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Tampa Bike Safety Summit Proves (Finally) to Be No April Fools’ Joke

3:58 PM EDT on April 9, 2013

Bike advocates got yet another reason to love Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last month when he announced that U.S. DOT would hold two bicycle safety summits this year. The summits would examine why bicycle fatality rates are rising when automobile fatalities are falling.

Less than a month after he made this announcement at the National Bike Summit, LaHood revealed where and when those summits would be held: in Tampa on April 11 and in Minneapolis on April 29. He made that announcement on his Fast Lane blog on April Fools' Day.

Florida activists had a hard time knowing whether to take the announcement seriously. With just 10 days until the summit, they started scrambling to see if anybody could confirm that it was real. Kathryn Reid Moore, who runs Broward County B-Cycle and is part of the South Florida Bicycle Coalition (and is an occasional contributor to Streetsblog) was surprised to see that there was almost no chatter whatsoever on bike-related social media networks in her area. When she started posting information about it, local leaders accused her of falling for an April Fools prank. After all, who would highlight one of the deadliest cities in the country for cyclists in a safety summit?

Even the most progressive transportation officials in Broward and Miami-Dade County hadn’t been informed about the event.

That’s forgivable, given that the summit is happening in Tampa, nearly 300 miles away. But Tampa area active transportation leaders were out of the loop, too.

Jason Bittner, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida, told me his center wasn’t engaged at all in the planning, which surprised him, since they have a large bicycle and pedestrian safety program and are a leader in local advocacy efforts. (He did acknowledge the agency might be keeping them at arm’s length to avoid a potential conflict of interest since his center has applied for a U.S. DOT grant.)

Advance collaboration might have helped. It turns out the date of the summit is the same date as one of the biggest events of the year for people interested in active transportation: the 2013 Commuter Choice Summit, sponsored by Bittner’s center, the Association for Commuter Transportation, and FDOT.

Bittner has seen the summit mentioned off-hand in a few news articles about new bike shops but no dedicated press.

“I fear that, while it’ll certainly raise awareness,” Bittner said, “I don’t know it can have the largest impact.”

The last-minute, thrown-together nature of the summit would appear to be evidence that U.S. DOT isn’t placing much importance on the event, but the opposite may actually be true. Though it’s been months since LaHood announced his retirement and there’s been barely a whisper about a replacement, one assumes he will be leaving soon. These summits are clearly a priority of his and something he wants to accomplish in the short time he has left as secretary.

Tampa was an intriguing choice for a bicycle safety summit. While it’s led the nation in bicyclist fatalities, and its autocentric culture hasn’t ceded much space to other modes, a number of current efforts could change that. A Green ARTery project seeks to connect Tampa’s green spaces, the park network is being expanded and the riverfront is being redeveloped. Near Bittner’s campus, “a couple of major arterials are being re-envisioned as more complete streets, with better pedestrian and bicycle facilities.” There’s even a new bike-share program coming on-line this fall.

U.S. DOT’s choice to highlight Tampa will add momentum to these efforts. Alongside the other summit location -- Minneapolis, Bicycling Magazine’s choice for bike-friendliest community – Tampa can provide a useful counter-example of a city just beginning the struggle to shed its bike-hostile past and become a safer, more inclusive place.

It will take some luck to make the Tampa summit a success. U.S DOT finally launched a website for the summits Friday (April 5) but until then, the only public notice of it was on Fast Lane, a blog which doesn’t look like an official government site to people unfamiliar with it. The registration link leads to a SurveyMonkey page.

“I didn’t think it wasn’t real but there was no address and no time listed, and it was less than two weeks away,” Moore said. “You have to register to get any information about it at all, and even then there’s no phone number.”

Once she registered, Moore saw that the summit was being held at the Tampa Convention Center – but then another local activist, Steven Cook, called the convention center for more information and was told there was no such meeting on the books.

Though it’s since been confirmed, Moore says she’s still worried that, even if everyone can now agree that the event is at least happening, it won’t be effective. “If the people who should most be at this event – planners and policymakers – aren’t going to be there, what’s the point of us advocates going?” she said. “So we can all scream in a room?”

“I was encouraging people to drive four-and-a-half hours through the Everglades to go,” Moore said. “I wanted to make sure there was a reason.”

The agenda that’s now online provides that reason. Secretary LaHood and Mayor Bob Buckhorn kick off a full day of events and speakers, including Billy Hattaway, FDOT District 1 Secretary (and a bike commuter himself). Given the haphazard way the summit has apparently been organized and the fact that FDOT has not always been the most forward-looking entity when it comes to bicycling safety, advocates are pleased to see the department will be represented.

The Miami-Dade MPO and the Lee County Sustainability Office & Complete Streets Program will be there. The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which doesn’t often get involved in non-motorized transportation, will be there. Local activists, planners, engineers, and police officials will put their heads together to plot the course to a safer Florida. A bike safety expo with bike safety training stations, helmet fittings and kids’ activities lasts all morning. Participants will tour downtown bike facilities and the riverwalk.

Despite her frustrations over how slowly word got out about the summit, Moore is taking heart. “It’s okay,” Moore said. “It could still be amazing.”

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