TBX and the choices we face

The recent vote to support funding for the Tampa Bay Express (TBX) in the Hillsborough County MPO’s Transportation Improvement Program illustrates the difficult choices we face to improve transportation in the Tampa Bay region. The Florida Department of Transportation’s plan to construct variable priced toll lanes on Interstate 275, I-4 and I-75 has sparked much public debate over the past year about the proper ways to invest in our region’s transportation network for future economic value and quality of life.

FDOT_system_map
Tampa Bay Express system map. Source: FDOT.

FDOT asserts that TBX accelerates construction funding for the downtown and airport interchanges, provides an envelop for future regional transit service, and will reduce peak period congestion  and improve travel time reliability between regional destinations, such as the Pinellas Gateway district, the University of South Florida, Tampa’s Westshore, downtown Tampa and the Gulf beaches. Managed express lanes exist with regional express bus service in Miami and Broward County, and are under construction for I-4 through metro Orlando.

Despite that perspective, TBX is a tough decision for many. The opposition speakers against the project weren’t merely passionate; they were well-informed and coherent in their arguments about what they see is a need for a different approach to transportation and economic development that favors reinvestment in recovering neighborhoods, expanding quality transit and other options for accessibility. There is a real impact to people, families and businesses with any type of transportation project. Some impacts and benefits are direct, such as buying homes, churches and businesses in the project path, or travelers having the option of taking a faster, less congested route. Other impacts play out indirectly or over a longer time, such as changes in market economics, costs of development or attractiveness of a neighborhood or region to the next generation of employers, workers and residents.

A Resolution of Support

IMG_3304
Forward Pinellas representatives Whit Blanton and Clearwater City Councilmember Doreen Caudell speak to the Hillsborough County MPO on June 22nd in favor of TBX.

Forward Pinellas, in its role as the Pinellas County MPO, voted to support TBX from a regional transportation and connectivity perspective. For instance, employers in the Pinellas Gateway area, Pinellas Park, Largo and St. Petersburg recruit workers from a four county travel shed. The Gulf beaches, which contribute $9 billion in economic value to the region, depend on regional access, as do the manufacturers, port facilities, cultural venues and sporting events that help to define the Tampa Bay region’s identity. We’re one region and the barriers to connectivity resulting from perpetual congestion hinder regional growth and vitality.

However, the Board conditioned its support for TBX on the need to expand regional transportation choices, particularly public transportation strategies that better link our downtowns, tourism destinations and employment areas. Forward Pinellas leaders recognized a large and growing imbalance in transportation funding that favors highways, and the potential inequity fostered through a managed lanes toll pricing strategy. It is ironic that 102 years after the nation’s first inter-city airline service began operating between Tampa and St. Petersburg there is not even bus service that connects the region’s two prominent downtown destinations. Perhaps soon a ferry will do the job.

Elections Have Consequences

The reality is that elections and public decisions have consequences. We live in an era when politicians of all persuasions are extremely cautious or outright hostile to the idea of raising new revenue for infrastructure, no matter how well-documented the need. On both sides of Tampa Bay and throughout Florida, voters have generally shown indifference or strong opposition to tax proposals for roads, transit and the like. The nation’s last gas tax increase was in 1993. Florida’s choice to expand the use of tolls to generate revenue for needed interstate expansion and maintenance is a policy decision made in a highly competitive funding environment when few other funding options are viable.

Until we are able to devise a clear vision and support complementary actions for transportation in the Tampa Bay area, we are going to continue having these difficult and challenging debates about growth and transportation. This is a dynamic region undergoing generational, social, physical and economic changes. The investments we need to make to handle those changes cost far more than we expect to have in available revenue. Just in Pinellas, we have a roadway funding shortfall of $1.2 billion by 2040, no defined funding to expand transit or replace aging buses, and lack sufficient funds to complete the Pinellas Trail loop or make our surface streets substantially safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.

So we have to prioritize what’s important to us. We have to decide what kind of economy we want in Tampa Bay, what kind of growth future we want, how our neighborhoods of all types can flourish, and how transportation can best serve those interests.  Meeting those needs means setting funding priorities. It may also mean shifting more responsibility to the private sector, to the users of our transportation infrastructure, or to future generations at a potentially much higher cost.

Setting Priorities

In September, Forward Pinellas will formally transmit its project priorities for 2020-21 to FDOT for state and federal transportation funds, an essential function of a metropolitan planning organization. In parallel, we are beginning a process of setting performance measures and targets for what we expect our transportation system to achieve. Those two activities will go hand in hand in the future, serving to shape how we move and how we function as a cohesive community and region.

