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Like a bike? Be careful

The police knew the drunken driver had T-boned a car, but needed proof that he had also knocked down a cyclist in the same stretch of road. They found the evidence on the fender of his car — pieces of the bicyclist’s skin.

The skin belonged to Steve Schreiber, dean of the school of architecture. The accident, which occurred in April 2002, left Schreiber with a broken shoulder blade and two dislocated fingers. It also left him reconsidering his transportation options. Schreiber’s twice-weekly bike ride to campus is a thing of the past.

Schreiber was one of 417 bicyclists injured in accidents reported in Hillsborough County in 2002, according to figures compiled by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The nine bicyclists killed in Hillsborough that year made it Florida’s second highest county for cycling deaths, furthering Tampa’s reputation as a bike-unfriendly city. In 1999, Bicycling magazine slated Tampa as the nation’s third worst city for bike riders. According to Chris Hagelin, a research associate at the Center for Urban Transportation Research, accident statistics further the perception.

“I would say Hillsborough and the Tampa Bay metropolitan area are clearly one of the most dangerous places to bicycle if you look at statistics,” Hagelin said. “Typically, California, Texas and Florida are top three in bicycle crashes that result in injuries or fatalities in the nation per capita.”

Hagelin, who is also the faculty adviser for the USF Bicycle Club, said the combination of too few bike lanes and the disregard shown by motorists to bicyclists makes Hillsborough a hazardous place for bike riders. A bicycle commuter himself, Hagelin does not exempt bicyclists from criticism.

“Bicyclists need to learn the laws, how to ride in traffic. Motorists need to learn to share the road and look out for cyclists,” he said. “Out there, bicyclists do not obey traffic signals, ride on the wrong side of the road and do not wear helmets or lights at night.”

Concerned by the dangers faced by bicyclists in Tampa and Hillsborough, members of the USF Bicycle Club used Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio’s participation in the 7th Annual Commuters Choice Week in October as a chance to lobby the mayor to adopt the goal of becoming a bicycle friendly community. The accreditation, administered by the League of American Bicyclists, is awarded to municipalities whose policies actively encourage bicycling.

One of the policies that must closely be scrutinized by the L.A.B. is whether facilities for cyclists, typically bike lanes, are included in all new road construction or resurfacing. The Manual of Uniform Minimum Standards for Design, Construction and Maintenance for Streets and Highways issued by the Florida Department of Transportion states that bicycle-safe design practices should be adhered to during initial roadway design to avoid costly subsequent improvements. According to Gena Torres, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator for Hillsborough County, bike lanes come a distant second to sidewalks in planners’ concerns.

“With pedestrians, it’s a warmer feeling. Engineers and public officials, they completely agree with sidewalks,” Torres said. “Not everyone agrees with bike lanes. So, sidewalks get a lot more money and they usually are put in. But with a bike lane, it’s the first thing to be removed from the design of a road project.”

According to Torres, it is a similar story when roads are resurfaced. The striping (road marking) plan given to contractors hired by the county or by the FDOT is simply an aerial photograph and an instruction to “do it like it was.” If bike lanes are added, then a new striping plan is required for the contractor, escalating the cost of work.

Part of Torres’ brief at the Hillsborough Planning Commission is to develop improvements to the county’s bicycling infrastructure. However, other than a $250,000-budget for adding paved shoulders to rural roads, there is no funding dedicated specifically for bicycle paths or lanes. To fund the projects Torres has identified from accident statistics as most urgent, she competes with other county agencies for revenue from the federal Surface Transportation Program funds, 10 percent of which states are mandated to allocate to policies that promote a balanced approach to transportation. In 2003, Hillsborough received close to $3 million in enhancements, while county agencies’ requests for projects totaled $15 million.

In her capacity as a member of the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Torres said she is able to advise the Metropolitan Planning Organization to recommend that individual road projects incorporate bike lanes. The agency, which includes Hillsborough County Commissioners and Tampa City Council members, is responsible for doling out both federal and state dollars on transportation programs. Doug Calloway, president of the Tallahassee-based advocacy group Floridians for Better Transportation, said local government is best forum to advance transportation alternatives.

