ST. PETERSBURG — A group of advocates for pedestrian safety recently strolled through the city and found themselves dodging distracted drivers, navigating sidewalks that petered out and traversing darkened thoroughfares lacking proper lighting.
The Florida Consumer Action Network presented its findings from those excursions to the St. Petersburg City Council last week. They rated the city's streets as fair-to-middling overall but in need of improvement — especially for disabled residents.
And they urged council members to continue work on the city's "Complete Streets" program, which seeks to make pedestrians and bicyclists safer by narrowing intersections, building bike paths, widening sidewalks and adding other improvements.
The group conducted six audits while walking along and through busy streets between January 31 and March 3.
One common safety issue they found afflicting the city: speeding drivers who frequently made right turns into intersections without checking for pedestrians.
City Council chairwoman Darden Rice said stepped-up enforcement of reckless driving could prevent pedestrian fatalities. According to Forward Pinellas, the county's agency for coordinating transportation and land use plans, 14 people were killed while walking in the city last year.
"Getting a ticket would be a tough lesson to learn but a long- lasting lesson to abide by the pedestrian right-of-way," Rice said, adding that pedestrians must follow the law as well.
But steering clear of bad drivers is more difficult when sidewalks are blocked by cars and trucks or, worse yet, don't exist at all.
One example: On 22nd Avenue S, a sidewalk at one corner of 49th Street dips down into a storm drain on the road and then continues through a crosswalk in the intersection, said auditor Erik Myxter-Iino.
Another commonality was sidewalks that were crumbling; sidewalks that were too narrow, and sidewalks too close to traffic. Aside from 22nd Ave S, the auditors walked along stretches of these roads: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, 16th Street N, 28th Street N, 13th Avenue N, 18th Avenue S, 34th Street S and 54th Avenue S.
That's been a problem for decades, said council member Karl Nurse. Though the city has spent millions on sidewalks, they're in need of constant maintenance, just like the sewers.
"It's a long journey to get everything in shape," Nurse said after the safety presentation at the April 6 council meeting.
Improving sidewalks is a big part of the city's fledgling Complete Streets initiative. Sidewalks will be widened to between 8 and 10 feet on the west side of 34th Street S in the Skyway Marina District. The $1 million project should be completed within the next three to five years, said city transportation director Evan Mory.
"By widening the sidewalk, it will be safer, feel more comfortable for pedestrians, allow easier passing of bikes and pedestrians as well as for people to walk together in groups," Mory said. "The sidewalk will be pushed back from the edge of the roadway where possible to provide a buffer that adds safety and comfort."
The Florida Consumer Action Network supports the city's plan.
"St. Petersburg is a great city with great neighborhoods, but not all our streets are great for walking," says network organizer Lisa Frank in a statement. "We need to do more to make our streets excellent places to walk, bike, and use transit if we're going to keep St. Pete moving forward."
Another finding of the audit was that streets south of Central Avenue were often in worse shape, said Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin.
"We clearly have opportunities across the city," she said, "but there is disparity south of Central."
The city held public workshops on its Complete Streets plan in March and is soliciting public input through the end of April in an online survey.
You can access the survey at: surveymonkey.com/r/stpetecs.