There’s simply never going to be enough money for all the projects people want or believe we need. Here are six key issues that will influence our decisions about transportation funding priorities in the next several years:

  1. Safety. Despite a downward trend in traffic crashes and fatalities, 2015 experienced an upswing in deaths, primarily due to an improving economy and lower gas prices. Bicyclist, pedestrian and motorcycle traffic deaths far outpaced the increase in automobile fatalities. Making our roads safer for all users – the Complete Streets approach – takes money to design better facilities and educate people.
  2. Infrastructure maintenance. FDOT has a preservation-first approach to funding when it comes to its highway network, and Florida generally does a good job maintaining its roads and bridges. Local governments face a very different challenge. The recession and competing fiscal demands have deferred needed maintenance and the bill for reconstruction, resurfacing and rehabilitation of our roadways and bridges, replacing buses and upgrading stormwater/drainage systems is coming due.
  3. Regional highway connectivity. The missing segments of Gandy Boulevard, 126th Avenue, and the US 19 interchanges at Curlew Road and Tampa Road illustrate the critical gaps in network connectivity that come with a very high price tag.
  4. Public transportation. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) is about to launch the Tampa Bay Premium Transit Feasibility Study, funded by FDOT to help Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas decide on a regional transit investment strategy. Meanwhile, pressure is on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) to buy more expensive electric buses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We have aging bus fleets,  and most of our commercial corridors lack frequent bus service. The Forward Pinellas and PSTA boards will meet July 29th in a workshop format to discuss including transit projects in the MPO’s annual priority projects list.
  5. Technology. The market is responding to rapid advancements in data and technology to improve travel choices, which can lower costs and provide on-demand services to users throughout our region. But there are important considerations that entail investment in communications and adaptive technologies that will have an impact on budgets.
  6. Downtown redevelopment and community accessibility. Downtowns across our region, throughout Florida, and elsewhere in the country are thriving. Their continued revitalization depends equally on access, not just high-speed mobility. Transportation strategies must fit within a tightly built context, meaning we need to get more out of the relatively small footprint of construction projects and enable better connectivity through private on-demand ride-hailing services and other options.

The success of other regions, from places as distinct as Charlotte, Portland, Denver or Salt Lake City, is based on foundational, agreed-upon regional growth strategies like the Mile High Compact or Envision Utah. As we take the next steps forward for our economic and transportation future in the Tampa Bay region, what actions do we need to undertake to come together and make similar commitments here?

St. Petersburg Residents Select Locations for Bike Share Stations

In April, the St. Petersburg City Council approved funding for a bike share program in its downtown area.  The program will launch in September with the roll out of 30 stations and 300 GPS-enabled smart bikes.  Now the City needs to figure out where to locate the stations and they’re looking to the locals for help.  On June 15, about 20 City residents, including representatives of various civic groups ranging from the Chamber of Commerce to the St. Petersburg Bicycle Cooperative, gathered at the Sunshine Center to take part in the process of selecting locations for the stations.

The workshop opened with St. Petersburg Bicycle and Pedestrian SPBikeShareWshop061516_1
Coordinator Lucas Cruse and Coast Bike Share Program Director Eric Trull presenting an overview of the program.  Coast Bike Share will be managing the program for the City. After the presentation, the audience broke into five small groups.  Each group received a large map of the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods, along with a set of colored dots.  The participants were asked to place their 30 dots on the sites where they felt the stations should be located.

Trull provided some basic criteria for choosing the locations; such as quarter mile spacing between stations, to the extent possible; easy access for maintenance crews and proximate distances to major origin and destination points where people live, work and play.   Trull explained that the final decision on the station locations will also consider the need to serve economically disadvantaged neighborhoods even if they exceed the general spacing criteria. “Equity is a big thing for us,” he noted.

Among the most popular locations selected by the groups were the local hospitals, Tropicana Field, the St. Petersburg Pier and Shuffleboard Club, USF, Straub Park and multiple locations along Central Avenue.  Cruse anticipates the City will schedule a second and final public workshop in early August.  Residents can also go online, SPBikeShareWshop061516_2http://coaststpete.com, to suggest a station location.

“I’m from St. Petersburg, so I’m excited to bring this program home and see it succeed here,” Trull said. He is optimistic about the chances for success in his hometown.  If Tampa is any indication, he has good reason to be optimistic.  In a city not known for its friendliness to bicyclists and pedestrians, Tampa’s downtown area bike share program attracted more than 11,500 member participants in 2015, its first year.

St. Petersburg has several factors working in its favor to make bike share a viable transportation alternative. They include an established network of bike facilities and trails along with a grid pattern of streets to make the City attractive for bicyclists.  As the Pinellas MPO concluded, bike share is a feasible endeavor for areas beyond St. Petersburg, but the commitment of the beach communities and other cities like Clearwater, Dunedin, Tarpon Springs, Largo and Safety Harbor remains to be seen. Other Pinellas municipalities with downtown areas more favorable for bicycling than Tampa are exploring the possibility, and the connections provided by the Pinellas Trail and other trails in the county provide the backbone for such a countywide network.

