ST. PETERSBURG — One of the city’s main thoroughfares is on a "road diet."
Work started Tuesday to slim down two miles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N from four lanes of traffic down to three to make room for a buffered bike lane on each side of the road.
That’s just one of the big ideas coming to St. Petersburg streets. Another idea is angled parking.
The city wants to replace parallel parking spaces with angled parking along the downtown sections of First Avenues N and S. Each road also would lose a lane in a bid to replicate the commercial success of Central Avenue.
It’s all part of St. Petersburg’s "complete streets" effort, which the City Council endorsed in 2015 to design streets that can safely accommodate biking, driving, walking and transit.
"Complete streets means basically a street that works for everyone," said Evan Mory, the city’s director of transportation and parking management.
The city has compiled a list of 16 such projects it wants to tackle over the next two decades. The plan, which is still being drafted, calls for adding buffered bike lanes to segments of busy roads such as Ninth Avenue N, 16th Street, 54th Avenue and Park Street.
City planners assume all 16 corridors could lose a lane to make way for bike lanes, but that won’t be known until each project is studied, redesigned and approved.
There’s no exact timeline, or funding, for most of the projects.
Road diets have their critics, and St. Petersburg is no different. Business owners along King Street have complained that eliminating a traffic lane could impact their bottom line. Critics also accused the city of hiding the bike lane project by classifying it as a re-paving project; the city denied that.
The city’s list was assembled at the request of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the King Street changes. The chamber emailed the list to its membership, though it did not note that these proposals are years from being finalized and implemented.
Chamber president and CEO Chris Steinocher said that while his organization supports safer streets, eliminating lanes gives them pause.
"We are really nervous because one of the best competitive advantages that St. Pete has is that there’s not congestion," he said. "Our partners in Tampa have that every where you go, you’re stuck in traffic.
"We’re blessed with a grid system that was built for us 120 years ago."
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Not all businesses are opposed to road diets.
The city said Downtown Core establishments along First Avenues N and S, Second Avenue S and Second Street S requested that angled parking spaces be installed along their corridors, which would cost them a lane.
The goal is to mimic the downtown Central Avenue corridor and tony Beach Drive NE, which enjoy heavy foot traffic. Adding angled parking, officials said, would increase parking spaces and slow traffic down. That would bring in more customers and allow them to feel safer walking around.
What would slow traffic down? Mory said drivers having to back out of angled parking spots would create "friction" for passing vehicles.
"Think of how Central Avenue works vs. First Avenue," he said. "It’s primarily to add parking, but I think it does slow traffic down a bit and that’s what Steve and some of the other businesses want."
That would be Steve Gianfillipo, owner of the Station House co-work space at 260 First Ave. S,
"Just looking at the areas that do kind of thrive, they are all areas that have angled parking: Central Avenue, Beach Drive," he said. "Any area with that type of parking, you’re going to see retail thrive.
"You don’t see a lot of businesses thriving on First Avenue S or First Avenue N. It’s kind of a race way or speed way. (People) don’t seem to want to pull over because it’s not comfortable to park when cars are going by at 40 mph."
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Other road diets may be too much, cautioned Steinocher.
The King Street project would eliminate a north-south lane from 11th Avenue N to 30th Avenue N (it would retain the center turn lane, however.) But the chamber pointed out that it’s a road that runs from downtown north to Gandy Boulevard, leading to the Gateway area and Tampa via the Howard Frankland and Gandy bridges.
"This is an arterial road," he said. "We were really concerned about losing lanes of traffic to accommodate bicyclists, where we thought we could do both, still have two lanes and have bike lanes."
The city has countered that argument by saying the slimmer King Street is projected to add 90 seconds to commutes during peak driving time.
Steinocher also fears road diets don’t account for transit such as Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses or future systems such as bus rapid transit.
"When we go down to one lane, you’re going to be stuck behind a PSTA bus," he said. "We want people to like BRT and buses. I don’t think they thought about the mass transit strategy in this."
The city points out that the Pinellas bus agency supports the complete streets plan, and is working with the city to incorporate new bus stops with the redesigned crosswalks of the King Street project.
Other constituencies are all in on the city’s proposed plans. Eric Trull, who oversees the city’s bike share program as CycleHop’s regional director for Florida, said complete streets will enhance the city’s growth, not choke it.
He believes complete streets will provide a "much more viable" plan for the city over the next 15 to 20 years. He also noted that this is about more than just bikes. The city needs to be safer for pedestrians, too.
"I think a big, big misrepresentation is that it’s not necessarily just for helping bikers. It’s about making the street safer for everybody, pedestrians especially," he said. "We can look at the past 20 years for what the city has done and how the city has become an amazing place to be because of what it’s done for pedestrians.
"We’ve seen time and time again across the country and across the world the more modes you’re able to use, city streets and city sidewalks, the more prosperous the city is as a whole."
St. Pete Bike Co-Op president Carrie Waite said business owners and residents need to adjust the way they think about getting around the city.
"Florida is one of the top three most dangerous places to walk or bike," she said. "It can only be good for business to provide a safe place for people to arrive at a destination in a safe way. It’s just unacceptable, frankly, that kids can’t walk to school safely or retired folks who can’t drive anymore can’t get to the grocery store safely. Cars are an important part of the transportation, but everyone gets out of their cars eventually.
"The bottom line is safety. I know it’s a big change from our current infrastructure that prioritizes automobiles. So that can be scary. I think if people step back and look at the benefits to everyone when they step out of their cars ... they’ll see it’s definitely a needed change."
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misidentified one of the streets being considered for a road diet. The correct road is 16th Street.