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#CarFreeStPete is about changing your mind as much as changing your habits

Jason Mathis

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Photo courtesy of St. Pete Flickr.

If you have ever struggled to find a place to park in front of your favorite restaurant, or been stuck behind someone else on Central Avenue trying to do the same thing, Congratulations! That’s a sign that our urban center is thriving.

Show me a city where parking is always easy and free, and I’ll show you a place very few people want to visit. Congestion is a growing pain that always accompanies growth. And parking in our downtown remains comparatively affordable and easy, with the Park Mobile app and a number of public garages. But because parking competes for space with the very amenities that bring people downtown in the first place, there is no way we will ever be able to build enough stalls to make parking completely hassle-free.  

Excuse the pun, but a perfect parking experience doesn’t drive anyone to come downtown anyway. Nobody comes here just to park their car. People come to our city because it’s an incredible destination, not for fantastic parking. The car is a means to an end, and the end is having an experience available no place else in Tampa Bay – or really the rest of the world. St. Pete is that special.

That doesn’t mean we should just accept an annoying driving or parking experience. As our metropolitan center matures, our attitudes can also evolve. Changing expectations and behaviors, even in subtle ways, can help to improve the way we access and get around our city. As long as our economy continues to expand and the quality of our cultural, dining, sports and entertainment options rival cities 10 times our size, people will want to enjoy our urban center.

Recently, the Downtown Partnership teamed up with a consortium of transportation groups including the Looper, Nickel Ride, Cross-Bay Ferry, Coast Bike Share and PSTA to launch a public awareness campaign called “Car Free St. Pete” focused on trips to and within the urban center. We hope to change attitudes and some behaviors to make it easier and more convenient. Not because of expensive new infrastructure, but because people think about things differently.  

We don’t expect most people to abandon the automobile and live car free for the rest of their lives. For most people in St. Pete, that’s not an option anyway. Our transit system isn’t robust enough to make that a reality. But anyone can choose to live car free for an hour or two, for an evening out, for a weekend or even a few trips a week. You can even make a commitment to simply drive less and find other ways to get around town. Walking more, or riding your bike, isn’t just a healthier option for your body, it’s also better for your wallet and the planet.  

In April we are encouraging folks to take a Car Free Challenge. Commit to walking more and driving less. Take your bike to work one day. Use an eco-friendly, free Nickel Ride to get around downtown. Or use the easy Coast Bike Share program. There are still a few weeks left to use the Cross-Bay Ferry. Jump on a Looper trolley. If you do drive, park once and use the host of other options to access every place you want to be. Lots of people are already making this a reality. Since the Looper expanded its route and became a free service last October, ridership has surged by more than 60 percent.

Post about your car free successes on social media with the hashtag #carfreestpete. You’ll be entered to win a T-shirt and you’ll also get bragging rights that you’re making personal decisions to find other ways to enjoy our incredible city center. This is a pretty rudimentary, grassroots startup campaign that we hope to expand in future years. It’s not going to change the world, or parking experiences, overnight. But it’s a start.  

It’s tempting to want St. Pete to stay the same forever. It’s an incredible place and everyone should want to protect the unique combination of culture, history, climate and lifestyle that makes our home so special. But no community is ever stagnant. Smart cities don’t waste a lot of time pushing back against inevitable change. Instead, they try to understand the demographic, technological, attitudinal and climate changes that are shaping our evolving world, and then use those same forces to protect the things most important while embracing the benefits of whatever comes next.

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