ST. PETERSBURG — The city spent about $1 million on a project that included adding extra-wide bike lanes on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N, but some riders are ignoring the investment and choosing to ride on the sidewalk instead.
"Oh yeah, I see it every day," said Benjamin Wiley, who works at Banyan Cafe and Catering on King Street near Seventh Avenue N.
Wiley has a front-row seat to cars, bikes and people traveling the popular corridor between Fourth and 30th Avenues N. He said he sees more "athletic or serious" bikers in the new lanes, while many others continue to use the sidewalks like they did before.
"People use the bike lanes," Wiley said, "but it hasn't really made a difference. The sidewalks are so wide here, it's just what people are used to."
Some planners chalk this up to the newness of the project, which also included resurfacing, restriping and crosswalk improvements. People are creatures of habit, and it takes time to adapt.
But there's another factor at play: No matter how safe or accessible you make something, some people insist on choosing their own path.
"There's always going to be a certain percentage of people that aren't going to feel comfortable riding in a lane," said Julie Bond, a senior research associate with the Center for Urban Transportation Research. "It doesn’t mean you would not build those bike lanes."
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It's a phenomenon that stretches beyond one street or even St. Petersburg. Despite cities investing in wider bike lanes, including some with physical barriers from traffic or green paint to draw attention, transportation experts say there will always be riders who feel more comfortable on the sidewalk, as far away from moving cars as they can get.
"I think people generally have a fear of traffic, whether it's the unpredictability or that people are distracted while driving," Forward Pinellas executive director Whit Blanton said. "So they want to be up on a curb where they feel like they're safer and it makes it less likely that a car is going to overtake them from behind."
The irony is that bicyclists are more at risk on the sidewalk than in the street, according to Bond, Blanton and Keri Caffrey, co-founder of CyclingSavvy, a nonprofit bicycling education program. All of them cited data kept by state and local agencies showing a higher rate of bicycle crashes on sidewalks. It's a trend that's true both nationwide and specifically in Pinellas County, Blanton said.
The sidewalk is "inherently a less safe place to ride because you're out of the (line of sight) of most motorists," Blanton said.
Drivers will scan for people walking before making a turn or pulling into traffic, but a person on a bike is moving more quickly and is more likely to catch drivers by surprise.
To the business and community members who opposed the bike lanes, the decision by some riders not to use the new lanes is another reason they contend the city made a poor investment.
More than 60 business owners petitioned the city this summer, worrying that the loss of a car lane would cause traffic to back up and motorists to seek alternate routes. That could translate to lost revenue for their stores. Others in the community were frustrated that the city would take capacity away from cars in order to build an option that they said would benefit relatively few people.
Dr. Ed Carlson, president of the Jungle Terrace Civic Association, said the city was overestimating the amount of people who would ride in the lanes, referring to them as "imaginary bicyclists."
"This is like a pipe dream that doesn't have reality to it," Carlson said at a community meeting, "but costs us a lot of money."
St. Petersburg transportation manager Cheryl Stacks said the city plans to collect data on the new bike lanes in the next couple months, including numbers on how many cyclists use them and what their travel habits are. She said anecdotally, city staff have seen cyclists using both the lanes and the sidewalks, both of which are legal options.
"I think it’s a matter of personal preference and where people might feel most comfortable," Stacks said. "I think the more people learn about it and see other people using it, the more we'll see an increase in use."
There's no one reason that explains why some people avoid bike lanes. But common themes include safety concerns, convenience, speed of traffic, and lack of connectivity between lanes. For example, if someone is riding their bike past 30th Avenue N, they might decide to ride the entire way on the sidewalk instead of starting in a bike lane and then having to ride in regular traffic when the bike lane ends.
Rose Brotherton, 25, was riding on the sidewalk of King Street on Monday. The avid biker said she chooses to cycle rather than drive about 90 percent of the time. Usually, she said, she'll use a bike lane. But a combination of wide sidewalks and a shorter trip kept her on the sidewalk that day.
"With longer distances, I'll use the lanes," Brotherton said. "I think the bike network here is super awesome. It's one of the reasons I moved to St. Pete."
Brotherton was one of eight bicyclists a Tampa Bay Times reporter saw riding on the sidewalks in front of the Banyan Cafe during a 90-minute period that morning. Four others cycled in the new lanes, while two people chose to switch between the sidewalk and bike lane.
Though the lanes on King Street don't have a physical divider between cars and bikes, like along First avenues N and S, they are more substantial than the four-foot lanes that are sometimes tacked on at the end of road projects. For a majority of the King Street corridor, the lanes are 6 feet wide and have an additional 2-foot striped buffer separating them from traffic.
"They're wide enough that two people can ride abreast very comfortably," Blanton said. "I don't know why anybody would want to be on a sidewalk in that situation."
Erica Sirotich, 36, said she's more likely to ride in the bike lanes when she's with her fiance, who she described as a more experienced cyclist. But if she's by herself, she said she's more comfortable biking on the sidewalks at times, depending on the road and the distance of her trip. She said she's had too many drivers yell at her and curse her out for riding in the street to feel completely comfortable there.
"A lot of drivers don't know the rules," she said. "They don't realize that bikers share the road."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst