It’s still dark when Erieka Smith throws a leg over her Nishiki mountain bike one recent morning and rolls out of the parking lot of her apartment complex near Fowler Avenue.
The 23-year-old case worker for the Salvation Army has a nearly eight-mile daily commute to the charity’s headquarters just north of downtown Tampa. Smith said motorists drive like bicycle riders should get out of their way.
"When I'm passing these big intersections, they seem to be like, I'm bigger, so I'm going to go regardless of what the sign says or the light says," she said."There's been quite a few close calls, to the point where I'm literally skidding to a stop and wind up kicking their car to stop myself."
Smith recently changed her route and now no longer has to deal with one of those big intersections: Fowler and Nebraska avenues. She made the change to make her trip shorter, but the decision likely made her safer: It’s one of the most crash-prone intersections for bicyclists in the region, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis.
The Times analyzed state bicycle crash data from 2011 to July 2018 and identified the 11 intersections in the Tampa Bay region that had the most bicycle crashes during that time (two were tied for 10th place). These hot spots accounted for a total of 158 crashes involving 157 injuries and two deaths.
All of the intersections — eight are in Pinellas County, two in Hillsborough and one in Pasco — have many lanes for cars but only two have dedicated bike lanes. And most share another common trait, local planners say: They are in or near low-income areas and are often frequented by riders like Smith, who don’t have a car and have no choice but to ride on dangerous roads to get where they need to be.
“They’re changing your oil at the Jiffy Lube and cleaning your room at the hotel,” said Gena Torres, an executive planner for Hillsborough County who has been focused on bicycle and pedestrian safety for nearly three decades. “They want to use the shortest route to get to their jobs or go to the doctor, and they have no other options.”
When Smith moved to Tampa from Lexington, Ky. about five months ago to take the job at the Salvation Army, she decided to leave her car behind.
The odometer on the decade-old Chevy Impala had ticked past the 200,000 mile mark and Smith, a recent college graduate, wasn’t sure the car would make the journey and figured it would be too costly to keep running if it did.
“I thought it was best to give it to my family and call it a day,” she said.
So while Smith saves cash for another car, she commutes from her apartment on 113th Street to the Salvation Army office on N Florida Avenue in Tampa Heights. Before switching up her route, one of the first major intersections she had to negotiate was Fowler and Nebraska, where she had to cross seven lanes of traffic.
There were 15 crashes at the intersection in the last seven years, the Times analysis of data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles shows.
Beth Alden, executive director of Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, said she wasn’t surprised to see that intersection or the county’s other hot spot, W Hillsborough and Lois avenues, on the Times' list. They share the same characteristics of road segments throughout the county that officials are tackling as part of its Vision Zero program to eliminate injuries and fatalities in those areas.
“The challenge we have is that these roads used to be country highways that are now in the center of a major metropolitan area, and the infrastructure hasn’t caught up,” Alden said. “So we have a mix of high speed traffic and all kinds of businesses along these roads that people want to get to in their cars, but also by walking and by bike.”
Both intersections are also in areas where many households don’t have cars, according to a county report released earlier this year, so many residents rely on bikes, buses or walking to get around.
The intersection with the most crashes, W Bay Drive and Seminole Boulevard in Largo, had 19 crashes resulting in 17 injuries. There are no bike lanes, only “sharrows” — arrows and bicycles painted on the pavement to remind motorists that cyclists have a right to be there, too.
It’s a similar scene at 66th Street and N 54th Avenue where one cyclist was killed in one of the 18 crashes there. It’s in west Lealman, a working-class Pinellas neighborhood that has been the focus of the county’s revitalization efforts. There are many lanes of traffic and businesses on every corner including a CVS, a Walgreen’s and McDonald’s. There are no bike lanes.