“Those sort of quality-of-life issues are the ones that come to the fore before city commissions or planning meetings,” Calloway said. “People don’t connect those issues with their state representatives. Folks in the transportation business, the DOT or engineers or contractors, they (understand the issues) sometimes sooner than some elected officials.”

Nevertheless, Torres said she has difficulty convincing county officials that there are a significant number of cyclists in Hillsborough. According to the 2000 Census, only 3,731 Hillsborough residents from a population of just over one million said they commute by bike. Torres is convinced the number is much higher.

“There’s a lot of low-income people who are completely dependent on transit, or bikes or walking. I see them all the time, but I don’t think that a lot of public officials or engineers ever go through my neighborhood,” Torres said.To prove her point, Torres took matters into her own hands.

“I spent a month taking pictures of people. They kind of looked at me strange, but then they realize I’m trying to get a bike lane on this road,” she said. “That really seemed to influence the decision makers a little bit more.”

But even when engineers make special provisions for bicyclists, it is not always the right solution, Torres said. She said a recent trend of using side paths, a paved area for pedestrians and bicyclists built a few feet parallel to the road exemplifies some engineers’ misunderstanding of what bicyclists need.

According to Hagelin, riding on side paths comes with the same problem as riding on sidewalks: sooner or later you have to cross an intersection. Hagelin said a four-year CUTR study of accidents in and around USF’s Tampa campus showed that almost 70 percent of bicycle crashes involved a bicyclist leaving the sidewalk and getting hit by a car making a right-hand turn.

“Every driveway, every crossway is a point of conflict,” Hagelin said. “The driver will be looking left to see when they can merge. If the cyclist is coming from their right, there’s a good chance the motorist won’t even see that cyclist. It’s so dangerous to ride on the sidewalk.”

While less pollution and reduced traffic congestion are frequently cited as reasons to encourage alternative methods of transportation, such as bicycling, for a metropolitan area like Hillsborough, Torres said, the real prize is the creation of vibrant, attractive safer communities.

“There seems to be a lot of support for that warm feeling of ‘We need to make our city a place that people want to come,'” she said. “Everyone recognizes that people go there because it is safe; it feels great to be out — not in a car.”

Calloway, who previously worked for the FDOT for 12 years, agrees that alternative methods of transportation should be provided, but said he does not agree with government policies that favor one mode of transport over another.

“In Florida, you can’t build enough roads to solve our transportation problems, but they are the backbone for our transport for the foreseeable future,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea to provide an option, but we don’t want the government to skewer the balance to force people to bicycle.”

Hagelin said the promotion of cycling also provides significant indirect benefits such as improvements to health.

“We have an obesity epidemic in this country. The health implications are enormous: the rise of diabetes and the heart diseases that are related to obesity,” Hagelin said. “This can be countered by giving people an opportunity to exercise, but people aren’t going to do it if it’s dangerous or inconvenient.”

Hagelin cites retired USF professor Jesse Binford as the embodiment of the health benefits that accrue from cycling. From the time he joined USF in 1962 up until his retirement last year, Binford commuted by bike to USF. Now 75, Binford still cycles regularly and remains a staunch advocate of two-wheeled travel.

Binford, who regularly goes on two-week cycle tours in Texas or down the coast of California, said cycling has always been more than simply a way of getting from point A to B.

“People who don’t cycle are missing out on the sights and sounds really. They’re very frustrated by traffic. They’re missing out on feeling better,” he said. “You never feel better than when you’re on one of these long tours. You eat like a horse and don’t gain any weight.”

According to the former USF professor, there is also an economic case for taking to the saddle. Binford said the IRS calculate trips by car for business purposes as costing 40 cents per mile, a statistic he thinks more motorists should consider.

“People don’t realize how restrictive it is on the budget to own and operate a car. If you thought every time you went a mile ‘There’s 40 cents. Just toss it out the window,’ you’d think differently about owning a car,” Binford said.