Forward Pinellas – Branding a new identity

forward_pinellas_logo_gray_color_white_text

The role of transportation and land development in Pinellas County took on increased importance with passage of a special act of the Florida Legislature in 2014 unifying a 13-member governing board of local elected officials with responsibility for countywide transportation and land use planning. Pinellas remains Florida’s most densely developed county with nearly one million residents spread among 24 municipalities. Its history of planning and environmental leadership is a critical foundation for how this county moves forward. But we face long-term economic, social and environmental challenges that need visionary, practical and well-integrated solutions to guide transportation and community redevelopment.

The Special Act linked the two legal entities created by state and federal law, the Pinellas Planning Council (PPC) and Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Their work is carried out through a staff services agreement covering the operations of the unified organization. No longer is the MPO a division of the Pinellas County Planning Department, as it had been for years. And no longer is the PPC a regulatory-focused agency bent on adherence to the Countywide Rules. We also have an increasingly important regional transportation role with our partner transportation agencies in Tampa Bay to provide a vision and set of priorities that will move people and freight optimally.

County Boundary_blue_40%transparentThe purpose of the unified PPC/MPO – doing business as Forward Pinellas – is to provide leadership and coordinated land use and transportation decision-making in a county with a unique set of geographic and economic challenges. The law describes the need to coordinate and implement land use and transportation planning in Pinellas County in an integrated manner that reinforces community goals for redevelopment, economic development and quality of life. Through a more streamlined countywide planning process, the PPC is able to provide more strategic, forward-looking, multi-jurisdictional planning and technical assistance that guides and sustains our investments in transportation, use of developable land, and protection of natural and cultural resources.  It also gives local governments the ability to adapt and respond quickly to changing needs within that broad countywide framework. The MPO’s role is central to that mission.

Pinellas County’s geography is not like our bigger, fast-growth neighbors in Hillsborough, Manatee or Pasco County. Like Apple, we need to think different. It’s hard work to guide well-designed redevelopment, organized efficiently around transportation networks, public utilities and on land that does not flood. Making sure there’s good access and housing close to services for a range of incomes is especially challenging in a mostly developed county.  Redevelopment in Pinellas requires addressing conditions not simply as they are today, but as they may need to become in the future.

The first step involves clarifying who we are to the public. When I started my job almost one year ago, I inherited a confusing miasma of different organizations: two sets of business cards; my employee badge said Pinellas County; our telephone system hold message is an infomercial for Pinellas County government. People who want to learn about transportation and land use planning in Pinellas have two different web sites to visit. We get calls daily about things like swimming pool permits, where people can park, and how they can ride the Pinellas Trail. We send letters out on different sets of letterhead depending on the issue and actions taken by our board.

It’s clear we need to create a new identity that supports our new mission and role.

Why Forward Pinellas?

Photo of board members
Forward Pinellas board members Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy, Jim Kennedy, Darden Rice and John Tornga are joined by FDOT’s Matt Weaver and Forward Pinellas’ Mike Crawford at the May 3rd Enhancing Beach Community Access listening session.

We did not choose our name easily nor quickly. After careful consideration and consultation with our staff, board and many people both in government and out, we sought a brand identity that we felt best reflected a sense of countywide progress and momentum to meet changing demands. As a transportation planning organization, we also wanted our identity to convey motion – that our focus is helping residents and business get to and from the places they need to go. The logo itself represents the complex and changing environment of land, water and transportation that connects us.

We found that balance in Forward Pinellas. We selected a name, logo and set of messages that frame our role and responsibilities as an organization that

  • Gets the job done
  • Moves Pinellas County into a brighter future
  • Encourages the progress of other government entities
  • Facilitates projects moving forward
  • Helps the public move

We’ve developed the following mission statement to guide our activities.

“Forward Pinellas will provide leadership to align resources and plans that help to achieve a compelling vision for Pinellas County, our individual communities and our region.”

That mission is reinforced by our planning and coordination activities, how we conduct ourselves professionally and through an organizational culture of ethical public service, creative problem-solving and continuous learning.

Next Steps

We have filed a fictitious name request with the Department of State, as other government agencies and MPOs around the country have done, and will begin doing business as Forward Pinellas in all our communications. We will continue legal functions as the PPC and MPO, acting consistently within state and federal legislation to adopt and amend our plans, programs and agreements.

We are hiring a communications specialist to help develop and carry out a strategic communications plan that supports our mission. Our new web site – forwardpinellas.org – will be functional in June and we will host a brand unveiling event later this summer to introduce ourselves to the public and our stakeholders.

With our Pinellas SPOTlight Emphasis Areas for US 19, Gateway/Mid-County and Enhancing Beach Community Access, we will work with our regional and local partners to move Pinellas forward. We will do so by being visionary, helping to set and maintain a direction, and answering critical questions. Being forward means making your voice heard and relevant, engaging others to join. Are you forward? Are you Forward Pinellas?

