Sanibel Island has a complete network of side paths. Side paths (with new, fancy names) have become the fantasy of mode-share-obsessed bike advocates. I got a week-long taste of them in a microcosm environment.
My first reaction was, “this is going to suck.” My first response was to use the road, since side paths are something I avoid like the plague. Of course, once some motorists had to wait 10 seconds behind my friend and I, the honking began. We were not keen on being honked at everywhere we went, so we decided to do as the Romans do. Then I decided it would be interesting to use the side path network for a week and observe the interactions.
Sanibel has some issues that would make roadway cycling very intimidating to the average person. It has a main thoroughfare that serves it and Captiva island from a single bridge. That road is a narrow 2-lane, the traffic is typically steady and often congested. There are also a lot of large delivery and service vehicles using it. It lacks center turn lanes, left-turn pockets or pull-out areas to relieve pressure. It’s difficult even for motorists to get big enough gaps to make left turns onto and off of the road, and there are no traffic lights. There are several stretches of commercial properties (shopping centers and restaurants), but there are also miles of nothing but public land.
Another consideration for Sanibel is that most of it is nature preserve. This delicate ecosystem creates an incentive to discourage motorized transportation for local trips.
To be sure, the average tourist or elderly resident would never consider riding a bike on the main roads. It’s unlikely they would be enticed by wide lanes or bike lanes, either.
The Laid-back Island Life
I don’t have a problem with bike trails alongside roads with few intersections (and fast or heavy traffic). It is intersections that cause safety issues (there are some other cultural issues, though). Sanibel-Captiva Rd is a narrow 2-lane with a steady flow in both directions, traffic speeds were pretty fast and I saw some rather aggressive tailgating. The side path is definitely a preferred facility for the slow-speed, social, tourist cycling. The path conveys lots of rental-bike-riders from town to J.N. Ding Darling Nature Preserve.
Even among the “hard core,” I don’t know many people who like riding on a near-capacity, 2-lane road. But if I was trying to get somewhere at more than moseying speed, I would prefer to ride on the roadway because the pavement surface is much better than the side path. The path is not built with a deep foundation, so it suffers from root upheavals and other degradation which make the ride pretty jarring in places. An unfortunate reality is that when a path like this is present, cyclists are unwelcome on the road, even when it is legal for them to ride there. Motorists do not know or care that the operational needs and safety concerns of high-speed cyclists are different from those traveling slightly above walking speed.
There were other parts of the trail that I expected to be a nightmare. The side path through the commercial area on Periwinkle Way was filled with tourists who can barely handle their bikes, crossed regularly by motorized tourists entering and exiting shops and could be nothing but a gauntlet. I was sure.
Certainly, it was not suitable for riding at speeds higher than about 12 mph in the busy areas (and probably much slower speeds when there is more traffic on it and the roadway). Cyclists must give themselves and motorists time to react when on a facility that creates an additional conflict point. But on island time, I didn’t feel a need to ride any faster than that, and most of the bike traffic consists of tourists on rented clunkers, locals on beach bikes and parents pulling their children in trailers.
Motorists CAN Learn New Behavior
Even at low cycling speeds, this system requires an ingredient outside cyclists’ control — motorist compliance. Motorists must be aware of bike traffic when turning into and exiting the many side roads and commercial driveways the trail crosses. In 6 days of riding on this infrastructure, I saw an AMAZING degree of awareness and willingness to yield. It blew my mind every time I went out for a ride.
Nearly every time I pulled up to a crosswalk where the trail crosses the main road, everyone stopped. I rarely even had a chance to put my foot down (though I always intended to). The city has placed warning signs at every marked crosswalk, and informational signs at regular intervals alerting motorists to the Florida law that requires them to yield to bikes and peds in the crosswalk (as well as the fine for failure to comply).
Another amazing behavior is that motorists stop before the trail when they approach the main road from a side street or driveway (far cry from Orlando where they drive through the stop bar at full speed and slam on the brakes with their bumper penetrating the intersection!). There are small “trail-crossing” signs at every driveway exit as a reminder. Several times a motorist who had pulled forward across the trail, then couldn’t make the gap, then backed up off the trail to give way to me. In a week, I only had to stop or alter course 3 times because of cars blocking the trail… and they were there first, so I had no issue with it.
