Archive | September, 2012

Tampa City Spotlight: A Transit Past – But is There a Future?

24 Sep

In a series of posts part of the Congress for the New Urbanism‘s City Spotlight Series, members of CNU Tampa Bay will examine the current conditions of Tampa, urban trends and the initiatives (or lack thereof) put in place by the city, and how CNU can meet these needs. In this second post of the series, Stephen Benson, a transportation planner, will examine Tampa’s transit past and if its holds potential for its rebirth in the future.

Creating great urban places relies heavily on providing reliable and efficient mass transit. A pedestrian or cyclist can only get so far on foot or on bike. In this article I will discuss Tampa’s lost love affair with the streetcar, how suburbanization deprived Tampa’s urban core of 60 years of economic growth, and how Tampa’s lack of reliable, efficient transit service has left it a second-tier city.

Tampa began as a blue-collar manufacturing town – industrial, urban, and extremely diverse. Unlike nearby St. Petersburg, Tampa was not a vacation haven for rich northerners. It was a testament to the melting pot of cultural diversity and hard work that personifies what it meant to live in early twentieth century America. Immigrants from all over the world came here to work in and support the booming cigar industry.  My great grandparents came to Tampa from Spain and Cuba to work in factories. My grandparents ran a restaurant that catered to working class cigar rollers. For most of the 20th century, Tampa’s historic Ybor City district was dubbed the Cigar Capital of the World – rolling out millions of cigars every year. This rich history of manufacturing left its physical mark on the city and makes Tampa’s roots unique to most places in Florida, and the world.

Cigar Workers in Tampa

Photo courtesy of Burgert Brothers Collection, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library

As Erin Chantry discussed in the first post of this series, Ybor City and early Tampa were well planned. A connective street grid supported walkability. The more remarkable urban amenity of the city was its robust streetcar system. In its heyday, Tampa’s streetcar boasted over 50 miles of track and had 190 vehicles in operation, running from 4:30 AM to 2:00 AM everyday. The system reached peak ridership in the 1920s – with almost 24 million riders in 1926. My grandmother recounts a common saying about the Tampa streetcar – “if you can’t get there for a nickel, its not worth going.”

Streetcar in Tampa

Photo courtesy of Burgert Brothers Collection, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library

map of tampa's streetcars

Photo of vintage Tampa streetcar map courtesy of The Heights Tampa

The rise of the automobile and subsequent conversion to motorized bus systems led to the streetcar’s demise in Tampa, as it did in many other cities throughout the US. Some historians cite conspiracy on the part of the automobile industry as causing the unpopular transition from streetcar to bus. One by one, the automobile industry gained control of popular streetcar systems and dismantled them, promising more efficient (and profitable) gas-powered bus lines. Suspicious locals complained of bribery, spotting elected officials driving new Cadillacs shortly after voting in favor of the transit system’s conversion. Tampa’s documented history of corruption and mob influence supports this theory. To learn more about why this happened, read Internal Combustion by Edwin Black.

Tampa’s last streetcar ran on August 11, 1946. This began a journey on the path of suburbanization and sprawl that supported growth and industry for many years. Now, it plagues the city’s economy, culture and built environment, as it necessitates the use of a car, which to many is quickly becoming financially burdensome.

The modern bus system that eventually replaced the streetcar – today called Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) – has never come close to the streetcar’s peak ridership in 1926 – almost a century and over 4 Million people in growth later.

While the merits of the transition from streetcar to bus to automobile can be debated, the impact on the urban form of Tampa and nearly every American city is undeniable. During the second half of the 20th century, Tampa grew outward instead of upward. The popularity of the automobile and the availability of cheap far-flung land led to widespread low-density suburban development, severely diminishing the small-scale urbanism of the historic central city, which fell into blight and disrepair. Urban renewal demolished much of Ybor City, made big promises for urban redevelopment and instead delivered a sea of vacant lots. In the 1960s, the interstate highways were expanded through Ybor City and West Tampa, destroying existing communities and disconnecting the urban core even more.

