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Hillsborough saw fewer pedestrian deaths in 2016, but Tampa Bay still dangerous for walking and biking

A worn out symbol of a pedestrian on the surface of the Pinellas Trail in East Lake. Pedestrian deaths in Hillsborough County fell by almost 25 percent last year, following the deadliest year on record in 2015 for people walking the streets. But transportation planners said too many pedestrians and bicylists are dying on Tampa Bay's roadways. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Jan. 2, 2017

TAMPA — Pedestrian deaths in Hillsborough County fell by almost 25 percent last year, following the deadliest year on record in 2015 for people walking the streets.

But transportation planners warn not to read too much into the drop. The county is still the deadliest in the region. Bicyclist deaths are up from the past few years. And in Pinellas County, pedestrian fatalities have increased 18 percent in the past five years.

"I would welcome the news but I wouldn't jump to a lot of conclusions yet," said Beth Alden, executive director of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization.

For one thing, the 2015 spike was unusually high, with 51 pedestrian deaths. The 39 fatalities in 2016 still is more than any other year since 2010.

The 2016 numbers are preliminary, complied by the Tampa Bay Times from the state Department of Transportation, the Florida Highway Patrol, and local law enforcement and planning agencies.

But they show that change is slow to come.

One major initiative for transportation leaders following 2015's deadly record was to add more crosswalks in Hillsborough, especially along busy, multi-lane roads such as Hillsborough Avenue. But even something as seemingly simple as adding a few painted stripes or a flashing sign takes time.

Transportation officials, for example, wanted to put a signaled crosswalk near Middleton High School where two students died, but got bogged down by the logistics required to get the small amount of land needed for the signal box.

"It's just a tiny little bit of right of way, but it will slow you down by a year," Alden said.

Increasing the frequency of those signalized crosswalks is a big help, though. Transportation officials and local governments are making more of an effort to install mid-block crosswalks, where a light flashes for traffic to stop when people push a button to cross. The Florida Department of Transportation has plans to build four of these in Hillsborough in 2017 and two in Pinellas, and are studying locations for others.

It's something Pinellas County has focused on for years, especially on the beaches and along Gulf Boulevard, said Pinellas MPO executive director Whit Blanton. And drivers are becoming more accustomed to the flashing signals and driving slower on those roads just in case.

"A pedestrian can push those at any minute, and if you're going too fast you're not going to be able to stop in time," Blanton said.

People used to have to walk about a half-mile along Hillsborough Avenue before they reached a safe place to cross. Now, thanks to the mid-block, flashing crosswalks, Alden said it's more like a quarter-mile.

There's a tension in transportation planning between mobility — how quickly and easily we get around — and safety. Often, planning prioritizes mobility, sometimes at the expense of safety, especially for pedestrians.

"We've had a mentality of making sure we don't have traffic signals put too close together because it slows down traffic," Blanton said. "If you have too many signals per mile, that creates a congestion problem, but it also leave a sort of barren wasteland for pedestrians to cross."

Regardless of crosswalks and education initiatives, wide, fast roads remain dangerous for pedestrians throughout Tampa Bay. That's especially true for Pinellas, which is a tight, concentrated, urban community, Blanton said. And those types of roads are at odds with ongoing redevelopment in places like St. Petersburg and Dunedin, which make areas a more attractive place to walk.

"That's a positive trend, but it's in the face of a physical environment we've created with a lot of fast-moving, eight-lane roads," Blanton said. "People still need to get across those roadways to get to their destinations."

And while the City of Tampa was recently recognized in Bicycling magazine's "50 best bike cities," and earned a bronze award from the League of American Bicyclists, that, too, comes with some caveats, Alden said.

In 2016, Hillsborough saw a dozen cyclists die, the most since 2012. Pasco saw nine bicylists lose their lives, which was the highest number since 2011.

And only 6 percent of Tampa roads have bike lanes. The average for communities that earn a silver designation from the group is 51 percent.

"(That award) acknowledges that Tampa is actively working on the problem, but clearly there is a lot of work still to be done," Alden said. "It's going to be awhile before we get to that critical mass where we have a network of safe places where you can safely, or even predictably, cycle."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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