The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

TAMPA BAY COMMUTER BLUES
I've lived in the Tampa Bay area for the past 13 years. Actually, since the first three of those years was while I was in college, and therefore living on campus sans automobile, it's more like ten years that I've really "lived" in the community. It's been a long enough stretch of time to see some major changes.

Growth has been as desired as it's been inevitable. As the second-largest metro region in a state that adds about 500 people a day in population, Tampa Bay naturally gets its share of transplants. That can be good, in terms of adding to the diversity of people in the area.

The bad part? The majority of those people moving in have cars. And that means monstrous commutes all over the Bay area, from Gulf Boulevard to Malfunction Junction to the Suncoast Parkway.

I can attest to things getting worse on the roads. I pretty much stick to my general work-play zone, which is roughly downtown St. Pete (where work, along with other things, is) to the north-northeast part of town (that's home), through to Tampa's West Shore (as that area is so close to my apartment--in terms of traffic time, it's the closest mall and movie theaters to me). I'll head out to other areas with some regularity, like Ybor and Hyde Park in Tampa or St. Pete Beach, but mostly, I stick near the southeast chunk of Pinellas County and the accompanying stretch of I-275 that I call home. Not counting some backroads areas like Pinellas Park and such, my zone is probably, overall, the least-congested part of Tampa Bay's traffic grid.

Yet even this area is no picnic. I think I've lucked out with my work commute, in that I can zoom down either 4th Street or MLK Street in a straight shot to my office building. I encounter some traffic along both roads, enough to annoy me, but nothing hellacious. The interstate is the third option, but one that I rarely take. I'm in a spot where there's no real time savings by going down the highway, mainly because whatever time is saved by the speed is offset by the time spent on the onramp-offramp routes. Plus, the traffic is typically worse there, and getting so seemingly every day. Add to all this that I intersect with Gandy Boulevard and Roosevelt Boulevard, which tend to be treacherously jampacked (fortunately, I never have to traverse either road, just cross it).

Beyond that... There are spots around town that I avoid whenever I can. I have a friend who lives in the northern part of Pinellas County. It's a nightmare to get to his place anytime near rush hour, because the congestion is unreal; what would normally be a 20-minute drive to his place ends up being at least twice that. At this point, we try to meet up on weekends. In general, the western/northern part of Pinellas is absolutely not worth the hassle it takes to get there, and really, there's not a whole lot worth going to there. There are parts of western St. Pete, and all of Clearwater and Largo and other areas, that I haven't been to in years.

Rush hour is generally tons worse than it used to be, and that's my barometer for how crowded it's gotten here. I used to be able to jet over to Tampa by the interstate right after work without much of a problem. Now, the congestion begins as soon as I get over the bridge and lasts until the middle of downtown. There's aren't many things that get to me like being dead stuck on a highway.

What's the solution? Public transportation would be great, and I'd definitely make use of it. For all the pain in the ass that driving to and from work is, it's just not worth having your car to save a couple of minutes, or to be able to stop by the store on the way home. I realize it's wishful thinking, though. Most people won't get on a bus unless they absolutely have to, and the bus system in this area has plenty of shortcomings. There is no rail system, and despite talk, probably won't be for decades, if ever. I wish there was a solution.