The pandemic brought an explosion of bicycle sales and drew big crowds to the Pinellas Trail. Meanwhile, Florida is the most hostile state in the nation for bicyclists.
The Tampa Bay area and the state of Florida have long held the title as the deadliest place, by far, to ride a bicycle, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at almost three times the national average of deaths per million.
At the same time, the pandemic brought on a bicycle boom with a dramatic increase in sales in 2020, while paths like the Pinellas Trail popped a wheelie in user numbers. The trail more than doubled its number of users per month in 2020, according to data from electronic sensors on the trail.
With these good and bad trends in mind, Tampa Bay Times staffer Bernadette Berdychowski created an easy map of the friendliest places for bikes in the area.
This Times map shows what planners have identified as the easiest places for a cyclist of any skill level to find a nice stretch to pedal without encountering too many cars. Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties all have long paths. Some, like the Upper Tampa Bay Trail, have a mix of scenic rural pastures in eastern Hillsborough and safe urban spurs like the section that transports you over busy Gunn Highway on a beautifully constructed pedestrian bridge.
Within a few years, most of these trails will be connected to their counterparts on the east coast as part of the Coast-to-Coast Trail. It’s an ambitious statewide effort that began in 2014 to connect these paths across nine counties so that you could conceivably ride a bike from St. Petersburg to the Atlantic Coast.
The current scene is still grim for cyclists, with 7.4 fatalities per million people in 2015, according to the CDC, almost three times the national average of 2.5 per million. California, which also has nice weather and nearly twice as many residents as Florida, had 3.3 deaths per million residents.
What’s different about Florida?
“Road design and attitude,” said Gena Torres, an executive planner with Plan Hillsborough.
Most of Florida’s roads were built in the golden age of highways, when suburbs were sprouting up, and the focus was on getting people around fast. Bicycles and pedestrians weren’t part of the picture, Torres said. Add to that the attitude of drivers that roads are meant for cars.
In looking for solutions, planners have sought funding to extend and link these trails to each other so cyclists have a grid of bike paths to get to work or school instead of just for recreation. Torres pointed out that most people don’t get hurt on bike paths, they get hit while taking their bike to work on busy roads.
Solutions also include education for drivers — like those flashing beacons you frequently see to warn drivers someone is using a crosswalk. Reducing and enforcing the speed limits on the roads will make it easier for people walking or biking to feel safe, Torres said. And there are resources to educate bicycle owners on how to find the safest path from here to there.
The 50-mile Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, which runs the length of Pinellas County, jumped from an average of 70,000 users per month pre-pandemic to more than double to 180,000 per month in 2020, according to sensor data. And it hasn’t coasted much in 2021, with more 1 million users on the Pinellas Trail by June of this year, or 130,000 a month on average, said Angela Ryan, principal planner with Forward Pinellas, the planning council and metropolitan planning organization for Pinellas County.
“One of the benefits of having this huge increase in people cycling is people are more aware,” Ryan said. “When people cycle themselves, they become more aware of cyclists. If we are accustomed to seeing more bikes on the road, and if are more accustomed to seeing them cross the trail, we will be more compliant with roadway laws.”
Florida law requires cars to stop for anyone using a crosswalk, she noted, but that doesn’t mean motorists are noticing the crosshatch markings on the road, a crosswalk sign or that there are pedestrians or cyclists trying to cross. But those rectangular rapid caution lights that flash when a pedestrian pushes a button to cross the road have been extremely effective, Ryan said.
A federal highway study found that motorist compliance at crosswalks went from 18 percent to 81 percent once those beacons were put in place, Ryan said, calling them “a fantastic way to allow people to cross safely.”
And while the Tampa Bay area has lots of dedicated bike paths, educating cyclists on how to get there from their neighborhood can be a learning curve.
It’s the opposite of your instincts as a driver, said Wade Reynolds, principal planner and bicycle coordinator for Plan Hillsborough. A motorist tries to find the quickest route from one place to another. A cyclist keeps an eye out for the quiet roads that run parallel where speeds are low and cars are more scarce.
So rather than riding on busy Hillsborough Avenue to get to Al Lopez Park in Tampa, a cyclist should likely choose Spruce or Cypress streets to travel east or west to head to the park’s bike path and use side roads to reach it. Cyclists will look for “the least bad link” between two points, Reynolds said.
People for Bikes created a free iPhone and Android app to locate safe bike paths across the country. Just enter your location and you can find bike routes nearby that other cyclists have posted. Check the app store for their Ride Spot app or go to peopleforbikes.org. Bike/Walk Tampa Bay has lots of resources, including a list of maps with routes and trails from around the Tampa Bay region at bikewalktampabay.org. The site also highlights local events and area activities for cyclists.
Times staff writer Bernadette Berdychowski contributed to this report.