St. Petersburg: cyclists’ paradise?

With another four-dollar-a-gallon summer driving season staring us in the face, the time seems ripe to look for alternatives to letting BP, Shell, and the gang gouge us every couple of days on our way to the office. Last time we had a gas price crisis, back in 2008, we were all looking for alternatives. But soon enough, pump prices fell, and the phrase “four bucks a gallon” became just another stock cliché of suburban commuter war stories.

Now some of us are starting to look at alternatives again. Yes, they’re out there, and they don’t have to involve gasoline at all.

For my money, the best alternative comes with pedals. I live in St. Petersburg, and I ride my bicycle wherever I can. Over the last five years, I’ve found St. Pete to be a very cyclist-friendly city—but I think I may be in the minority.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2010 only half a percent of American workers commuted by bicycle. Despite the bicycle’s increasing popularity over the last several years, this is still a car-centric country. There are certainly cultural and psychological reasons for that, but the biggest obstacles often have more to do with geography. We’ve built ourselves a real low-density wonderland since the end of World War II, with plenty of open space and few sidewalks or bike lanes. As a result, a lot of the United States is simply not conducive to comfortable bicycling.

Looking at the Census data, we find that the top cycle-commuting city was the environmental Mecca of Portland, Oregon, where fully six percent of the labor force bikes to work. Progressive cities Seattle and San Francisco also have plenty of bike commuters, at 3.6 and 3.5 percent, respectively.

But what about closer to home? At 1.2 percent, St. Petersburg beats both the national average and other southeastern cities like Atlanta (0.9%), Savannah (0.7%), Orlando (0.4%) and Charlotte (a woeful 0.2%). Still, cities like New Orleans (1.8%) and even sprawling Tampa (1.9%) outdo the Sunshine City when it comes to bike commuting.

Should we be surprised by this? Outside of civic pride, is there anything that really suggests that St. Petersburg should be a biking hotspot?

If we’re being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the weather here actually sucks for much of the year. It gets hot. Humid. Sticky. Nobody wants to bike in that. What’s worse, there often aren’t showers waiting at the other end of the ride. Starting the work day plastered with sweat (not to mention the accompanying, um, aroma) is simply out of the question for most workplaces.

Did you know there is a network of bike lanes in St. Pete? Well, “network” may be pushing it—as welcome as the bike lanes are, they aren’t quite up to the task of supporting a true transportation network for bicycles. Coverage is limited and not really predictable, the lanes don’t usually run the entire length of any road, the lanes are narrow and there is no physical separation between cyclists and traffic.

Ever hear a news story about how dangerous it is to be a pedestrian here in Tampa Bay? It’s a pretty safe bet that everyone who’s driving to work instead of biking has too. Just last August, Transportation for America rated Tampa Bay as the second-most deadly metro area for pedestrians. Lots of people get run over here, and lots more people know it. That can be serious motivation for people to stay safely tucked away in their cars and SUVs.

But none of that explains why St. Pete even lags behind Tampa in bike commuting. For one thing, there are just as many, if not more, scary and dangerous roads in Tampa. And when I look at St. Petersburg, I see plenty of advantages that should foster a bigger bicycling community.

First, not everyone agrees that the weather here is even a problem. Andrew Blikken, founder of the St. Pete-based bike-sharing startup myBike, argues that our weather is something that other bike-friendly cities would give their eyeteeth for. “Try bicycling in Minneapolis, London or Paris, all cities where bicycle sharing is highly successful and the weather awfully unpredictable—or worse, predictably awful,” he says. He’s got a point: if cyclists don’t have a problem with the Portland rain, why should St. Petersburg sunshine deter anyone?

Second, we’ve got favorable geography to work with. St. Pete is both flat and compact, and Pinellas County is the most densely populated county in the state. At the city’s widest point, the “water-to-water” distance is around seven miles, which is not an unreasonable bike ride by any stretch.

Third, St. Petersburg has the beginnings of a solid bicycle transportation infrastructure. Yes, I criticized the welcome-but-inadequate system of bike lanes just a couple of paragraphs ago, but St. Pete also has miles of urban cycling and walking trails—including the iconic Pinellas Trail, which could potentially be used as a full-fledged people-powered transportation corridor instead of just a recreational resource. It wouldn’t take much to really integrate trails and bike lanes into a real, functional network for bike traffic.

“Pursuing an expansion (to the existing trail/lane system) will help cyclists feel safer,” Blikken says, adding that “perhaps covered bicycle parking next to bus stations, stores, restaurants and hotels would help” to both encourage cyclists and legitimize the bicycle as an actual vehicle in the minds of commuters.

To my mind, though, St. Petersburg’s biggest advantage is the relentless grid pattern of its streets. Most streets are numbered instead of named, and that number tells you where the street is in relation to either First Street (for streets, which run north-south) or Central Avenue (avenues run east-west). Simply knowing this makes it very easy to plan out a route without firing up the GPS.

But there’s another benefit to this as well. If you don’t feel comfortable biking along Ninth Avenue North, try a few blocks away, like, say, 13th Avenue. It runs in parallel to Ninth for miles, with far less traffic to worry about. And there are even stoplights at all major intersections, so you won’t feel the need to update your will and life insurance before crossing 34th Street.

These alternate routes are all over the place. A few minutes with a map will help you find low-traffic alternatives to all the major arterials, giving you a safer, more comfortable, and more enjoyable ride.

And when you think about it, actively looking for alternatives is something most of us rarely do as car commuters. When we spend our travel time in our cars, we stick to major roads, which makes sense: These roads can handle more traffic, the speed limits are higher, and the distances between stoplights are longer. And when we’re driving along 22nd Avenue or 66th Street, what do we see? Lots of other cars. It sure doesn’t look safe for cyclists out there, but why would it? When we drive, we tend to stick to the roads that are in fact the least safe for cyclists because those roads are the most convenient for cars.

Blikken is optimistic that this will change, though he expects the vehicle for that change to be the city’s shifting demographics, and not necessarily changing the attitudes of current residents.

“The USF-St. Petersburg campus is expanding, and more young transplants are following white collar jobs to town,” he points out. “We are also increasingly multi-cultural in St. Petersburg, and many foreigners accustomed to mass transit and cycling will help inspire the necessary critical mass of cycling.”

In other words, even if we won’t get out of our cars, the people who are moving here now and in the near future just might. Will we follow their lead?

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