out there. But I've commuted by bike for 20 years, and I ride 20 to 25 miles for fitness most days at lunch, and I've never felt safer than I do now.
With the bikes on buses program, using a bike for actual transportation rather than mere recreation is making more sense.
And with the new trail it is now possible to commute from Tyrone to downtown or vice versa in relative safety.
But, and there are a few really important ones, even the new trail can be hazardous.
I was riding east by Midtown Sundries with a green light when an SUV cut right across me in the intersection.
It was breaking the law, but I was more concerned that it was going to break me.
I grabbed a hard handful of brakes, then hit a patch of sand and a manhole cover that was sunk deep into the blacktop.
I was jolted and bouncing, but had to immediately swerve left because the curb cut juts out at each intersection. My rear wheel started to skid. I didn't fall, but it was far too close.
observation No. 1. From M.L. King to the bay, the new trail requires eastbound cyclists to pay a great deal of attention at intersections to car traffic behind them. Drivers routinely will turn right and cut off both cyclists and pedestrians.
Observation No. 2. Potholes and sunken manhole covers are a major obstruction for a cyclist. A bump that might spill a driver's coffee will spill the cyclist off the bike. Same for road debris. Nails, tacks and palm fronds cause crashes and flats. Manhole covers need to be flush with the road surface.
Observation No. 3. Cyclists and drivers need to know the rules of the road. With more people on bikes now, people will get killed otherwise.
Cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers. So cyclists shouldn't be blowing through red lights or riding the wrong way on a one-way street, and drivers shouldn't be cutting across a cyclist who is riding legally.
Observation No. 4: While I can't speak to whether the new trail was a wise use of tax dollars, I can say it works much better than I expected.
It has a few kinks to be worked out, but it already provides a far safer way to ride out of downtown St. Petersburg than before.
Tinker with traffic signals at the problematic intersections.
Paint a few murals on the back sides of buildings, plant some bougainvillea to climb on the chain link fences, add a water fountain or two along the way, and the trail will get prettier and more pleasant and will be a boon to the community as high gas prices persuade more people to push pedals.
Jim Verhulst is Perspective editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at [email protected]