The thing I love about the city of St. Petersburg is its constant effort of redefining what it looks like to be a progressive, inclusive, environmentally friendly city where the sun shines on everyone. This is a big effort. St. Pete and its many neighborhoods are all as eclectic and different as they come. Crossing one street can often put you in a totally different vibe and culture than the side you’re leaving. This presents a unique challenge. How do you help make the sun shine on everyone when the needs of each resident are so niche, and so varied? Often the effort requires a fortitude to do deep dives into every nook and cranny of an amenity proposed or implemented.
Recently, the city embarked on an effort to make itself more pedestrian and bike friendly, among other things, with its efforts surrounding the Complete Streets initiative. The city defines this effort as one aimed “to encourage streets that are safe and convenient for all users of the roadway, including persons walking, persons riding bicycles, motorists, persons with disabilities, users and operators of public transit, seniors, children and movers of commercial goods.” So, I decided to ask myself, a citizen, the question: what would it look like for me to give up my car for a week and rely solely on public transportation and walking to get me to and from work?
It lasted one day.
After doing my research on bus routes, fares, schedules and other incidentals, I took my chances. In a ride that typically takes me 12 minutes to get from Kenwood to Pinellas Point, it took almost an hour and a half via PSTA. That includes walking to the Central bus station and waiting on a bus that operates once an hour. Then walking from the bus stop where I was dropped off to my job. There was a lot of sweat. Two Beyoncé albums played. Several emails read and replied to. A few tweets. And a check in on Instagram of how my journey was going.
My immediate thought was if the City intends on Complete Streets being successful, it’s gotta be successful for all and not just those living in the urban center or waterfront downtown districts. There are distinct differences unique to each neighborhood and community that must be uniquely addressed. What works downtown will not work on the south side or west side or north side.
If we want more folks leaving their cars at home, our public transit infrastructure must be more appealing than the convenience of getting to a place faster if I drove myself. This is especially true in our hot summer months and rainy season. Waiting for a bus in an uncovered bus stop inches from a major roadway is unsafe and uncomfortable. When it rains, there is no protection from the water falling from the sky, nor the water from the roadways.
Our buses run in inconvenient increments in certain sections of the city. We need more express buses during rush hour with more connections to get to all parts of the city efficiently and quickly. To drop the ease of just jumping in my car, I need the confidence that at any point in the next 15 minutes, I can hop on a bus and be on my way. Planning a route to my job should not be as involved as it is to plan and book a flight.
In a quick survey, our bus fares are higher than those of Tampa and Orlando, for a less robust system. My one-day experience cost me $5.
But this isn’t just about PSTA. Businesses should adopt policies that won’t discipline employees who may show up late to their shift due to a missed or late bus. Partnering with workplaces to provide discounts on bus passes as an employee benefit can help spur public transportation participation. There are many employers who would be quick to push the “You’re Fired” button the second an employee is late. Taking public transportation ultimately is putting my livelihood in the hands of the someone else driving the vehicle I’m riding in.
Our challenges are big, and niche, and complicated. And doing this experiment prompts me to ask, are we asking the right questions? And if we are, are we asking the right people? Solutions will have to be diverse.
I am a supporter of the Complete Streets Initiative, but in a way that works for all. The questions we ask ourselves should be questions we ask to include answers from every neighborhood, background, every district. It works when it works for all. Want me to give up my car? Give me a better alternative to its convenience.