TAMPA — Jim Shirk has spent years trying to get the voices of cyclists heard in the Tampa area. Despite a strong, growing bike community and all of the region's attributes — flat terrain, nice climate — the area has been known as a deadly place for cyclists: 13 dead in Hillsborough in 2012.
But that seems to be changing.
"I feel somewhere between very positive and over the moon," said Shirk, beaming, as he mingled at a national bike safety summit held in a ballroom at the Tampa Convention Center on Thursday morning. The room was full of people who shared his passion, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
"It's finally coming together," said Shirk, chairman of the Hillsborough County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
So far this year, there have been no bicycle deaths in all of Hillsborough, officials said last week.
LaHood chose Tampa as a site for the summit because he said he believes in the area's potential to change its dangerous history.
"We think that there's probably not a better place in America than Tampa to launch a bike safety event," LaHood told the Tampa Bay Times.
LaHood said much of what is needed to fulfill Tampa's promise is already in place — a large community of passionate cyclists and officials, like Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who are working to make the area more bike friendly. Buckhorn campaigned on the promise of making the area safer for cyclists, which he said is not only to improve citizens' lifestyles but is rooted in economics. He is fighting to make Tampa a "hip" and "cool" place where smart, talented professionals want to live.
"Is it a city where you can live, work and play and not get into your car?" he said. "Bicycles are a part of that."
This fall, the city will launch a bike share program with 300 bicycles, for rent by credit card, at 30 parking stations around downtown, Ybor City and Bayshore Boulevard. The city's plans for downtown and surrounding neighborhoods include bike lanes and an east-west trail running from the V.M. Ybor neighborhood, down Nuccio Parkway, through downtown, over the river, past the University of Tampa and out to West Tampa.
"We are going to change this city in ways you can't even imagine," Buckhorn told the crowd.
LaHood said more education for drivers is needed. He plans to launch a campaign similar to ones in past years aimed at educating people about drunk driving and buckling their seat belts.
"We know we can make a difference," LaHood said.
He said the nation needs to show no tolerance for people who don't respect cyclists.
"We will continue this effort until we reduce cycling deaths and injuries to zero," he said.
The interest from LaHood and Buckhorn make it more likely that these plans will become reality, said Jean Duncan, the city's transportation manager.
"When these things come from the top, it makes a huge difference," she said.
Many experts and cycling proponents, such as Shirk, want protected bike lanes installed, where there is a barrier between riders and drivers. Some are included in Buckhorn's plans, but Shirk wants more. As happy as he is with the attention Tampa is getting, he says there is more work to do.
"We'll keep pressing," he said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.