Streets for Everyone – Gil Penalosa Brings His Healthy Cities Message to St. Petersburg

Elected officials and professionals involved in efforts to improve transportation infrastructure in their communities often talk about mobility and safety being the top priorities. These are necessary pursuits. But the core values of building a quality transportation system are about health and equity. These themes are central to the mission of 8 80 Cities, a Toronto based non-profit organization that helps cities and communities around the world reach their potential as “people places.”  The name “8 80 Cities” is based on the idea of the organization’s founder and director Gil Penalosa that cities should work for all people age 8 to 80.

I had the opportunity to join some friends for a conversation with Penalosa on April 21 at a coffee shop on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg. Sitting with me at the table were fellow St. Petersburg Mayor’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) members Lee Allen, Jeremiah Rohr and Tom Cason, St. Petersburg Bike Coop Advisory Board member Caesar Morales and sustainability activist Chris Kenrick.

“Bicycling on the streets can be a polarizing issue, but no one is opposed to improving people’s health. That’s why everyone should support public investment in safe bikeways and GilP&Co_atBanyon042116wCapwalkable streets,” explained Penalosa.  He also emphasized the value of equity and community interaction that comes with a connected network of safe bikeways.  “Regardless of their race or economic circumstances, on a public bikeway, everyone meets as equals,” he stated.

Penalosa also stressed the need to establish a “minimum grid” of on-street protected bicycle facilities in the City to accommodate all ages and abilities. These facilities include bike lanes or side paths that provide a barrier between the bicyclists and vehicles.  “Think of someone you know who is 8 or 80.  Would you let them ride their bikes on these streets?” he asked.

A former parks commissioner in Bogota, Columbia, Penalosa was also involved in launching the Ciclovia movement, which started there in 1974. Ciclovia involves closing streets to vehicle traffic and turning them over to people for bicycling, walking and other health-related activities.  Ciclovia has made its way to numerous cities around the globe and in the U.S.  Morales and Rohr are leading the effort to help St. Petersburg stage its first Ciclovia under the moniker of “Open Streets St. Pete” on October 9, 2016.

After our coffee shop meeting, we watched Penalosa present his 8 80 healthy streets concept to St. Petersburg’s Energy, Natural Resources and Sustainability Committee (ENRS). He urged the Committee to aim high and act with a sense of urgency. “There’s no reason why St. Petersburg can’t be the healthiest most physically active city in the world,” he proclaimed.  Penalosa shared that sentiment with City Council later in the day shortly before they approved the launch of a new bike share program in the downtown area. It was a major step forward for a City pointed toward the goal of building a network of healthy streets for everyone to enjoy.

Improving Gulf Boulevard Safety is No Accident

main
Gulf Boulevard, Sand Key, Clearwater Beach

Pick almost any month and you can read about a crash involving a pedestrian and automobile somewhere along Gulf Boulevard in Pinellas County. Often, these crashes include a fatality or serious injury. It’s an unfortunate and unacceptable situation that results from a combination of increased travel demand, conflicts over limited space, unfamiliar tourists, and a busy combination of buses, bikes, cars and people walking.

There were 467 crashes on Gulf Boulevard in 2015, a number that rose by 15% over 2014. Of that 2015 total, there were five fatalities, with more than 50 crashes involving vulnerable road users, such as people on foot or bicycle. The number of crashes, particularly those involving fatalities and vulnerable road users, is a problem that the Pinellas County MPO and our partners are working to address and solve so that all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and those in automobiles, can use our beach roadways safely.

IMAG0755
Pedestrians and bicyclists on Gulf Boulevard

Enhancing Beach Access one of three focus areas that make up the PPC/MPO’s Pinellas SPOTlight efforts. Over the next two years, we will be focused on innovative ways to enhance accessibility and mobility. Our goal is to work with our partners to eliminate traffic-related fatalities and significantly reduce the number and severity of crashes. The approach, called Vision Zero, is also a priority in Hillsborough County and other communities around the country.

How will we do this? The MPO and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) are committed to working with the local community to improve safety on our beach community roadways. We are working with local governments, businesses and residents to ensure that planned improvement projects are feasible, cost-effective and locally supported. In addition to capital projects, we are working with law enforcement, agency partners and the public to raise awareness of safety measures and to encourage safe travel behavior. This is a long-term commitment to reversing trends and behavior that has taken years to develop.

As part of our Enhancing Beach Access effort, our objectives are to:

  • Improve access to the beaches and along the corridor
  • Increase transportation options along the beaches
  • Create a safer environment for everyone
  • Strengthen transportation alternatives connecting beaches to the region
  • Promote mixed-use redevelopment, job creation and preservation of neighborhoods.

