Tampa’s rapid population growth paired with its expensive housing market and underdeveloped public transportation systems is proving problematic as the city continues to expand.
Even before the pandemic, the Tampa metro area population was expected to grow by about 40,000 residents per year between 2019-22, according to macroetrends.net. With the appeal Florida’s lax COVID-19 policies brought, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs Elizabeth Strom speculates that those numbers under evaluate the growth the area has actually undergone.
As other cities in Florida like Miami grow to become some of the most expensive in the country, Tampa has the charm of being a home away from home, Strom said, attracting both northerners and Floridians to the area.
From mid-2020 to mid-2021, Miami’s metro area lost more than 34,000 residents, according to a March Associated Press article.
Conversely, the Tampa metro area underwent a net growth of about 42,000 residents in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The city now houses about 385,000 people, while Miami went from 442,000 in 2020 to 440,000 in 2021.
The price of rent has not been spared as more people seek to find housing in the area, according to Strom.
In 2022, the median rent for two-bedroom apartments in the areas surrounding USF such as downtown Tampa is $3,043 and about $1,600 in Temple Terrace, according to Zumper.
“‘Where am I going to live?’ ‘How far from campus?’ ‘Can I live?’ ‘If I find an affordable place, but it’s like out in Pasco County, how much do I spend on my car to get here?’” are all questions Strom said are plaguing students.
Part of the equation Strom said is necessary for building a better Tampa is improving public transportation.
Tampa has become the only top-20 metro region to spend less than $213 million annually on transportation, according to the Tampa Bay Times. In 2022, the city allocated $155 million for the costs of transportation infrastructure.
Coming from Dubai, junior international relations major Julia Habchi was surprised to learn that the streets of Tampa include more lanes and faster speed limits than those in her home country. She said even though supercars fill Dubai’s streets, drivers hardly reach speeds as concerning as they do here.
Since she doesn’t have a vehicle herself, Habchi has resorted to scootering to destinations next to cars going over double her speed in extremely narrow bike lanes. When Habchi has to travel further distances, she said she has to rely on expensive ride services like Uber because of the lack of clarity in the bus system.
“My brain was just doing gymnastics to figure [the bus routes out],” she said. “The different color routes and maps don’t make sense to me.”
Especially for those who can’t afford to frequent ride services, Habchi believes that it puts a financial strain on people making normal commutes to work or the grocery store.
For Habchi, it has been easier for her to sling groceries on her back and ride her electric scooter rather than attempt to use the bus for getting groceries.
“I was just carrying heavy groceries like on my arms, on my back because public transportation here … [like the] buses don’t really get to the places [you need them to],” she said.
Tampa’s absence of adequate public transportation has resulted in car-dependent infrastructure, whereas other cities, such as New York, have normalized the use of public transportation in daily commutes, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Despite being about 40 square miles smaller than Tampa, Atlanta supports nearly triple the number of transit routes with 100 fewer buses, according to Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority.
Before arriving in Tampa just three weeks ago, Habchi said it wasn’t uncommon for her to use public transportation such as the metro when going out. Even then, she said the bike and walking paths were much larger and comfortable to use.
Besides producing better systems of public transportation, Strom said it’s important that Tampa delivers alternatives that create a safer environment for pedestrians.
In 2021, Tampa was ranked the eighth most dangerous city in the country for pedestrians, according to KF&B Law. During the same year in Hillsborough County, there were a total of 655 accidents including pedestrians and 65 of them resulted in fatalities.
“Let’s look at Fowler Avenue,” Strom said. “There are people who live there and students who go to school there, and they need to get to the other side of the street. There’s almost no way you can cross that street and not put yourself in danger. It’s just the way these roads are designed.”
Strom said the reason the accidents happen is that the streets are designed in a way to support dangerous pedestrian behavior.
“There’s a lot of designs for boulevard types of streets where you’re still moving traffic. I saw this in New York, where you have service roads on the side. So you have sidewalk, buildings, sidewalk, service road and then you have some kind of a landscaped median,” she said.
“There are more barriers so that if someone’s trying to cross there are more places that can stop and wait, and you’re still moving traffic, but you’re sort of taking traffic that needs to turn off and moving in a somewhat different way.”
Even with all of the changes the city is juggling, Strom said Tampa’s future isn’t just doom and gloom. In fact, she said residents can support better change by voting yes on the referendum for transportation in November.
If passed, the referendum would introduce a 1% sales tax, which residents have been paying since 2018, according to Strom. The money accumulated by the tax would be utilized to promote changes that steer Tampa away from being a car-dependent city in the future if properly planned by urban developers, she said.
“The first thing we do to increase funding for transit is that we have to tax ourselves and that no one likes to hear that,” she said.
“We’re going to need to pay that 1% tax so that we can have more robust transit. But then I think also, this is where the professional planning comes in. We need to think about planning, assuming that we want a future that’s not so car-dependent.”