Transforming Tampa Bay: Streetscape fightin'

Will we join the international campaign for greener, safer cities?

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click to enlarge LIFE IN THE NOT-SO-FAST LANE: Separated bike lanes in NYC. - Spencer Thomas/FLICKR via Creative Commons
Spencer Thomas/FLICKR via Creative Commons
LIFE IN THE NOT-SO-FAST LANE: Separated bike lanes in NYC.

There’s a turf battle being waged right now across America and throughout the world, and the prize is the street — and who gets to use it. One side, the highway-industrial complex, has held sway for 70 years and is not going to share the road without a battle. Bicyclists and pedestrians are charging from the other side, eager for a portion of the pavement.

Cities are the czars of the street, dictating the rules, attracting visitors and satisfying their residents with a livable landscape. The latest trend in cities, starting with paint and planters, is to rethink their streetscapes, to create places for people.

Janette Sadik-Khan, my personal hero, transformed the streets of NYC from 2007-2013 during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reign. She oversaw the building of 400 miles of bike lanes, 70 pedestrian plazas, seven express bus routes and, most extraordinarily, cut pedestrian deaths by 50 percent.

Her new book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, celebrates innovative strategies for people to walk, bike, take transit, roll and drive. She is now traveling the world, advising cities on how to evolve their streets.

And she’s not alone.

More than 40 cities are members of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the go-to group for info on making this transformation happen. Neither Tampa nor St. Pete belongs, but that doesn’t preclude us from using the group’s Urban Street Design Guide.  

The NACTO guide is “a blueprint for designing 21st century streets which unveils the toolbox and the tactics cities use to make streets safer, more livable, and more economically vibrant,” certainly something Tampa Bay aspires to being.

Paris is getting into the game, redesigning seven major monuments, including the Place de la Bastille, Place de la Madeleine, and Place de la Republique. The city is purposely reducing car lanes by 50 percent and replacing them with green spaces, walkways and bike lanes.

What alchemy! Turning the  pavement surrounding these iconic temples and monuments into paving stones and turf is truly transformative — lowering pollution, changing the decibel level and elevating the beauty of the urban experience.

The technique for determining the best crossing points for people and the most effective siting for benches and trees? Close observation of real people’s movements using cameras. This data is collected and studied before the final design decisions and investments are made.

“We’re providing for the first time to the city of Paris a dynamic tool to be able to experiment with streetscape redesign, or placemaking, in an agile way,” says Martin Lagache from Placemeter, the “urban intelligence platform” that’s helping to quantify usage of Paris public space, according to Fast Company’s CO.EXIST website.

A similarly gradual process was employed in Times Square, where 90 percent of the space had been given to cars. Sadik-Khan used paint, beach chairs and barricades to test the hugely ambitious Times Square Project, which closed off seven blocks of Broadway to motorists.  

The shop owners in the affected area were originally dead set against the idea, railing that they’d lose business. Six years later, retail sales are up 70 percent and pedestrian safety is up, too. Win, win, win.

Sadik-Khan said that each change required a fight. When the bike-sharing system Citibike rolled out, critics anticipated accidents between riders and drivers. Now, Citibikes are beloved.

From Vancouver to Warsaw, cities worldwide are investing in pedestrian joy and safety. Elizabeth Corwin, a board member of Walk/Bike Tampa, says that throughout Europe bike lanes are the norm and signals located at a comfortable height for bicyclists and walkers are common.

She points to the success of Tampa’s Bike Valet at recent gatherings. “People love having a safe, easy place to stash their bikes for a concert or festival. I think it’s great that Amalie Arena has a bike valet for their events, too.”

So what about Tampa Bay? Two years ago, Billy Hattway, FDOT District 1 Secretary, led the State Bike and Pedestrian Safety Committee to create better rules statewide. Have FDOT’s new rules made a difference?

“Hattway is often caught in the gap between what our community needs and what FDOT actually does,” explains Jeff Zampitella, president of the Downtown River Arts Neighborhood Association and a passionate bicyclist.  

If you look at a state or local mobility budget you’ll see a huge gap between the millions for cars and the pennies for pedestrians and bicyclists. As Gena Torres, executive planner for the Metropolitan Planning Organization, observes, “This is not nearly as balanced as it should be.”

Christine Acosta works for the City of St. Pete under the Healthy St. Pete Initiative and developed the Bike-Friendly Business Certificate for the Tampa Downtown Partnership. She says, “We need to come out from under the dark cloud that is our fatality record and we’ll do that by implementing Vision Zero, which aspires to no deaths for pedestrians and bicyclists. We need to invest in street design which serves all users.”

She has been interviewing business owners, employees and residents for her work and has received the following feedback: Tampa Bay needs safer biking lanes, more bike parking, and we need to hurry up.

In America, 33,000 people die every year on our streets, but it doesn’t have to be this way. At a talk last month at LA’s Hammer Museum, Sadik-Khan wryly commented, “The people are ahead of the politicians and the press in this fight over the street. This conflict is over the transfer of power from cars to people.”

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