Communication, education and analysis are key components of this effort.

IMAG0726 (003)
Commissioner Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy with Commissioner John Tornga

This is a big effort and we can’t do it alone. FDOT is a great partner, bringing innovative ideas and resources to meet our shared goal for a safe transportation network. Our beach community representative on the MPO Board, Indian Rocks Beach Commissioner Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy, is working hard to bring FDOT, local government, businesses and residents together to meet these challenges.

How can you help? Join us as we kick off our SPOTlight initiative. A public listening session will be held on May 3rd from 9-11 a.m. at the Madeira Beach City Hall, 300 Municipal Drive, Madeira Beach. If you would like to learn more about the listening session, additional information is available at http://www.pinellascounty.org/mpo/spotlight.html. If you plan on attending, please RSVP to Tina Jablon.

If you are interested in participating but are unable to attend the listening session, please let us know. We welcome your input and look forward to working with the Pinellas County beach community, and beyond, to improve beach access.

SPOTlight Listening Session Invitation

Changes Coming to Gandy Boulevard

In 2012, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) informed the MPO that bids on projects around the state were coming in lower than expected and that FDOT had extra (that’s right-extra!) money for transportation projects.  Turns out, they had just about enough to fund improvements to Gandy Boulevard from 4th Street North to 16th Street North. We got with our colleagues throughout the Tampa Bay area and quickly obtained consensus that our project was a regional priority and should be the project for FDOT to apply the additional funding. We added the project to the regional priority list and four years later, the construction on Gandy Blvd. from 4th Street to 16th Street is not only underway, but ahead of schedule!  When it opens in the spring of 2017, drivers will be able to pass over 16th Street, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and 4th Street without having to wait for a traffic signal. Anyone who has driven through that complicated, congested series of intersections can understand what a relief this will be for drivers going through this area. But it’s not just for cars; the project will also include sidewalks, bicycle lanes and accommodations for a future trail facility, to help people get around more safely without having to drive. This part is critical because the existing non-motorized transportation facilities in this area are lacking, to say the very least.

On the Hillsborough side of the bay, many drivers are familiar with the stop-and-go drive along Gandy to make it from the bridge to the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) has been making the rounds (including a stop at the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area (TMA) Leadership Group meeting last month), getting the word out about a project they are planning that will provide a direct, tolled connection between the Gandy Bridge and the Crosstown.  The Selmon Extension will consist of an elevated toll lane in each direction to whisk drivers and transit riders above Gandy to the Crosstown, while maintaining the existing toll-free lanes on the ground. Combined with the Selmon Connector (linking the Crosstown to I-4) that opened in 2014, this project will provide a direct connection from the Gandy Bridge to the interstate highway system. THEA is planning to have this project under construction in 2017 and open to traffic in 2020.

Gandy-Connector-Rendering-Day-disclaimer-1024x698
Artistic rendering of the proposed Selmon Extension.

With construction either planned or underway along Gandy Blvd. on both sides of the bay, a key question remains…what to do about the segment in between? The traffic signal at Gandy and Brighton Bay Blvd. NE (see map below) will be right in between two long stretches of roadway where the cars will be traveling at a high rate of speed without having to stop.  This situation could lead to a substantial increase in crashes when the improvements on both sides are complete. Potentially making the situation worse, the corridor will likely draw increased traffic in general with the interstate construction that will likely be underway in 2018 (Gandy being the logical alternate). The MPO’s Long Range Transportation Plan calls for the construction of an overpass at the Brighton Bay Boulevard intersection, creating a stoplight-free drive from Grand Blvd. in Pinellas Park, all the way to the interstate system. While definitely a benefit for commuters and beach-oriented tourists, with this roadway being a key hurricane evacuation corridor, the prospect of having this access-controlled facility completed holds great promise for emergency planners as well. However, this project is currently the lowest priority roadway capacity project on the MPO’s adopted priority list, meaning it will not feasibly receive funding until after 2030.

brighton map
The check mark highlights the location of the Brighton Bay Boulevard NE intersection with Gandy Boulevard.

Each year, the MPO Board reevaluates its priority projects for state and federal funding. Within the ever-changing environment of transportation funding and needs, we must regularly reconsider what projects we are funding and when. When the MPO developed its current priority list, the Selmon Extension was on Hillsborough’s wish list, but not moving forward so there was little sense of urgency with the Brighton Bay intersection. In addition, Derby Lane is being discussed as being a prime redevelopment opportunity and could be a potential location for a future Tampa Bay Rays stadium, further complicating mobility in this area.

derby lane
The Derby Lane property fronts Gandy Boulevard, at the Brighton Bay Boulevard NE intersection, and holds great potential for future redevelopment.

