About two weeks after USF researcher Kayoko Ishizuka was killed in a September hit-and-run accident, graduate student Ryan Schweitzer was hit on his bicycle about 100 feet away from where her memorial now stands.
“The woman was pulling out from between Panera (Bread) and the (Regions) bank at Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and she just didn’t stop,” he said. “She was kinda rolling up to the stop sign and I thought she was going to stop but she just kinda accelerated, and I was biking and it was dark.”
In February, Robert Niedbalec, a 52-year-old veterinarian, died after being struck by a car near the entrance to USF’s Riverfront Park.
But according to Julie Bond, senior research associate for the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) on campus, Niedbalec, like Ishizuka, “was doing everything right.”
Schweitzer, who bikes to campus from his house about a mile south of campus, was also prepared – outfitted with an orange vest, a helmet and three lights on his bike.
But this hasn’t stopped them, and many other bikers, from becoming part of the statistics that make Florida continuously rated one of the worst states for bike safety.
“Just over the decades of when this information’s being tracked, we continue to be in the top 5 (states) when it comes to pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities,” said Gena Torres, senior planner for the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). “Even when we have a year where we’ve maybe reduced them, it’s still way above national average. And it doesn’t need to be this way, it shouldn’t be.”
According to Bond, Tampa had double the bicycle fatalities in 2010 from the six in 2009.
Bond and Torres are involved in efforts to decrease the number of bicycle-related accidents both on and off campus.
CUTR manages the New North Transportation Alliance, which has members from USF, University Mall, Busch Gardens and other local locations. Through the alliance, CUTR developed Tampa BayCycle in 2007 to support and encourage cycling in the area.
The center also identifies transportation problems on campus and is currently making suggestions for the master plan for changes needed to make the campus “more walk-able and bike-able,” Bond said.
“Every case is different,” she said, “and so, there are many different reasons on why each one of the fatalities occurred.”
Bond, a cyclist, said CUTR is looking at biker education, often through safety courses, and thinks that stricter laws for drivers who hit bicyclists may be needed. One of the more pressing issues on campus, she said, is disconnected or abruptly ending bike lanes and no lighting at major intersections, such as Alumni Drive and Leroy Collins Boulevard.
Bond said car programs like Zimride, which promotes carpooling, and WeCar, which allows students to rent a car, help keep bicyclists safe by keeping more cars off campus roads.
But problems off campus on main roads also present a serious danger to students.
“The people getting hit aren’t the ones who can really make a choice (of route) … because really the people getting hit are the students going to class – these are people making trips,” Torres said. “They’re a lower income person perhaps, that doesn’t have a car, and are trying to access their jobs or medical appointment or to visit their family and they’re using their only way of transportation.”
Even if more bike trails are created, Torres said there needs to be changes for cyclists who cannot pick and choose safer routes. Though the MPO does not have the funding to implement these changes, she said they are working with Public Works and other groups on the Bike Safety Action Plan, which outlines changes based on how quickly they can be made.
Torres said immediate actions include concrete changes – such as adding a wrong way sign for cyclists on the back of existing signs – and “educational and enforcement strategies,” such as a previous program that took a gutted bus full of bikes around to elementary schools.
With funding, the plan also calls for kits of reflective vests and bike lights for officers to hand out – in some cases, in lieu of a ticket – to late-night bikers who have none.
Florida law requires a light on the front of the bike and a blinking light on the back, as well as reflectors.
Since his accident, Schweitzer has upgraded to more powerful lights and added more reflective tape to his bike.
“I wasn’t injured in the accident,” he said, “but psychologically it really affects you because then you’re always, constantly looking over your shoulder.”
Because cyclists should be biking in the road, and not on the sidewalks, Torres said long-term plans include repainting roads to include more connected bike lanes and bike symbols, something that would be implemented on wider roads as they are being repaved.
“The vision is to have a zero fatality transportation system,” she said. “The goal that we’ve set for this plan though … is to reduce the average number of combined severe injury and fatality crashes to less than 68 per year by the end of 2015.”
By 2025, the goal is 41 per year.
A biker herself, Torres doesn’t want to discourage biking, but the opposite.
“I encourage people to do it (bike), and not because I want them to get hurt, I don’t want them to get hurt,” she said, “but the more people that we have, the more obvious and more aware motorists will be.”
She recommends that late-night riders wear light colored clothing and that bikers stay off the sidewalks whenever possible. One of the most common accidents they’ve seen, she said, is when a bike on a sidewalk encounters a car leaving a driveway, similar to the incident Schweitzer encountered.
Today also marks the beginning of Florida Bike Month, during which Tampa BayCycle has a calendar of bicycle events, including a safety course Wednesday at the CUTR building. The organization offers these safety courses throughout the year. Participants review laws and safety rules from a bicycle league certified instructor before being taken out on bikes to test what they’ve learned.
Saturday, in cooperation with USF Wellness, there is a bicycle and pedestrian safety fair at Campus Recreation featuring booths and USF’s Amazing Race, a bicycle scavenger hunt with safety prizes, such as reflective vests, lights and helmets.
The MPO and Public Works are having two other meetings for public input on the Bike Safety Action Plan today and Wednesday. More information and meeting times can be found on the MPO website, hillsboroughmpo.org.
Information about Tampa BayCycle and Florida Bike Month events can be found on their website, tampabaycycle.com.