The number of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in Pinellas County continues to soar, nearly doubling from 2020 to 2021 and leaving local transportation officials scrambling for solutions.
According to a recent report by the Tampa Bay Times, which cited statistics from the Pinellas and Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office, the number of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities in Pinellas County increased from 49 in 2020 to 85 in 2021.
Whit Blanton, executive director for Forward Pinellas, oversees the county’s transportation planning and has led the charge to reduce the number of deaths on county streets and sidewalks. He explained why pedestrian fatalities are so high in Florida, and more specifically, Pinellas County.
“It’s a combination of things,” said Blanton. “One is we have really good weather, and people are generally pretty comfortable out and about walking, bicycling, doing things like that – and it’s flat.”
Blanton said the number of retirees and tourists contributes to the number of people outside enjoying leisure activities. Also, he noted that most of the development in the region occurred when accommodating vehicle traffic was of the utmost importance. Blanton said other parts of the country were designed with pedestrians in mind before the prevalence of automobiles. He said with the exception of downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg, most of Tampa Bay focused on quickly allowing vehicles to reach their destinations.
Blanton explained county street crossings are usually spread far apart, allowing for faster traffic. Additionally, many street networks are not on a grid system, and transit service is underdeveloped. Pinellas is also the most densely populated county in the state, which Blanton said exacerbates the problem.
“So, there’s a lot of competing demands for limited space,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of fast highways, arterial roadways and things like that. Then you’ve got a lot of dense housing and commercial mixed together right along those roadways.”
Blanton said he notices that many of the fatalities occur on roads like Gulf to Bay Boulevard, 66th Street and Park Boulevard – where a mobile home park sits across the street from a Publix, yet it is 2,000 feet to the nearest intersection.
Blanton said poor lighting is another issue and one that the county acknowledges. He said the state is funding a lighting project in 2023 that will help alleviate the problem on state roadways, but added that the county does not have funding in place to improve the issue on county streets.
“Nighttime is where we see a lot of fatalities happen, or early morning,” said Blanton. “So, in dark conditions.”
Blanton also pointed out that over 50% of fatalities occur in low-income, minority neighborhoods. He thinks this could be due to a lack of automobiles causing people to walk and bike in heavily trafficked areas out of necessity.
Blanton said Forward Pinellas does not use data from the Medical Examiner’s Office, and that data may have included accidents outside of Pinellas County. However, he said the alarming, underlying trend remains unchanged.
“We’re seeing a doubling of fatalities and serious injuries in 2021 over 2020 and over 2019,” stated Blanton. “So even if their numbers are a little bit inflated, it doesn’t change the general trajectory.”
The sharp increase in deaths follows the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners resolution in July of 2021 to adopt the Vision Zero program. Vision Zero is a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while also increasing safe and equitable mobility for all residents.
Blanton said the Vision Zero process is underway, and it is changing the criteria for how local officials fund and advance transportation projects. He called it a holistic approach encompassing education, enforcement and engineering. Blanton thinks the program will raise awareness for the level of commitment needed to reduce fatalities and serious injuries and make the solutions more palatable to some people.
In addition to driving impaired and distracted, a major contributor to the problem is speeding. According to Blanton, there are engineering and enforcement solutions, and Vision Zero is working on mitigation strategies.
“I’m really hoping that what Vision Zero and Safe Streets Pinellas does is it changes the conversation to make some of these remedies more politically acceptable,” said Blanton. “One thing we’re doing for the first time ever is installing a roundabout on a state highway in Palm Harbor, on U.S. 19.”
Construction on the roundabout begins this year, and Blanton said it would force people to slow down in an area notorious for speeders. He said transportation officials also plan to remove a lane from Drew Street in Clearwater to create acceptable dimensions for vehicles and those on foot or bicycles. Blanton stressed that engineering solutions take time, planning and funding, but make a big difference.
Blanton noted that places like downtown St. Pete have fewer fatalities and serious injuries than other parts of the county due to their walkability and slow speeds. He said people are generally more cautious when driving in those areas. However, there is an increased risk due to the sheer number of pedestrians, creating somewhat of a conundrum for local officials.
“It’s kind of hard to hang your hat on driving down fatalities when at the same time you’re trying to increase people walking and bicycling,” explained Blanton. “Because the more people who get out and do that, you’re probably going to have number rise, too.”