When developing a list of priorities this year, the MPO Board will have another opportunity to reconsider both the types of projects we are choosing fund, as well as the order in which we fund them.  Strategic gaps in the system that provide direct economic and community value today and into the future require careful consideration. After all, as is evident with the various development patterns throughout Pinellas County – from walkable downtowns, to the grid-patterned roadways in southern Pinellas, to the gated communities in our northern areas – the transportation decisions we make today, affect our communities for years to come.

Steps for a more accessible Pinellas County

Access, the means of approaching or entering a place, is an often overlooked indicator of how successfully a community is evolving from nondescript corridor to place. Shifting from an emphasis on driving to an emphasis on walking, bikes and buses, it’s critical how consciously we plan for access. Access is often thought of in the narrowest terms of automobile accessibility, particularly in suburban and rural areas where the car is king. Our analytical tools, both models and mindset, are often at fault.

IMG_0636
Main Street in Safety Harbor is a highly accessible place.

Research shows walkable communities are increasingly popular among all age groups, especially millennials and baby boomers. Numerous elected officials, advocates and professionals also call for more walkable communities. Yet planning and designing for multimodal access is lacking in many communities. It is either not considered, an afterthought or isn’t enforced. Sometimes we have the plans and codes in place, but little changes until key sites or the corner parcel redevelops. That can take years, especially if they are privately owned and profitable, holding back change and frustrating advocates.

Retrofitting buildings or streets is expensive business. In the meantime, there are plenty of things we can control that may seem on the margin, but if we emphasize multimodal access, they can help pedestrians feel invited and can add substantial economic value to the community. One of those things is parking lot design.

IMG_2221
A makeshift ramp between a Publix and Walgreens in Belleair Bluffs and an adjacent condominium complex.

 

We can do better. Outside of downtown areas, there is generally abysmal treatment of pedestrians in private surface parking lots all across Pinellas County. That is because most are old properties that reflect old codes and practices from long-retired professionals. Development in the last 5-10 years does a much better job with pedestrian access. Compare these photos of the Dunedin Causeway Publix shopping center on Curlew Road and Alt. US 19 with West Bay Drive in Belleair Bluffs.

IMG_2279
Access to groceries is a critical factor for people of all ages and abilities, but we often fail to design for pedestrian accessibility.

 

Both are successful and each is in a pretty walkable area by suburban standards. But which parking lot would make you feel more welcome walking there? I thought about this as I noticed two middle-aged women one Saturday morning escorting their frail mothers or mothers-in-law out of the Publix grocery toward the parked car.

IMG_2220
Publix Shopping Center at West Bay Drive and Indian Rocks Road. No clear pathway for pedestrians to the front door.
IMG_1049
Dunedin Causeway Publix Shopping Center, where well-marked sidewalks connect the grocery store’s front entrance to the Pinellas Trail.

I’ve been thinking a lot about access in Pinellas County as I learn to navigate my way around by car, bike, bus, ferry and on foot. We have an amazing level of accessibility in our county, with numerous downtowns and a dozen or so neighborhood commercial centers, corridors and districts (such as Clearwater Beach, Indian Rocks Beach, Florida Avenue in Palm Harbor, Clearwater-Largo Road in Largo, or Central Avenue and 4th Street in St. Petersburg). Travel options abound in those places, with housing or hotels located nearby to stores, parks and other attractions.

Whether connected by the Pinellas Trail, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses or trolleys, a network of slower speed streets, good sidewalks and bike facilities, or water taxis, Pinellas has many walkable neighborhood districts. Our gaps are mostly the in-between areas, in communities and private parcels developed along state and county roadways that grew busier and wider in the 1960s through 1990s.

In 2014, the American Planning Association published a policy guide on Aging in Community, which provides guidance for planners and communities about ways to make a community or site more accessible for everyone. Pinellas is a county with a lot of older people, including many in my demographic (ahem) who will likely experience mobility limitations in the next 15-20 years.

Good access is especially critical for public transportation, which depends not just on density, but on proximity and access, to be cost effective and productive. Being a transit rider means you are also a pedestrian. People often walk five to 25 minutes on either end of the bus ride to get to a destination. Just when we need a mobility option like transit, we may face barriers in even reaching the service due to poor corridor planning or lackadaisical site planning.

AARP has been thinking about access, too. In response to public health findings about Aging in Place and the requests of its members, the venerable and highly respected senior advocacy organization conducted nationwide surveys in 2014 on the preferences of those 50 and older for livable communities. AARP’s research, supplemented with findings of others in the fields of health, community design and planning, led to the development of the AARP Livability Index.

The Livability Index is a tool designed to help people evaluate their community, or prospective community, for access and other related features using a variety of factors that yOu can weight in terms of your individual preference. It helps communicate key information about the importance of access so that individuals, families, businesses and public agencies can make better decisions about their future. It’s worth seeing how your neighborhood or city compares with other neighborhoods and communities.

