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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!