Central Tampa Aerial

Photo of central Tampa courtesy of Google Maps

Like the rest of the nation, anti-urban sentiments lured residents to suburbs outside of town. As a result, the City of Tampa’s population has seen little growth since the 1960s– only about 20%. In the same time, surrounding unincorporated Hillsborough County has tripled in population and neighboring Pasco County’s population has increased tenfold. In 1988, the City of Tampa annexed 24 square miles located 15 miles to the north of downtown and dubbed it ‘New Tampa.’ Originally, this newly incorporated area was discontinuous from the rest of the city, but the state legislature later passed a requirement mandating municipalities to maintain a contiguous land area. To comply, the City annexed a small strip of land to connect New Tampa with the rest of the city, near the University of South Florida (USF) campus. The image below depicts the current gerrymandered city boundaries.

Tampa CityLimits

Photo of Tampa city limits courtesy of Southern Spaces

Aerial of New Tampa

Photo of New Tampa courtesy of Google Maps

Today, the Census Bureau estimates the population of the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater Metropolitan Statistical Area at 4.2 million, making it the 17th most populous in the nation and the 15th largest in land area. Yet, it doesn’t even make it into the top 100 for population density. Even with several walkable urban activity centers, the surrounding metro area’s nearly 1,000 square miles of established suburban development is gargantuan. Serving the metro area with efficient transit service is nearly impossible without a staggering financial investment and strong, coordinated political will across the region. Even then, with residents spread so thinly, bus routes would have to criss-cross the county like a tightly-spun spider web.

In 2010, a one percent sales tax increase referendum, to fund transportation improvements (including light rail between Downtown Tampa, Tampa International Airport, and the USF campus) in Hillsborough County failed. Abysmally. The reason? A combination of confusion and distrust of government. Generally speaking, most of the major improvements (including light rail) would have been implemented within the City of Tampa limits and the more urban parts of the unincorporated county.  But the resounding question among more suburban county residents was “what’s in it for me?” Transportation planners failed to clearly and accurately answer that question to the general public.

Sure, you’re building light rail over in Tampa, but what about that nasty pothole on my cul-de-sac? The typical suburban-versus-urban dynamic is alive and well in West Central Florida.

Post-referendum reports cite that over 70% of residents think something needs to be done to improve transportation. Where they disagree is what to do to fix it, and how to pay for it. Local leaders have failed to effectively explain that improvements to the overall transportation system don’t only benefit those who regularly use it, but they help grow and support the economy of the entire region, attracting businesses and residents alike. Traffic congestion impacts the entire region, not just the specific neighborhood or road where it occurs. Wasted time and fuel as a result of congestion trickles down to higher costs for goods and services for consumers. Improving regional transportation is a win-win for everyone.

Suburban residents can’t rationalize walking a half-mile through winding, indirect subdivisions to get to a bus stop, and wait 30 minutes for a bus to arrive. When they moved in, they never intended to use transit and without any major infill and redevelopment they likely never will.

This doesn’t change the fact that building a premium transit system to support the walkable urban core will create a more prosperous region. The economic benefits will positively impact outlying suburbs by preserving their quality of life, and potentially alleviating some of the choking congestion they encounter. At some point, cities like Tampa must choose between a transit system that serves everyone equally across a region, or a system that supports more intensive future urbanism by effectively and reliably serving the urban core. Without an effective transit system, any significant level of density, activity, or growth, is impossible. Sure, Tampa is on the map. But is it somewhere worth going? After all, “if you can’t get there on a nickel…”

Stephen Benson is a transportation planner and third-generation Tampa native. He is also a member of CNU Tampa Bay, which is a local chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism. Please visit  http://groupspaces.com/CNUTampaBay/ and https://www.facebook.com/CNUTampaBay to learn more!

