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Ride Along BFA Director Amelia Neptune’s Visit To Champa Bay

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Tampa, Florida, a destination that has been high on my wish list thanks to the work I do with several local Tampa champions in the Bicycle Friendly America program. You might be surprised to learn that Tampa is currently NUMBER ONE in the nation on the list of cities with the most Bicycle Friendly Businesses (BFBs), with a total of 70 BFBs. Tampa surpassed Platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Community Fort Collins, which boasts an impressive 61 BFBs, in our Spring 2021 BFB round of awards

Amelia with Christine and Karen at the Partnership’s Platinum-level BFB office.

That accomplishment didn’t happen overnight. In fact, if you’ve been reading our blog for a while you may recall when we highlighted Tampa’s 11 original BFBs back in 2015. More recently, if you attended the National Bike Summit in person this year, you had the chance to attend a hands-on workshop that I co-hosted with two of Tampa’s rockstars, Christine Acosta, LCI, of Pedal Power Promoters (and 2018 award-winner of the the Susie Stephens Joyful Enthusiasm Award!), and Karen Kress, LCI, AICP, of Platinum-level BFB Tampa Downtown Partnership. They shared exactly how Tampa has gone from zero to hero for BFBs in the last 7 years, and how other communities can replicate that success. (And if you weren’t at the in-person Summit this year, don’t worry! We plan to repeat the workshop as a webinar later this year, so be sure to follow the League for updates!)

Of course planning for my trip to Tampa started with mapping out all 70 BFBs to see how many I could squeeze into my two-day visit–I was tempted to create a bingo card for myself!  Just the initial act of flying into Tampa International Airport got me my first BFB bingo square, since it has the distinct honor of being the only airport in the nation that is a BFB. According to Christine, who helped the Airport submit their BFB application in 2019, “Tampa International has 10,000 direct and indirect employees, many in lower-wage jobs with few transportation options. Early on we found a need to improve bike facilities for these daily commuters – bikes were exposed to the elements and chained to trees around the employee parking lot. Becoming bicycle-friendly as an airport was not about making it easy for passengers to bike to the airport; the priority was about elevating the dignity and safety of people who already bike to work, the unsung heroes who make #FlyTPA exceptional.”  

My first morning after arriving in Tampa, I realized one of our earliest BFBs there, an independent coffee shop called Ginger Beard Coffee, was around the corner from where I was staying, so of course I had to stop in for a delicious cup to start my day. I then met with Christine at another BFB-certified local coffee shop, Buddy Brew Coffee, which also started early in the BFB program with one location in 2015 and now five of their eight coffee shops are certified at either the silver or gold level. 

From there, Christine and I hopped on our e-bikes so that she could show off some of downtown Tampa’s greatest and latest bicycle network additions, including the Bayshore Trail, Riverwalk, Selmon Greenway, Jackson Street Cycle Track, and Cass Street Cycle Track (aka Green Spine). All of these facilities were great, and I especially loved learning that the Jackson Street Cycle Track was the first two-way protected cycle track on a one-way, state-owned road in Florida (and I believe only the second cycle track on a state-owned road in Florida at all) installed by FDOT. 

Amelia riding along the Jackson Street Cycle Track.

We also discussed some of the challenges of the facilities we rode on, most notably connectivity issues. Obvious, intuitive connections (or clear wayfinding signage to fill gaps) are essential to making a bike network feel whole. As Christine commented, “the devil is in the details.” We also discussed the comfort level of the various facilities and the auxiliary factors that can make a ride feel high-stress for riders of all ages and skill levels, such as the lack of shade, or the thunderous highway traffic felt and heard overhead on a portion of trail that ran below the expressway, which otherwise would have been a lovely ride on sleepy shaded pathways. These are the kinds of details one can only really appreciate by riding on two (or three!) wheels, and why I encourage every city planner, engineer, and elected official to make sure they regularly see their bike network from the perspective of the handlebars. 

On our ride we passed another of Tampa’s largest employers in the BFB program, Tampa General Hospital, which moved up from Silver to Gold status last year. Tampa General is located on Davis Islands and is only accessible via narrow sidewalks or fast moving traffic, which pose obvious mobility and safety challenges. Parking is at a premium on the island and so the hospital is eager to make the access roads to the islands much safer for all modes and support their commuters in any form of active transportation. When the hospital initially surveyed their employees at the onset of their BFB journey in 2015, they learned there was huge demand among employees for bike commuter services and amenities. The efforts of the hospital to increase secure bike parking and promote biking to work are working: they saw a 35% increase in usage of their bike parking cage from 2019 to 2021. 

Public bike racks and mural recently added to a public parking garage in downtown Tampa, installed by Tampa Downtown Partnership.

Other stops on our tour included several traffic-calming road murals and other Vision Zero projects by Tampa Downtown Partnership and the City of Tampa, as well as some of the public bike racks and related murals that the Partnership has installed in parking garages across downtown Tampa.

That evening, Pedal Power Promoters and the local advocacy organization Walk Bike Tampa co-hosted a National Bike Month Celebration to welcome me and celebrate many of Tampa’s original and new BFBs. The event took place at Silver-level BFB Forepeak in Tampa’s iconic Ybor City neighborhood. “Every city needs people like Styles Wilson and Tampa is extremely fortunate that this creative entrepreneur has chosen Ybor City to establish his business,” said Christine Acosta of Forepeak’s owner. “I thought of only one venue I wanted for this event, and it took Styles about 5 seconds to say yes, Forepeak would host us.” The event was the first in-person BFB awards ceremony in Tampa since the pandemic began, and honored and recognized a number of BFBs that have earned new or upgraded award levels over the past two years. VIP speakers included BFB business owners Richard Gonzmart, of Columbia Restaurant Group; Susan Ward, of Buddy Brew Coffee; Joey Redner, of Cigar City Brewing; as well as Tampa City Council Chairperson Joseph Citro. 

Among the BFB awards we gave out that evening, the highest honor went to Tampa Downtown Partnership, which moved up from gold to platinum last year and is the only non-bike shop at the Platinum level in the state of Florida. As I said in my remarks that evening, without the leadership of Karen Kress at Tampa Downtown Partnership, we would not have been gathered to celebrate that night, as it was her original vision and leadership that lead to securing funding and hiring Christine to pound the pavement and recruit, coach and support so many businesses to become BFBs. 

Most appropriately, the next morning Karen hosted me for several meetings at the Partnership’s office, including one with city staff to talk about the City of Tampa’s Bicycle Friendly Community status (which is currently up for renewal!) and how they can continue to improve on the bronze status and work toward silver and beyond. We discussed some of the details I had noted on our bike ride the day before, as well as the challenges and opportunities Tampa must take on in its efforts to build out its network and improve safety for bicyclists and all roadway users across the city. They are on board!

Amelia’s suitcase on the back of her borrowed bicycle, ready to go for Bike to Work Day.

My last morning in Tampa was also National Bike to Work Day and, since I had to check out early before the morning meetings at the Partnership, I was very pleased to confirm that my carry-on-sized suitcase could easily fit on the back of the bike I was borrowing. I loved being able to celebrate Bike to Work Day by easily biking my suitcase along the FDOT-owned Jackson Street Cycle Track on my way to a Platinum BFB about how to make the city more bicycle-friendly for everyone.

I can’t wait to return to Tampa to see more of the neighborhoods beyond downtown, meet more of the champions who are turning this into a world-class city for biking, and get another chance to create my Tampa BFB bingo card, if they don’t make one for me by then! 😉