A recent survey by the city of Largo illustrated why Pinellas County needs accessible mass transit, including light rail. The survey showed that Largo residents would like an alternative to taking their cars to work, school and the grocery store, but many of them consider walking and bicycling too dangerous.
They aren't wrong to be wary. The Tampa Bay area, including Pinellas County, is notoriously hazardous for pedestrians and bicyclists, even getting national publicity for that dubious distinction. The major corridors that must be traveled to reach most retail and employment centers are congested with heavy, fast-moving traffic. The publicly owned rights of way often have been filled to capacity with lanes for vehicles, leaving too little room to build safe, dedicated lanes for bicyclists and walkers.
Concern about being struck isn't the only fear that drives residents to stick to their cars. Some of those surveyed said they are worried about becoming victims of crime if they walk or bicycle, and others mentioned concern that their bicycles would be stolen while parked outside.
Add to all those valid concerns heat, rainstorms, physical disabilities and — let's admit it — laziness, and it is easy to see why Pinellas residents are so wedded to their cars.
There is another, less obvious factor that discourages walking and biking: development patterns. Pinellas County transformed relatively quickly from an agricultural community to a sprawling, overdeveloped urban area where too little attention was paid to how people would move around. Initially because of no zoning, and later because of unwise zoning policies, industrial and office facilities were built far from where employees lived, forcing them into their cars to get to work.
Mixed-use zoning, which allows residential, office and commercial uses to locate side by side and creates walkable communities, only recently came into favor here.
Over the past three years, Largo has conducted several surveys to learn how residents get around and why they make the choices they do. The city wants to use the results to guide its future transportation decisions.
When the city asked 659 residents why they don't bike or walk, 30 percent said their destinations were too far way and 23 percent said they don't feel safe walking or biking.
Another city survey of 256 Largo residents revealed that 80 percent never walked or biked to work or school and 60 percent said they never walked or biked to shopping or entertainment venues. But among the same group, more than 50 percent said they would like to walk or bike to work or school, and 70 percent said they would like to walk or bike when they go shopping or out for entertainment. In addition, some respondents decried the lack of convenient bus transportation so they could leave their cars at home.
As Pinellas County grows in the decades ahead, roads will become even more congested because there is no more space to widen many of them. Despite the sincere efforts of local governments and numerous committees and task forces to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, it is a good bet that most residents still will prefer the comfort, speed and safety of traveling in enclosed vehicles.
Getting people out of their cars and into mass transit is the best hope of reducing road congestion and improving travel times and quality of life. In the next couple of years, residents will hear a lot about plans for improving bus transportation in Pinellas, with more bus stops, improved routes and better hours.
Residents already are hearing about ambitious plans for a light rail system in Pinellas that could quickly, safely and quietly transport workers and tourists between employment centers and tourist destinations and connect with a rail line across the bay to Tampa.
Residents may have the opportunity to vote in the next year or two on whether they are willing to pay a little more in taxes for those improvements in transportation.
Pinellas' heavy reliance on automobiles congests the roadways, makes them more dangerous and discourages healthful biking and walking. Transportation alternatives such as express buses and light rail will take cars off the road and make the county more livable for future generations