I recently met with Jeff Johnson, Laura Cantwell and Michelle Cyr of AARP Florida to discuss ways we can work together on a shared livability agenda for Pinellas County and Tampa Bay. We had a great introduction, and I am very impressed with the work AARP is doing nationally, statewide and in the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg to advance the cause of age-friendly communities.

We can be important partners to help strengthen understanding of how planning and designing for accessible communities improves safety and community cohesion, saves money, generates economic value and creates places where people of all ages and abilities want to live, work and visit. I look forward to working with AARP and each of our communities to make Pinellas County Florida’s safest and most accessible urban county.

 

A Walk on the Streets of Largo

I set out on a warm and sunny winter day after work, before the next cold front arrives, to meet the dual objectives of exercise and to enjoy social interaction at a local gathering spot in nearby Largo. It’s a 1.3 mile walk from my place in Belleair Bluffs along West Bay Drive to the Barley Mow, one of Pinellas County’s many excellent breweries. Walks like this help to compensate for lapses in the healthy diet I’ve generally tried to maintain since moving here.

I also like taking these walks in different parts of Pinellas County to see what’s working well and not so well in terms of development, safety and accessibility from a perspective of the user. There’s no substitute for experience using all forms of the transportation network, whether as a pedestrian, cyclist, transit rider, emergency responder, or car and truck driver.

IMG_2184
The Pinellas Trail at West Bay Drive in Largo. The trail lacks any direct access by bicycle, undermining its value to the City’s emerging downtown district.

 

In that short 26-minute jaunt to the pub at sunset in the daylight, and on my return in the dark twilight of evening, I witnessed a crazy combination of errors, unlawfulness and omissions that I think typify Pinellas County and Florida:

Car drivers making left turn lanes across traffic directly into my path as I crossed a driveway entrance and a marked crosswalk, with one driver using the full lane of approaching traffic to speed in front of me walking in the middle of the intersection. I’m either invisible or do not matter.

A middle-age couple on bicycles, clad in the black-gray colors of pavement with very dim lights riding on the sidewalk in the opposite direction of traffic. At least they had helmets for the inevitable crash.

Two incidents of road rage, with curses shouted and horns blaring, including a situation in which the inconvenienced motorist whipped into an aggressive u-turn to chase and further harass the offending driver. We so need Open Carry legislation.

One limping pedestrian trying to run awkwardly across five lanes of traffic as approaching westbound traffic rapidly bore down on him. He made it, his heart surely racing. The least among us….

Multiple high-speed curb designs on West Bay Drive to driveways and residential side streets that enable fast right turns by cars. They made me uncomfortable proceeding without stopping to look over my shoulder for overtaking right-turning vehicles. Such a design clearly sends a signal about who has priority.

IMG_2196
Note the angle favoring fast-moving right-turning traffic. Pedestrians better keep their head on a swivel.

Two older bicyclists waiting patiently at the traffic signal to cross busy West Bay Drive and Clearwater-Largo Road, both apparently traveling with purpose. All the bicyclists I saw were on the sidewalk, a crash-prone area where people ride out of fear of an even worse crash in traffic.

IMG_2185
Clearwater-Largo Road and West Bay Drive is a busy multimodal intersection in the City of Largo’s emerging downtown district. The Publix grocery and other nearby retail and medical office uses attract many pedestrians and bicyclists and it’s on PSTA’s Route 52.

Good use and timing of pedestrian signals activated by the people waiting to cross busy roadways with well-marked crosswalks. We have at least cultivated a sense of patience among pedestrians if not drivers.

And while I’d experienced it a few times earlier on my bike, I was reminded how big a disconnect we have between the Pinellas Trail and businesses along West Bay Drive and Clearwater-Largo Road in Largo. This is the City’s designated downtown district, and we limit access to and from the trail as if it’s a restricted access highway like I-275 or US 19.

IMG_2191
East-west access to the Pinellas Trail in Largo is what you make of it. A local street stubs out at this user-defined access point. We can do better.

Walk any one mile stretch of urban arterial in Pinellas County and you’ll see many of the same things. Gandy/Park Blvd., Ulmerton Road, Alt US 19, 49th Street, 66th Street, Gulf to Bay, Seminole, 580/Main Street, and 4th Street, we have many corridors that exhibit this Wild West flavor, where being on the defensive takes on a different but eerily similar meaning to the days of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The missed opportunity is that there’s revenue to generate for businesses and create expanded economic opportunity for people that springs from better access. But we sacrifice it for mobility…the speed to get from point A to point B as quickly as practical. We in Pinellas County are losing out on a lot of economic potential by neglecting the importance of access. We do that by favoring the perceived economic gains from rapidly moving cars through areas rather than connecting people to areas.

