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St. Pete strives to make streets safer
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The city of St. Petersburg uses rectangular rapid flashing beacons at 42 intersections. This one is at a crosswalk on Fourth Street next to Sunken Gardens.
ST. PETERSBURG – City officials continue to be aggressive in their efforts to make streets safer for pedestrians by following the course that became a priority for former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker more than a decade ago.

In the past 10 years the city has received more than $30 million in federal government funds for bicycle and pedestrian related improvements and has earned national recognition for being a pioneer in the use of LEDs beacons at intersections.

The rectangular rapid flashing beacons have been installed at 42 intersections in the city. Another 55 will be installed next year through $800,000 allocated to the city.

What a difference a decade makes

A group called the Surface Transportation Policy Institute produced a report every two to four years in the 1990s called “Mean Streets.” The greater metropolitan area of Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater was always near the top areas based on the institute’s analysis, said Mike Frederick, manager-neighborhood transportation for the city of St. Petersburg.

In 2000 when Mayor Rick Baker started, he put community safety as one of his platforms. One of his goals was to get St. Petersburg off the Mean Streets report, Frederick said.

St. Petersburg officials began work on a bicycle-pedestrian master plan, spending a year working with committees and the public to determine “all the things they wanted to see for bicyclists and pedestrians.” They expected the plan would be implemented over decades because of a lack of funds.

“Little did we know, however, that with a plan, we could apply for funds and get in front of the cube. So there were various funding categories at the time of federal funds that were available,” Frederick said.

The city started filing applications for funding with the Florida Department of Transportation. Being ahead of other local jurisdictions in planning, it received more than $30 million in funding over 10 years. City officials augmented that with capital dollars from the Penny for Pinellas and transportation impact fees. They set out to build certain miles of bicycle facilities and enhance a certain number of pedestrian crosswalks.

“ … We turned a 20- to 30- to 40-year master plan into a 10-year plan,” Frederick said. “We’ve basically met all the requirements of the plan at this point.”

The city enhanced more than 100 crosswalks.

“By enhancement, I mean signs and markings as well as the rectangular rapid flashing beacons because we had virtually a zero percent motorist yielding compliance at our crosswalks,” he said. “No one knew the state law that said you had to yield to a pedestrian at a crosswalk,” he said. “So we looked at it and said we are certainly not helping the motorists any by not giving them proper cues. We installed various ‘thou shalt yield to pedestrian signs, state law.’”

Also installed were yield bars and other improvements.

Flashing beacons get attention

The flashing crosswalk beacons, which alert motorists when a pedestrian is preparing to use the crosswalk, were installed at major intersections that had multiple crossing lanes. The visual impact of beams is like that of a police strobe, Frederick said.

“We are well over 85 percent compliance. Some in the 90 percent compliance. What that means, when a pedestrian comes up, pushes a button, at the start of the activation, 85 percent of the motorists will yield,” he said.

The county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization praised the use of the beacons in an April 2011 newsletter, saying the success of the beacons have resulted in the expansion of these signals around the county.

At first city officials learned that many pedestrians initially didn’t push the button. But they began to see people pushing the buttons on the devices and beginning to get compliance from motorists.

“They discovered it does work so more and more people are starting to push it to the point that now we get calls all the time on a daily basis from residents that say ‘when is my crosswalk going to get one?’” Frederick said.

There is a downside. Some motorists “don’t think they have to stop unless there is a flashing beacon, which isn’t true,” Frederick said.

In 2005 St. Petersburg became the first jurisdiction to experiment with the flashing beacons under federal permission.

“Based on our experimentation, evaluation and analysis, they have allowed it now to be implemented nationally,” he said.

Frederick believes use of the beacons will spread.

“The DOT, the county and other jurisdictions are now seeing the benefit of it and looking at places where they can find funding to get them in,” Frederick said.

Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kristen Carson said in talking to an agency traffic engineer, it appears that the flashing beacons are effective for pedestrian crossings.

“However, we do want to be a little bit careful that we don’t put them everywhere. Because like any sign, if you have too much of something out there or any flashing device, we’re afraid it can kind of dilute the effect. But we do think right now they have a great effect for pedestrian crossings.”

The agency will look at all of the issues involving the use of the beacons, such as putting them at school crossings and maybe high-volume pedestrian crossings.

“We’re going to kind of look at it and see what’s the best use for all of them,” she said.

The cost of the beacons, $10,000 each, is an issue, too, she said.

St. Petersburg was awarded the 2009 National Roadway Safety Award for the crosswalk beacon, called “the Enhancer.” The award is given biennially by the Federal Highway and Roadway Safety Foundation “for making verifiable and significant strides toward improving safety on the nation’s highways.”

In 2008, St. Petersburg was named the Best Walking City in Florida and 35th in the nation by Prevention Magazine and the America Podiatric Medical Society.

Looking ahead and ‘tweaking’

City officials are re-evaluating its bicycle and pedestrian master plan approved in 2003.

“Now our annual evaluation is looking at more detail. We got all these facilities for bikes and peds now and we are still having crashes. So how do we address that? We can’t build anything more. We can tweak,” said Frederick, who has been with the city for 12 years.

Since there are no large infrastructure improvements planned soon, city officials started a corridor-by- corridor analysis, looking at cause and effects of crashes.

“Why is there a group of crashes here? What types of crashes are there? What behaviors is the bicyclist or pedestrian doing and what measures can we take to address those behaviors? We have already started on two of the corridors, 34th Street and Fourth Street, with what’s called a road safety audit, and we have a draft report now on what counter measures can be implemented to address these specific hot spots,” Frederick said.

The solutions may vary.

“It could be as simple as a sign,” Frederick said.

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