The bus rapid transit route planned between downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches will mark a significant step toward making the city less car-centric. But figuring out the details raises questions sure to come up again and again throughout the region. How do you choose which types of transit to accommodate, and which ones do you reduce? Planners, residents, business owners and elected officials should keep an open mind when confronted with these tradeoffs and recognize them as necessary growing pains of bringing more transit options to Tampa Bay.
St. Petersburg's BRT service, slated to begin operating in late 2020 or early 2021, will run mainly along First Avenues N and S, making 17 stops along its 30-minute route. The buses will run in dedicated lanes on the one-way avenues. But as the Times' Caitlin Johnston reported, along one stretch between 20th and 31st streets in the popular Grand Central district there's not enough room for two lanes of regular traffic, a bus lane, a bike lane and parking spaces on both sides of the street. That means either eliminating parking or cutting out a portion of the continuous bike lane.
City and transit officials have surveyed the parking situation and already know that spaces in the area often go unfilled. In addition, 32 new spaces were recently added nearby on Central Avenue. There's little logic in disrupting the bike lane for 11 blocks. In that case, why have one at all? Still, St. Petersburg is smart to move slowly and hold town hall sessions with residents and local business owners to get their feedback before making any final decisions.
Whit Blanton, head of the county planning organization Forward Pinellas, said a smart, viable design in transit is essential to getting people to change their behavior, i.e. ride the bus instead of drive. Too often, transit projects start off with a bold design but then get pared down in an effort not to upset anyone, usually drivers. What's left is an unappealing compromise that's doomed to fail. He says St. Petersburg's BRT plan has avoided that trap, which is critical considering it's the county's first major investment in mass transit.
As more transit projects enter the planning phase, including in Hillsborough where voters just approved a one-cent transportation tax, each will have unique challenges. All will have limited space and require tradeoffs. The Pinellas BRT plan will create some discomfort by squeezing three lanes of traffic into two and potentially eliminating some parking spaces. The tradeoff: fast, frequent bus service so people won't need to drive or park. That's the point.