The point is, in our urban environment with precious little room left for new development or new and wider roadways, we need to get the most out of what we’ve got. We’ve spent millions building sidewalks, trails, safer intersections, and nicer corridors, but we still kill or seriously injure hundreds of cyclists and pedestrians a year. We have great destinations but we are a county that is among the highest crash rates for vulnerable road users. We need a new approach.

That’s in part because we often miss the little details of access that undermine walkability, bicycle-friendliness and transit attractiveness in our communities. Too often we respond with solutions that are one-dimensional and short-sighted, which fail to make the bigger connections necessary for travel choices, economic competitiveness and continued vitality.

We are taking a Vision Zero approach to safety in partnership with local agencies and the Florida Department of Transportation, with an initial focus on Gulf Boulevard that we hope will yield insights and applications for elsewhere in Pinellas County. Vision Zero means a real commitment to safety, with investment in the “Five Es” of education, engineering, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation to reduce our fatalities and severe crashes and keep them low. I’ll add a sixth E for equity, which is also very important in addressing the needs of people who must walk, bike or take transit because they lack other options.

If we are to become distinctive as an urban county that works, that functions well, and serves the needs of all its citizens and communities, then we have to do better in those key areas to support our land use and transportation system. We have to clearly define our vision, desired outcomes (e.g., zero fatalities) and the strategies for making them happen. That will take time and a commitment to results among all our partners.

 

Pinellas MPO enthusiastic about prospects for countywide bike share

As I introduced the Pinellas Countywide Bike Share Feasibility item at the mid-point of Wednesday’s Pinellas County MPO meeting, I jokingly told the board we had allotted one-and-a-half hours for this agenda item. That was immediately followed by laughter. One-and-a-half hours later, we had clear and enthusiastic direction from the board to proceed with next steps, which include exploring potential organizational partners and developing a financial plan for how such a program can begin and expand over time.

Rodney Chatman of the MPO staff presents the findings of the countywide bike share feasibility study.
Rodney Chatman of the MPO staff presents the findings of the countywide bike share feasibility study.

 

It was the longest and most energetic discussion of my tenure here as the MPO’s executive director. Every board member participated in the discussion with thoughtful questions and insightful observations. Rodney Chatman of our staff, Eric Trull of Coast Bike Share, and Evan Mory of the City of St. Petersburg helped the board understand the issues, options and implications of a countywide bike share program. You can find the full presentation here and the feasibility report here, and can watch the discussion here.

St. Petersburg is the vanguard for bike share in Pinellas County, and its experience will continue to provide useful lessons for other cities in Pinellas County. The City has been working to implement a bike share program for at least the last year, and is much farther along than any other jurisdiction in the County.

Coast Bike Share is operating in Tampa and other cities across the U.S.
Coast Bike Share is operating in Tampa and other cities across the U.S.

The board members understood that bike share functions best in a compact urban environment with multiple destinations within a one- to three-mile distance where people can use it to run errands, go to lunch or tour around downtown and beach communities. It is effective as a “first-mile, last-mile” extension of public transportation service, helping extend the reach of buses, which generally stay on the arterial roadways and often have full bike racks. Whether connecting a bus or ferry boat to a final destination, bike share can be an integral element of our urban environment in this county.

After the meeting, I came across this blog post by the American Planning Association, noting a bi-partisan bill introduced in Congress that would make bike share eligible for funds dedicated to public transportation. The Bikeshare Transit Act will help pay for everything from bike repairs and keeping rebalancing vans on the road to system expansions and new technology.

While I recognize that bike share is a form of public transportation and applaud that kind of flexibility in use of federal funds, I worry that it could be used to divert needed dollars away from cash-strapped transit agencies that depend on every dime of federal funds they are eligible to receive.

Here in Pinellas County, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) is challenged with funding replacement buses and other capital facilities to maintain a state of good repair, and does not have the operating revenue necessary to expand service at the frequency and coverage needed to attract a larger share of the population. By 2020, hard decisions are needed on how to fund PSTA’s capital program to maintain service levels and expand with key service priorities like the Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit and express bus service linking Tampa International Airport with Clearwater Beach.

Is bike share the shiny new thing? As we move forward with a potential countywide bike share program in Pinellas, we have to recognize that it’s not a panacea for solving our public transportation funding challenge. It can be an effective component of the multimodal transportation network, and can help to better connect our neighborhoods and destinations, but different parts of Pinellas County are better suited for bike share to succeed because of development density, good facilities and a safe roadway network. Its success outside of one or two cities’ core area or the beaches, as part of a seamless network linking our downtowns and centers, depends on a strong countywide bus transit network with adequate funding to meet the community’s needs. That is an issue we will continue to focus on, and make sure our decisions to support one element of that system do not undermine the effectiveness and legitimate funding needs of a key partner agency like PSTA. I believe our board members understand that. It is something we all need to keep in mind as we move forward in the exciting new world of bike share.
Coast Bike Share Infographic