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Tampa City Spotlight: A City of Corridors

17 Sep

In a series of posts part of the Congress for the New Urbanism‘s City Spotlight Series, members of CNU Tampa Bay will examine the current conditions of Tampa, urban trends and the initiatives (or lack thereof) put in place by the city, and how CNU can meet these needs. In this first post, I will examine Tampa’s network and condition of arterial roadways and how they are relevant to CNU’s Project for Transportation Reform.

I have written and preached a lot to the importance of a connected road network in a city. I grew up in North Carolina where suburban sprawl is vast, often with roads that end in cul-de-sacs or that are lined with gated subdivisions. I believe that if a city’s roads are built on a connected grid, traffic will permeate more freely through an urban area and streets will maintain a human scale that is appropriate for all users, including pedestrians and cyclists. Connectivity is often a necessary condition to foster social, economic, and environmental sustainability. I have always thought that if a city is well connected it had won most of the battle of making room for cars without sacrificing the streets as public space for people. Similarly, CNU’s Designing Walkable Thoroughfares (part of the Project for Transportation Reform) mostly stresses this point as well with their slogan, “Connect Your Streets. Connect Your Communities.”

When I moved to Tampa just this year, I was relieved to see that it is a very well connected city. Blocks may vary in size and form, but every urban neighborhood is woven together in a tight grid. The assumption was that the city could be a fertile ground for mixed-use walkable areas. However, I soon learned, despite my urban design training, experience, and education, that connectivity is not everything.

TampaMap

A map showing Tampa’s connected street grid. (Source: http://www.hillsclerk.com)

TampaTypicalRoad

A typical corridor in Tampa. (Source: Sprinkle Consulting)

In addition to connectivity and a consistent investment in infrastructure, land use development is also crucial to making thoroughfares walkable. While other connected roads in Tampa are still host to older and historic buildings that once formed small pockets of pedestrian-oriented mixed-uses, most of modern commercial development along the afore mentioned corridors are auto-oriented. The result is that large surface parking lots line roads with low-density buildings set back far from the sidewalks. Not only does this deprive the corridors of an easily accessible pedestrian network and an in scale building height to street ratio, it makes uses separated at a distance that is unwalkable. Even in the most urban neighborhoods, new development still often follows this form. The lesson learned is that connectivity cannot lead to change alone. Tampa is one of the most connected cities I have ever lived in, but the adherence to Functional Classification and poor land use development, creates corridors  inhospitable to pedestrians.

ParkingLotDaleMaybry

An example of typical land use along Tampa’s corridors. (Source: Loop.net)

How is the city fixing it? Slowly. Perhaps the best example is the Kennedy Overlay District project along Kennedy Boulevard, which the city has recognized as a gateway into the city. Carrying traffic from nearby St. Petersburg and Clearwater, as well as Tampa International Airport, Kennedy is a very important corridor to the city. It also plays an enormous role in the social sustainability of the city by connecting a large number of historic neighborhoods together, some healthier than others. The City describes it: “Providing a form-based, aesthetic framework that promotes development that creates a sense of interest and promotes a physically attractive, functionally integrated environment is essential. Additionally, provisions are introduced that establish pedestrian and transit friendly design standards for this corridor.” (City of Tampa, 2012.) Essentially, new development requires a private investment in a much wider sidewalk with street trees and most importantly that buildings front the street. The result over time is a multimodal corridor that serves as a spine of sustainability for the city.

Tampa Kennedy Boulevard Design

The City’s vision for the Kennedy corridor (Source: tampagov.net)

Progress has moved slowly along the corridor, in part I am sure to the economic downturn. Some successful examples do exist however, that show a much-improved future for Tampa pedestrians. The best example is a Starbucks that provides a widened sidewalk enhanced with brickwork, street trees, outdoor seating against the public realm, a small parking lot to the side of the building instead of in front, and a curb cut entrance on a side street to maintain a consistent streetscape on Kennedy. The difference is very noticeable when compared with the development next to it. With eight similar overlay districts along its corridors, Tampa is making a slowly growing commitment to adopting more urban and sustainable standards.

