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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Give bicycles serious thought in plans to fix Hillsborough transportation

A bicyclist rides the new separated bike lane on Cass Street in downtown Tampa, between North Ashley Drive and Tampa Street. The stretch is one example of how the city of Tampa is encouraging bicycle commuting as an alternative form of transportation. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Mar. 17, 2017

More people are bicycling to work these days — a lot more — and government at all levels should redouble its efforts to encourage a trend that serves the public good in so many ways. This is especially important in Hillsborough County as leaders try to get on track with the comprehensive transportation plan that has eluded the region for decades. The latest: Hillsborough County commissioners, eager to show some progress, just approved an $812 million road plan with another promise to critics that it will find money somewhere, somehow, to get moving on public transit, too.

Whether it's roads or transit, the growth in bicycling argues for incorporating improvements that will serve these two-wheeled commuters — buffered bike lanes, for example, "park and ride" stations at major bus stops, maybe even light rail cars that a rider can wheel right into.

Commuting to work by bicycle grew more than 60 percent nationwide from 2005 to 2014, pushing the total number of riders to nearly a million, according to data from the Census' American Community Survey. In Florida, the increase was even higher, at 70 percent, ranking the state No. 16 in growth nationwide.

Even more to the point in local transportation discussions: Tampa boasts 3,126 people among the commuting population who identify themselves as bicycle commuters, placing the city No. 15 among the 70 largest cities for its share of commuters riding bikes.

The share is small, just 1.9 percent of all local commuters, but it's a much bigger base for growing the trend than Florida's other major cities. The figure for Miami is 0.9 percent and Jacksonville, 0.6 percent.

The reasons to encourage bicycle commuting are as numerous as they are obvious. The practice reduces traffic congestion, pollution, and the need to expand roads and highways, while improving the health of bikers. One study, in fact — from Columbia University, based on a major 2015 investment in bike lanes by New York City — shows there are few more effective ways for communities to spend money on preventive health care.

For the most part, bike commuters don't need transportation agencies to reinvent the wheel, just to adapt existing roads and buses to accommodate them. These include buffered bike lanes separated by curbs, conventional bike lanes marked by striping, multi-use paths like the Tampa Riverwalk, and pavement symbols emphasizing where motor vehicles should share the road.

Bicycles also hold promise to boost the use of public transportation. They offer a solution to the "last mile" puzzle that the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit is working to solve — getting people from their homes to bus stops along major roads.

In the short run, one accommodation is replacing two-bike racks on buses with three-bike racks as the Seattle area is doing. But in the long run, as Seattle is finding, three-bike racks fill up, too. The long-term solution is in secure "park and ride" spots and bike rental stations at bus stops.

The city of Tampa has embraced many if not all of these approaches in an aggressive campaign to encourage bicycle riding that ramped up with the election of Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Since 2015, impact fees on new development have included provisions for mass transit and bicycle infrastructure.

The city has built more than 52 miles of bike lanes since 2011 and another 39 in partnership with the state Department of Transportation, the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, and Hillsborough County. Another 28 miles are on the drawing board.

Just as important, the city is working to establish a bicycle grid so users can get to and from the most popular Points A and B. A map of existing routes shows where this already is happening — a long stretch north up Florida Avenue from downtown, for example — but also where bike routes begin and end abruptly.

One big step in this direction is a planned Green Artery bounded by downtown to the south, 40th Street to the east and the Hillsborough River to the west and north. Another is the development of so-called "complete streets" — stretches of road with 10 features that make travel appealing, including bike lanes, on-street parking, broad sidewalks, trees and benches.

Three-fourths of those who choose to commute by bicycle nationwide report their trip is 25 minutes or less, according to the Census. That's comparable to the average commute time overall in Hillsborough County — 26 minutes, the Census says.

A bike generally won't take a commuter as far in the same time, of course, but the numbers help demonstrate that given a little encouragement, more people might consider bicycle commuting — for their own good and for the good of their neighbors.

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