Coast Bike Share seeks to change Tampa's cycling culture

Coast Bike Share will offer 300 bicycles at 30 Tampa stations dotting downtown, Ybor City and surrounding neighborhoods.
Coast Bike Share will offer 300 bicycles at 30 Tampa stations dotting downtown, Ybor City and surrounding neighborhoods.
Published Aug. 24, 2014

TAMPA — Consider the paradox.

When it launches in September, Coast Bike Share will put 300 new rental bikes on Tampa's streets for downtown workers, residents, college students and tourists.

But the rules of the road often will require them to ride on the street, especially downtown. That's the core of a metro area known as the second most dangerous place in the nation for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The challenge: Change that reputation so Coast can succeed. The private program is not getting any city subsidy. Instead, its revenue will come from advertising, sponsorships and memberships sold by the hour, the month and the year.

That change is possible, say program organizers, city officials and veteran Tampa cyclists. In some ways, they say, it is already happening.

As part of its rollout, Coast is distributing safety information to members. It's pushing out tips — how to avoid a collision, how to deal with a rude driver at a stop sign — though social media. And it is planning group rides to promote the program, raise awareness and help users feel safe and visible.

As motorists start having "daily and almost minute-by-minute exposure to bikes," Tampa should become safer "almost instantly," Coast spokesman Eric Trull said.

"Just having more numbers makes it safer for everybody," he said.

Research supports that, according to a study that the nonprofit Alliance for Biking & Walking did this year with funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In cities where more people walk or bike to work, fatality rates are generally lower.

So far, the experience of other bike-share cities is encouraging.

Before New York's Citi Bike program began last year, a Rutgers University professor predicted that injuries and fatalities among cyclists or pedestrians would double or even triple the first year.

But that hasn't happened, not in New York and not in 35 other bike-share cities. Since Tulsa, Okla., launched the first bike-share program in 2007, users nationwide have taken 23 million rides without anyone being killed, Reuters reported this month.

"If it can work in a city as chaotic as Manhattan and New York as a whole, we're confident that it can work here," Trull said.

• • •

Still, Tampa's reputation for having deadly streets is real.

In May, the National Complete Streets Coalition said the bay area had the second worst rate of pedestrians killed compared to the number of people who walk to work.

That's not new. In 2009, the nonprofit organization Transportation for America gave the region a similar second-worst ranking basked on 2007-08 data.

Tampa officials say they have expanded biking options since then.

In the past three years, the city has put in more than 22 miles of new bike lanes, doubling what existed before. Another 35 miles are in the works.

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City Hall also is looking at installing a bike lane that's separated from traffic by a row of parallel-parking spaces along Platt Street. Plans call for Cass Street to get a similar "cycle track" separated from traffic by a barrier. And a federal transportation grant will help build a 1.7-mile multiuse trail under the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

As Coast launches, the city will distribute maps of all the bike lanes so users can plan their rides.

Tampa bans cyclists from sidewalks in business districts and on sidewalks with signs prohibiting bikes.

Wider than most sidewalks, the trail along Bayshore Boulevard is open to cycling. A city ordinance does require cyclists on sidewalks to yield to pedestrians and to give an audible signal before passing someone on foot.

City Hall also plans to let the cycling advocacy group Tampa Bay Cycle use city facilities for free education sessions and community rides to help Coast at the start.

"It will have a profound impact," city spokeswoman Ali Glisson said of Coast. "It can be done and can be done successfully, and the city will be better for it."

• • •

Some cyclists who ride downtown every day say they've seen awareness and attitudes evolve.

They still have horror stories about drivers making sudden U-turns, drivers who crowd them toward parked cars, drivers to whom bicyclists are invisible.

"Terrifying," said Dana Witkowski, 25, who has made bicycle deliveries for the Pita Pit sandwich shop for a year. "A lot of times, motorists don't know the rules of the road."

Of course, drivers say cyclists cause close calls and accidents, too. City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda recently was pulling out of the parking lot at City Hall when he almost hit two cyclists who rode into his path. They were on the sidewalk riding in the opposite direction from the one-way traffic on Florida Avenue.

"I don't think I missed them by more than 6 inches," he said.

Still, people who ride for a living say they've seen changes for the better.

For one thing, you just see more people riding bikes in Tampa, said Nikolaos Psilopoulos, 21, who delivers sandwiches for Jimmy John's downtown. Drivers seem more aware. He has fewer moments when he feels like traffic is crowding him onto the sidewalk.

"It's gotten significantly better since I started working down here," said Psilopoulos, who has worked at Jimmy John's for three years.

It's good to have more bike lanes, said Pita Pit rider Kalvin Southwell, 25, though they seem to be on more north-south than east-west roads.

Kevin Craft, 30, who owns City Bike Tampa on E Cass Street, said, "Four years ago, when I first moved down, it was borderline comical." But the growth of bike lanes and other infrastructure has helped, he said, and Coast will help bicycling in Tampa reach critical mass. Being aware is the main thing, he said. When Craft rents a bike, "I tell people as long as you're riding defensively and not riding like you own the road, you'll be fine."

Motorists and bicyclists alike, he said, have to watch for the other, follow the rules and take responsibility.

"They're both equally important," Craft said. "That whole share-the-road thing is from both ends."

Information from Reuters and the New York Times was used in this report.