All of the Pinellas intersections on the Times list are in commercial areas where motorists, cyclists and pedestrians are sharing the same space, said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s transportation planning agency. Many of the thoroughfares are serving dual purposes as arterial roads getting motorists to interstates and as local streets providing access to homes and businesses. And they’re tricky for cyclists because they have many so-called points of conflict — places where a cyclist’s path can cross with a vehicle’s.
“You’ve got people in front of you, people behind you,” Blanton said. “It’s why people cross mid-block. In their view it’s simpler and might also be the more direct route, but it’s not safer because (motorists) don’t expect you to be there.”
Just as in Hillsborough, a large number of residents without cars is also a factor. In more than 20 Pinellas Census tracts, at least 13 percent of households do not have a car, according to county report. All eight of the intersections on the Times' list are either in or near those tracts, which include low-income areas such as Lealman and Highpoint."
It’s great we’re proud of our (Pinellas) Trail, and it’s a boon to our county, but a bigger economic boon would give people safe transportation options, the people who are working class," Blanton said.
The eastern sky is turning pink when Smith leaves the relative safety of the back streets, turns onto Busch Boulevard and then crosses a total of 13 lanes of traffic to head south onto Nebraska.
For the next couple of miles there is no bike lane, so she’ll pedal on the sidewalk, dodging pedestrians, garbage cans and cars darting out of driveways and cross streets. A bike lane appears south of Hillsborough Avenue and continues into downtown.
In the five mile stretch between Busch and 7th Avenue near Ybor City, where Smith turns west for the final leg of her commute, there have been more than 80 bicycle crashes since 2011, two of them fatal, state data show.
This part of Smith’s ride shows how there are plenty of other dangerous stretches of road in a region notoriously treacherous for cyclists. More than 10,000 bicycle crashes in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando and Pasco from 2011 to July 2018 resulted in more than 8,900 injuries and 173 deaths, according to state data.
But the stretch between Hillsborough Avenue and downtown is safer now than it was a decade ago, before then-Mayor Pam Iorio pushed to reduce the number of traffic lanes from four to two to make room for the bike lanes, said Torres, the Hillsborough planner. The number of bicycle crashes on Nebraska dropped from five annually to about two, county data show.
Bike lanes aren’t a cure-all, though. A dozen cyclists have been injured and one killed since 2011 at W Hillsborough and Lois, where there are bike lanes. That’s why other measures to slow down car traffic, such as reducing speed limits and redesigning roadways to discourage speeding are so important, said Christine Acosta, founder of Pedal Power Promoters, LLC, which pushes for bike-friendly initiatives in the region."
Managing speed is the single greatest thing we can do to achieve zero deaths and serious injuries on our roadways," Acosta said.
Nebraska is an example of how improvements like bike lanes can make roads and intersections safer with the right combination of funding and political will, but local and state transportation planners face a number of challenges to duplicate the success in other places.
One is the sheer number of problematic road segments. Planners on both sides of the bay said the Times list represents just a fraction of the places that need improvements, and there’s limited funding to go around.Another is limited space to incorporate bike lanes and opposition from politicians and residents who fear removing lanes for cars to add bike lanes, like the city of St. Pete recently did on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N, will increase congestion.
Still, some intersections on the Times list, or stretches of road that include them, are getting attention.
Hillsborough officials are working with the Florida Department of Transportation on a plan to add crosswalks and widen sidewalks to accommodate cyclists along a stretch of W Hillsborough. Pinellas is working with the state Department of Transportation on a study for improvements along Alternate U.S. 19, which includes the intersection at Seminole and West Bay.
Pinellas is also seeking funding for the planned Joe’s Creek Greenway Trail just outside St. Petersburg city limits that would give cyclists a way to avoid several busy intersections including 66th Street and 54th Avenue. And the Department of Transportation has set aside funding for a project to add sidewalks and other safety features, including possibly bike lanes, along 34th Street from 54th Ave S to 22nd Ave N.
“The people who are getting killed are real people with loved ones,” Torres said. “We’re going to keep going. We’re not giving up.”
Times staff photographer Chris Urso contributed to this report.