Kennedy Boulevard Starbucks Tampa

Starbucks, Kennedy Boulevard (Source: jrts on Flickr)

Another project that is improving the use of Tampa corridors by all users is the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Walk/Bike Plan. In summary, “the Walk‐Bike Plan identifies bicycle and pedestrian mobility projects which can be constructed within existing roadway alignments and other public rights‐of‐way that provide a basic accommodation for walking and bicycle mobility. As the plan is implemented, elements such as landscaping/streetscaping and other enhancements may be considered to improve the quality of the cyclist/pedestrian experience and to incentivize private investment within Walk‐Bike Plan project corridors.” (City of Tampa Walk/Bike Plan, 2011.) In essence and its implementation to date, as regular maintenance and repaving of roads occur striping is amended to include thinner lanes, on-street parking, and a connected network of bike lanes. This project is admirable because it can make a large difference in a street’s safety and comfortability, without requiring an increase in funds. This is particularly important in today’s economic climate. On streets where restriping has occurred, traffic has slowed and the number of cyclists have increased.

Swann striping Tampa

Swann Avenue, Tampa: an example of Tampa’s Walk/Bike Plan (Source: Bicycle Stories)

However, while these are admirable advances by a city that is cash-strapped in a recession (like many), a much larger shift in theory and commitment in practice are required to make a noticeable difference along Tampa’s corridors. At the recent CNU20 Conference in West Palm Beach, I attended the Mobility and the Walkable City track, which explored many of the issues that face the implementation of walkable thoroughfares.

I very impressed with new urbanist, Rick Hall’s adaptation of Functional Classification to New Urbanism’s transect. In his quest to see more complete streets built, he realized that to see change, he must speak the language of the people capable of making change. As a former employee of the DOT, he knew that the Functional Classification System was so imbedded in the U.S. transportation culture that he needed to adapt it to consider land use, contextual character, and multimodal uses. The traditional DOT focus has been on safety = less congestion = moving cars quickly. While the traditional system defines a lot, along with establishing this belief, it doesn’t clearly demarcate the difference between suburban, rural, and urban. In many cases, the system defaults to rural and suburban, resulting in large roads devoid of place. Hall’s new Augmented Functional Classification manipulates the speed and design for the same road type based on the land use context.

Instead of a corridor maintaining the same design despite whether it is in the suburban or urban, which occurs constantly in Tampa, Hall’s system suggests that road design change based on the land uses along it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the street would carry less traffic, but curb/gutter, sidewalk and public realm design, cycling facilities, and crosswalks would adapt throughout the city. The result would be a more walkable street when it was required.

New Urbanism Functional Classification

Rick Hall’s Augmented Functional Classification (Source: Rick Hall, CNU20)

While this new urbanist idea requires more research, development and implementation before it can be fairly judged as a solution to the adaptation of Tampa’s many deficient corridors, it is this “big idea” thinking that is required to make an impact for pedestrians and cyclists for my city, and many others in Florida. And while a “big idea” can’t be applied consistently to every corridor in the city, one is required to be a catayst for a large change. Therefore, Tampa could benefit greatly from adopting a new framework in corridor retrofits.

Many roads in Tampa, despite it’s connected grid network, are a mess and pose a huge threat to the mixed-use walkable development that is at the heart of CNU’s Charter and core mission. While the city is making small steps to improve it’s corridors over time, Tampa is a perfect testing ground for the Project for Transportation Reform and big ideas like Rick Hall’s Augmented Classification.

Erin Chantry is an urban designer and writer of At the Helm of the Public Realm. She is also a member of CNU Tampa Bay, which is a local chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism. Please visit  http://groupspaces.com/CNUTampaBay/ and
https://www.facebook.com/CNUTampaBay to learn more!

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