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Planner, urban designer Jeff Speck’s guide to making St. Pete a more walkable city

Megan Holmes

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Jeff Speck and Monica Kile of Preserve the 'Burg at the Palladium. "This is the most ferny stage I've ever spoken on," said Speck. "It's awesome because if things go badly, I can just hide."

Renowned new urbanist and author of Walkable City Jeff Speck shared his insights on walkability with a crowd of hundreds Wednesday, in an event hosted by Preserve the ‘Burg and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Open Partnership Education Network. But before his lecture, this reporter had the privilege of accompanying Speck and Preserve the ‘Burg’s Monica Kile on a walk through St. Petersburg. 

Speck, who has consulted with cities and developers across the county, including Water Street Tampa, gave a thoughtful overview of the importance of walkability in terms of economic development, epidemiology, climate and more. But his most thought-provoking insights came as he applied his “Theory of Walkability” – that a walk should be simultaneously useful, comfortable, safe and interesting – as it relates to St. Petersburg, using examples from cities across the country.

Speck’s work has special significance for St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Kriseman said as he introduced the internationally known planner. Prior to City Council’s final vote on the Complete Streets, Kriseman gave each council member a copy of Speck’s Walkable City.

The safe walk is the most impactful thing a city can address, Speck said, something Complete Streets has worked to address on MLK St. The useful walk, the comfortable walk and the interesting walk are generally a function of the buildings that surround the streets, which can take a great deal of time to change – though they can be influenced by zoning codes, tax incentives and other means. The safe walk, he said, can be influenced immediately.

Here are our six takeaways for how to make St. Petersburg a safer, more walkable city:

A map of St. Petersburg shows I-375 on the north side of downtown and I-175 on the south side of downtown.

Revert Interstates 175 and 375 to surface boulevards. The Tropicana Field Redevelopment site has put the possibility of reverting Interstate 175 to a boulevard center stage. The 1.3 mile spur of I-275, which bisects St. Petersburg from Tropicana Field to the heart of downtown St. Petersburg, could be one part of that redevelopment effort. But according to Speck, St. Pete should also be looking at I-375, a similar 1.2 mile spur just 10 blocks north.

“Very few cities I arrive at have this opportunity … All that these roads are doing is speeding you from here to there over a stretch of less than a mile. When they were built they destroyed the neighborhoods, principally African American neighborhoods that they were put into. They break up the city and they only save you like a minute … The speed for that last 3/4 mile – are you going 45mph or 25mph? Because that will impact your commute by 48 seconds. Can you spare 48 seconds for a better city?”

Making this change, Speck argued, would pay for itself in increased real estate values, which would accrue back to the city in increased tax revenues once the highway is removed. “The surface boulevard, if properly designed, generates tremendous real estate values,” Speck expained. “While highways sunder real estate value.”

One-way Street, East Spring Street in Albany, New York.

The same street reverted to a two-way street.

Design downtown streets to curb speeding above 25mph. Changing street design is about changing driver behavior. Speck said it best in a conversation with the St. Pete Catalyst prior to his lecture: “The first thing people do when a pedestrian or cyclist is hit, is to blame the pedestrian or cyclist. The second thing they do is blame the driver. The thing they never do is to blame the engineer. More often than not, its the engineer, or more likely the engineering standard that was applied, that’s at fault.”

According to Speck, a car going 35mph is seven times more likely to kill a pedestrian than a car traveling 25mph. That range from 25-35mph is the range most of us are driving in our cities. He contends that the speed we are traveling in that range is a function of our environment and more specifically, our streets.

To encourage lower speeds, Speck first recommends looking at the number of lanes in a street, the width of those lanes, and the protection of sidewalks by parked vehicles or street trees. Speck recommended reverting one-way streets to two-way streets in current thoroughfares like 3rd St., 4th St., 8th St. and 9th St. He also recommended changing signaled intersections where appropriate to all-way stop signs, which reduce the speed at which drivers go through the intersection, making pedestrians safer. According to Speck, removing center lines from two way streets tends to reduce automobile speeds by 7mph.

Best practice: In St. Petersburg, 1st Avenue South bike lanes are protected by barriers and parallel street parking.

Invest in safe biking infrastructure. Speck argues that bicycling culture follows investment in bicycle infrastructure. “Cycling is the biggest planning revolution underway in only some American cities,” said Speck. “It’s the cities that invest in cycling that create the cycling population.” Perhaps the most important aspect that gets people out of their cars and onto bicycles is how safe they feel while biking.

An example of unsafe bike lanes, St. Petersburg 1st Avenue North.

Many of the bike lanes and “sharrows” (shared bike and vehicle lanes) currently utilized in St. Petersburg are now considered unsafe, Speck said. Bike lanes on 1st Avenue North, in which the bike line is sandwiched between the traffic lane and parking lane, puts cyclists squarely in “the door zone,” where they are most likely to be hit by car doors or sideswiped by traffic.

An example of unsafe “sharrows,” or shared vehicle and bicycle lanes with front angled parking. These are found on Beach Drive and Central Avenue.

Best practice bike lanes are protected by physical barriers as well as parallel street parking, as exemplified by the bike lanes 1st Avenue South. Many of the “sharrows” in the city, including Central Avenue and Beach Drive, are considered dangerous because they include front angle parking, which means drivers are more likely to pull out into an oncoming bicyclist than they would be in a rear angle parking scenario.

Invest in transit. The St. Pete Catalyst reported Wednesday that the Central Avenue BRT project is moving forward as planned, despite opposition from the City of South Pasadena and the City of St. Pete Beach. In a conversation with the Catalyst, Speck said that true BRT, with dedicated bus travel lanes, are a step in the right direction. “You can have a perfectly walkable neighborhood with no transit. But a walkable city requires transit,” he said. “Because if we can’t easily connect the walkable areas to each other conveniently, then of course those who have the choice will buy cars and the city will be shaped around their demands and become less walkable.” Speck also argued that Bike Share should be considered a form of transit and, if necessary, subsidized like transit. In the long-term, he said, it will ultimately pay off. “It’s taking people out of cars and allowing them to participate in cities in a much more social way.”

Eliminate parking requirements. Speck argued that while St. Petersburg’s parking requirements are progressive and “ahead of the market,” cities should eliminate parking requirements, and instead let the market decide. “The market will insist on certain minimums,” Speck said. He quoted parking guru Donald Shoup in saying that “Parking minimums are a ‘fertility drug’ for cars.'” Speck argues that in building a residential development without parking, the people who choose to live there will come without cars. “These people will be your best neighbors yet,” said Speck. “Because people love new neighbors, but they don’t love new neighbors’ cars.”

These Beach Drive condos represent an example of a setback, with a two story street level and a much higher building behind.

Density and height, responsibly. Speck argues that from an environmental perspective, an economic perspective and a walkability perspective, the more density, the better in the downtown core. “Here’s the caveat,” he said. “Density of people is great, density of cars is not great. The city should provide the largest density it can without requiring vehicles that come with it.”

With density often comes height, but the important thing about height, according to Speck, is how it frames the street space. “It’s not that comfortable walking next to a slab that’s 100 feet, 200 feet tall, straight down to the street edge – in terms of wind impacts and shadow impacts.” Instead, he argues, large buildings should be set back from the road, similar to some of the newer buildings on Beach Drive, and further exemplified by what he calls the Vancouver Model. “It would be nice to see a little more of the Vancouver Model here, where the building against the street is of limited height, like five stories, and the tower is stepped back … even 20 feet makes a big difference.”

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