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Making streets safer is St. Petersburg neighborhood transportation manager's goal

Since Michael Frederick became St. Petersburg’s neighborhood transportation manager in 2000, the city has become much more pedestrian-friendly, according to one national ranking.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Since Michael Frederick became St. Petersburg’s neighborhood transportation manager in 2000, the city has become much more pedestrian-friendly, according to one national ranking.

ST. PETERSBURG — There is a glossy photo of a silver Porsche on the wood paneling in Michael Frederick's office. Frederick is the guy who is determined to make us drive slower. Is that picture a hint that he secretly wants to go faster? "Oh, it's a dream car," Frederick says of the Porsche, a boyish fantasy. The reality is that the city manager for neighborhood transportation drives to work in a 2005 Pontiac G6. And, it's difficult to cast this wonkish man with blond hair and a Canadian accent as a speed demon. Especially when you realize what his real dream is all about.

You want to go fast. Frederick wants you to slow down. You scoff at the new speed bump on your street. Frederick views this hump as a sentinel in the war to take back the streets. You gripe about the traffic lights, planted medians, raised intersections, stop signs, blinking yellow traffic beacons and the endless construction that makes it all happen. He exults in the fact that these devices have proliferated exponentially since he arrived in 2000.

Maybe you've called his desk to vent, yell or worse. Frederick, 52, answers the phone himself. He listens, perhaps unscrewing the top from one of the pain relievers lined up by his computer keyboard. He's heard it before.

"Most people say, 'I understand why you did it, but I still have this problem with it,' " said Frederick. Altering neighborhood traffic, he admits, is "almost as personal as me going to your property and making changes."

And yet, his sympathy only goes so far. After all, the city decided long ago that neighborhoods, through their associations, would have a say in how their streets were modified. Anything being discussed today is the result of decisions carefully considered years ago. And in the end, changes to the city's streets get a final vetting by the City Council and you — the process laid out in the city's traffic plan.

"The only people who get contentious," adds Frederick, "are the ones who don't participate."

And still, to some of those participants, it's as if the city always seems to know best. Take the recently announced plan to turn Mirror Lake Drive into a two-way street. (It is actually part of a downtown "traffic feasibility" study tentatively approved in 2000 at the behest of downtown businesses and residents.)

Two people wrote letters complaining that the idea was nuts. One of them was Daniel Schuh, a lawyer with offices on Mirror Lake Drive. Two weeks later, Schuh received a crisp reply from Frederick saying his concerns would be taken into consideration.

"It's kind of like flailing at windmills," said Schuh, "because they are going to do what they are going to do,"

Said Frederick: "We don't please everyone, but the goal is to improve safety."

Fortunately, only a few neighborhoods are left for traffic calming evaluation. In a matter of years, the only work will be maintaining what has been implemented.

Most of it was done under Frederick's watch. He came here in 2000 after spending two years as Boca Raton's traffic manager. Before that, he was director of traffic for the city of Toronto for 10 years. He began his career in 1979 working for his home city of Mississauga, outside of Toronto. He graduated from Conestoga College in 1979 with a degree in civil engineering.

He lives in Seminole with his wife, Vicci, and has two daughters, Ashlan, 21, and Melanie, 18. Even his hobby is wonkish — genealogy. He traced his family back six generations to the Salem colonists.

The modern battle for the streets, of course, began long before Frederick himself, with the birth of the automobile. Even since the Ford Model T, cars have been getting faster and faster. Modern motorists come off the interstate doing 80 mph, then want to zip across town doing 60. Meanwhile, cities have become denser, and bicycles and pedestrians increasingly share roads with cars. Something has to give.

But Frederick thinks he is winning. When he came here, the average residential speed was 35 to 40 mph. Now it's 25. The average speed limit over crosswalks was 15 mph. Now it's about 7.

In 2000, only 3 percent of motorists were yielding to pedestrians at those blinking yellow traffic lights. Today, compliance is at 83 percent, among the highest in the nation. Speed bumps number 36, nearly triple the amount of a decade ago. Raised intersections number 97, and there are 165 median dividers, up from just a few 10 years back.

Then there are the bike paths: 93 miles today, up from 5 in 2000. Frederick reminds us that in 1995, the city was at the top of the national Mean Streets list for poor traffic management, but showed marked improvement in the most-recent rankings. St. Petersburg is also among the greenest in the nation.

"By changing the environment, we are changing behavior," he said. "I think people are starting to get it and their speeds are decreasing."

Luis Perez can be reached at Lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

Making streets safer is St. Petersburg neighborhood transportation manager's goal 04/07/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 4:32pm]
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