Warning: Danger is lurking on St. Pete’s Citytrails

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By all accounts, St. Pete’s investment in bike trails and lanes, known as Citytrails, has been wildly successful in living down the city’s reputation as one of the most dangerous places in American to be a pedestrian or cyclist.

The trails’ increased popularity, however, has come at a cost – a recent spike in crime: three recent rapes, an explosion of robberies and brutal assaults.

Despite citizen complaints, until recently, there has been little supervision, no emergency communication devices or high crime area warning signs on the trails.

St. Pete’s Citytrails’ home page states that Vision 2020 identified making St. Petersburg the most “pedestrian friendly city in the country” a city wide priority. 

Our bicycle club is well known and well attended, and we provide space for a bicycle repair co-op at the shuffleboard complex. Plans are in the works to install bike rental kiosks in downtown. St. Pete’s commitment to cycling is clear, but after three particularly violent incidences occurred over an eight day period in early February the St. Pete Police Dept. issued an advisory: cyclist should travel in groups, avoid poorly lit areas and avoid suspicious people.

At council last week, Lee Allen, questioned the adequacy of the police response and requested that the council instruct staff to compile crime statistics for all trails within the city limits of St. Petersburg.

“I am fairly sure that there are many more incidents that didn’t make the newspaper,” Allen said, “We would all like to think that St. Pete is progressive and supports alternative modes of transportation…[we need] much greater monitoring and [police] presence and cameras.”

The recently reported incidents took place on a secluded section of the Pinellas Trail, a countywide ‘Rails to Trails’ project that runs through an industrial area – the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), in collaboration with the city, has oversight of that portion of  the trail.

“[The MPO] has a safety task force and our police department has been very proactive in dealing with this,” said Councilman Wengay Newton, an MPO board member.

“Think about the thousands of people who travel that trail every day in our beautiful city, I don’t want people to think that it is inherently dangerous…you have incidents on the trails throughout,” he said.

Councilman Steve Kornell concurred with Allen and assured him that he would request the information.

“We put a lot of cameras downtown, and we could have put some of them on the trail,” said Kornell. He then went on to say that stepping up patrols and other preventative measures are long past due and necessary to preserve cyclists’ safety and confidence.

“I have received many e-mails,” Kornell said, “My concern is that this is not new…there were some more, minor incidents, and there could have been some prevention at that point…I don’t know how to tell [my constituents] to just go ahead and ride that trail.”

Councilman Charlie Gerdes said, “If the trails are not safe, people aren’t going to use them.”

Councilman Karl Nurse pointed out that undercover operations have recently been stepped up.

The city needs to take immediate action.  It currently has police bikes, police horses and golf carts at its disposal and could easily increase daytime police visibility and presence along the trail.

Solar powered emergency phone kiosks, with cameras are another possible solution and could be added in higher crime areas, along the trails, at regular intervals. The kiosks are stand alone and require minimal installation.

Requesting the crime stats is a good first step in creating a long range safety plan for Citytrails, but right now St. Pete needs action. Merely warning people about stranger danger goes beyond woefully inadequate and it is a slap in the face to the three women who were recently violated because of lax security along the trail.