The Conch Republic Battles the Tyranny of Speed
“Don’t we have a deal with the pigeons?”
“Of course we have a deal. They get out of the way of our cars, we look the other way on the statue defecation.”
- George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld
The tyranny of speed rules over nearly every road in this great nation. Florida is perhaps the tyrant’s most resolute stronghold. It’s as if gravity or latitude or the warm climate (or perhaps the convergence of the three) have funneled that power into our peninsula from all across the land. Hemmed in by the Everglades, the tyrant’s power concentrates even more as one moves into Broward and Miami-Dade counties. It then squirts out along US 1, the Overseas Highway that runs from Key Largo to Key West. The Highway is now mostly overwhelmed by the tyrant; its miles of ugly strip commercial development making it look like nearly any other four-lane highway. If it weren’t for the palms and tropically-themed signs you might think you were outside Atlanta along some stretches.
One-hundred and two miles down the highway you enter the Conch Republic, aka Key West. It’s the end of the road. The tyranny of speed has pushed its invading wedge westward into the island along US 1, and its commercial minions — fast-food purveyors, big box retailers… — have come in behind to claim territory. At its ironic intersection with Eisenhower Drive, it loses nearly all its power as it changes names from N. Roosevelt Boulevard to Truman Avenue and becomes a narrow, two-lane street.
Most of the tyrant’s soldiers relax and drop their weapons when entering this human-paced paradise, but enough keep their warrior mentalities to make trouble as they scatter throughout the fine grid of narrow streets. The saner ones leave their cars at their hotels as they visit, or even sell them if they decide to stay and put down roots.
The tyrant’s soldiers have a deal with the pigeon cyclists of Key West; the cyclists scatter out of the way of their cars, the tyrants look the other way when cyclists run red lights or ride with a beer in one hand.
I traveled to Key West over the first weekend of December with Keri Caffrey and John Schubert. As we biked around the island we found ourselves running afoul of their pigeon-deal. Not accustom to getting out of the way, we annoyed quite a few of the soldiers, and they made threatening motions with their weapons. The problem became severe as we traveled N. Roosevelt; no doubt the leading edge of an army is where the fighting is the bloodiest. The tyrant had provided the pigeons with a place to keep out of the way; something called a “bike path.” The path was pleasant enough as it followed the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, but on some stretches the commercial minions had build driveways across it, and the soldiers were not terribly polite about yielding at those crossings. At the very first driveway we were nearly taken out by one.
Our purpose that weekend was to introduce some key Conchs to the principles and practices of vehicular cycling. In that we feel we were quite successful; all who attended our course said they saw real value in it. The larger challenge for Key West though, is getting local motorists to accept vehicular cycling.
The local cyclists may feel the current situation is pretty good. After all, bicycling makes up a far greater proportion of traffic on Key West than in perhaps any city in the nation outside of Davis, CA. Eddie Marsh, proprietor of a pedicab and bike rental business, told us the tourists who rent bikes for a week usually return reporting that they had a great time. But I wonder how many crashes are caused by their relatively new door-zone bike lanes and their sidepaths. It’s common for untrained and inexperienced cyclists to be unaware of the conflicts posed by such facilities, and see only the “benefit” of “having a place to ride.”
I’ve been traveling to Key West since 1982. During that first visit I noticed how some motorists were easily aggravated. The juxtaposition of aggressive driving and the “mañana” mentality was surprising. But it was still a fairly sleepy island at that time. In ’85 I rode the Old Town section of the island with a friend and it was roughly the same. My next visit in 1994 was as a budding bicycle transportation professional, spending a week observing and analyzing conditions and behaviors for an FDOT-led project. Locals were increasingly concerned that cycling was becoming dangerous on the island, but many of our team routinely rode the N. Roosevelt roadway with no grief from the soldiers. In 1998 I went down there for a Florida Bicycle Association advocacy-building effort. The attitude from the locals was much the same as in ’94; “it’s a dangerous place; we need more bikeways,” yet I still saw it as a fairly easy place to ride.
Now, a decade later, they have those bikeways they asked for, and my perception of the island is that motorist attitudes towards cyclists are worse than they’d ever been. Motor traffic levels are much higher (especially on N. Roosevelt) and motorists are much more intolerant of roadway cycling. (So much for the theory that increasing the amount of cycling improves motorist attitudes towards cyclists.) On the other hand, the locals we spoke to think things are pretty hunky-dory. It’s so rare for American cyclists to say they live in a good place for cycling; one needs to respect that, so I question my own perspective.
When I visited in 1994 the cyclist crashes we were hearing about had little to do with the lack of bikeways; they were mostly instances of cyclists not yielding or otherwise violating the rules of the road. I wonder what the causes are today. Has safety actually improved along with its perception? Nothing I saw this year would lead me to expect objective improvement. But without actual data that’s just conjecture.
It’s an important question. I hope someone can provide answers. Because if Key West is perceived as a success while actual safety has been degraded, it becomes yet another misleading example in support of misguided planning and design.
The sad irony in this story is that Key West prides itself on tolerance. “One Human Family” is the official city motto. The mayor wrote that this motto “reflects our commitment to living together as caring, sharing neighbors dedicated to making our home as close to ‘paradise’ as we can.” The city is known for accepting and welcoming those who wish to live differently from the norm. Such tolerance does not, however, appear to extend to those of us on bicycles who behave as equals on their streets. You can flaunt your sexual orientation or your outrageous artistic sensibilities, or wear a t-shirt that would get you thrown out of your mother’s house…but drive your bicycle like you’re a first-class citizen? Now you’ve crossed the line, bud.Posted in Bikeways, Culture, Politics, Safety, Traffic Law, Transportation Cycling