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Tampa Bay area one of worst for pedestrians, especially in poor neighborhoods

Published Aug. 9, 2014

They never saw the Honda, and its driver never saw them. The sport utility vehicle smashed into Jayla Shubbar before she and her older sister reached the convenience store across the street.

State officials had been planning to install another crosswalk on that stretch of North Tampa's Busch Boulevard, an urban highway that cuts through the impoverished neighborhood where Jayla, 8, was struck that Saturday morning and died the next day. But they hadn't broken ground.

"We should be allowed to go around just as safely as anyone else," her mother, Darcien Shubbar, 33, said this week.

Her anguish epitomizes what researchers for Governing magazine found in a study this month — that the Tampa Bay area not only is one of the worst places in the nation to walk across the street, but also that the deadly danger gets far worse when pedestrians walk in poor neighborhoods.

In Hillsborough County, pedestrian deaths are nearly three times more likely to occur in the poorest areas than in the wealthiest, the study found.

The disparity was less pronounced in Pinellas County, but nonetheless, pedestrian deaths were nearly twice as likely to occur in its poorest areas.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 2014 poverty level for an individual is $11,670 in earnings a year. For a household of four, it's $23,850.

People shy away from talking about issues like race or poverty in trying to come up with solutions to prevent so many pedestrian deaths, Shubbar believes.

"But if they don't want it to be a race thing or a poverty thing," she said, "then let it be a life thing."

•••

The reasons why this fatal disparity exists seem intractable.

The government for too long neglected poor neighborhoods, some politicians say, and developers skipped over them.

One of the most valuable government services for low-income residents, public transportation, can also lead to deadly consequences. Riders looking to catch a bus have been known to dart across straightaways such as U.S. 19 to reach bus stops, said Ken Jacobs, a traffic engineering section manager for Pinellas County.

"More affluent people have a car in the garage," he said. "They can jump in that car to get to their destination. But lower- and middle-income workers have to use more mass transit, and Pinellas County isn't necessarily laid out as well as it could be for mass transit."

Among Hillsborough politicians with poorer constituencies, the narrative is usually the same.

Part of the problem stems from thoroughfares cutting through densely populated, poorer areas.

"As more people move here, we've made it so that they move faster — right through poor neighborhoods," said Les Miller, a Hillsborough commissioner whose district includes some of the county's poorest communities.

He pointed out that on a long stretch of Hillsborough Avenue, there isn't a single pedestrian crosswalk. But there are small businesses and stores lining the road, and homes and apartments tucked behind the main avenue.

"You want development to come into the poor neighborhoods," Miller said. "But you also want to make sure that you include traffic patterns."

Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick has been outspoken about pedestrian deaths in poorer places like those he represents. He said he's working with city officials and the Florida Department of Transportation to pinpoint areas with the highest concentrations of fatalities.

Like Miller, he noted the dangers along Hillsborough Avenue. "We absolutely have a greater need for more sidewalks," he said.

The state Transportation Department is taking a multipronged approach, including teaching pedestrians traffic safety laws and analyzing crash sites to determine solutions, said Trenda McPherson, the department's bicycle and pedestrian safety manager.

In Pinellas, authorities have placed more than 40 rapid-flashing beacons in mid-block pedestrian walkways, particularly along Gulf Boulevard on the beaches, over the past year and a half. But many people cross a street that has no mid-block walkway to avoid walking 200 feet and back, Jacobs said.

In St. Petersburg, the city has waged a traffic-calming campaign for over a decade.

Devices such as speed humps and raised intersections are likely more prevalent "on the south side of the city than anywhere else," St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton said.

"We have done a lot of proactive stuff, spending probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions," on traffic safety, including for pedestrians, he said.

"It's not going to stop you from getting hit by a car."

•••

Shubbar isn't angry at the driver who killed her daughter. "I've put myself in their situation, and I've forgiven them," she said.

Since Jayla's death, the Transportation Department has installed a traffic sign along Busch Boulevard that flashes when a pedestrian presses the button. But ideally, there needs to be fewer lanes, a lower speed limit and a traffic light, Shubbar said.

"You can't call somebody a jaywalker," she said, "when the right solutions don't exist."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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