What’s amazing is that these motorists are tourists. Many of them are likely from places like Orlando where they blow past pedestrians in crosswalks without batting a eye. So what makes them behave so differently here? The salt air? The threat of an $80 fine? The sight of bicycles everywhere, or that they are riding bikes, too?
All of these accommodating behaviors make this system work well for casual cyclists. A motorist can wait long minutes to turn left onto busy Periwinkle Way, but a cyclist needs only to pull up to a crosswalk and traffic comes to a halt. It has made me feel like a protected species (albeit, a caged one). It also creates an environment where people who might never ride a bike anywhere else are using bikes to get around. Those people using bikes may help take a little pressure off a congested road and a delicate environment.
But there are some ways this bikeway system increases pressure, too. In peak seasons, a steady stream of cyclists crossing the commercial driveways must create some delays on Periwinkle Way, since motorists must yield before turning right or left. There are very few left-turn pockets, so left-turning motorists stack up traffic behind them just waiting for an opening in the oncoming traffic. With the parallel bikeway, they must wait for a simultaneous gap in 2-way bikeway traffic as well. Similarly, there are places where a car cannot wait between the bikeway and the road to leave a parking lot. Exiting motorists must wait for gaps in both bikeway traffic and roadway traffic.
Currently, the island is not at peak occupancy. I haven’t seen anything unmanageable, though Friday saw a large increase in traffic and I experienced more conflicts than I had all week. I know this place gets much more crowded in the next few months.
Taking It Too Far
Sanibel didn’t limit the infrastructure to the busy main drag. They’ve built side paths on pretty much every road that isn’t a dead end.
The problem with enticing people to ride with “separated” infrastructure is that you have to build it everywhere. If you don’t connect every single destination, people won’t ride in significant numbers.
Even when Periwinkle had a lot of traffic, East Gulf Drive and the connecting roads had very little. I understand why they extended the path system, but it made me wish we lived in a culture where more people understood they could easily ride on these roads. The increased complexity and burden on motorists at some intersections is ridiculous considering the ease of riding on the road. At one 3-way stop (T intersection), three motorists arrived within a few seconds of each-other and a cyclist riding 20 feet ahead of us arrived several seconds later. All of them were turning (thus crossing the crosswalk, so everyone had to wait for the cyclist to arrive and roll through the crosswalk. “Bike Stop” is painted on the sidewalk, and it should be treated as first-come-first-served, but the assumption is that cyclists yield to nothing. The presence of one brings the system to a halt simply because cyclists are exempted (by expectation) from following rules. (I signaled to the motorists that we intended to stop, so they could go.)
Cyclist Complacency and Carelessness
It’s important to recognize the deleterious effect these facilities have on cyclists. People will pretty much do whatever they can get away with. When cyclists are removed from the road and not regarded as vehicle drivers, they are even less inclined to follow the rules of right-of-way. I noticed early on that almost no cyclists stopped where the trail had “bike stop” painted on the pavement, even when they could not have been certain it was safe not to. Because the motorist yield rate is nearly 100%, the cyclist yield rate is… way less.
Thursday afternoon, I rode a 9 mile loop with my Dad. At the Donax Street crossing, I stopped and looked both ways, a motorist came around the corner and yielded. As I proceeded, I was almost hit head-on by a child who blazed across the street without so much as slowing or looking. He had come around the corner so fast he drifted onto the left side of the crosswalk. If I had not stopped a second time, I would have collided with him. If the motorist had failed to yield, the boy would have been hit by a car. (Friday I rode through this intersection and an elderly motorist did fail to yield — fortunately, I had stopped.) This boy was maybe 13 years old. He was riding alone. I suppose his parents thought it was safe for him because of the trail. I have a message for parents: if your kid doesn’t have the judgment to ride alone on the road, he definitely doesn’t have the judgment to ride alone on a side path. A false sense of security, complacency and the expectation of right-of-way are deadly enough without adding immaturity.
In a way side paths are an example of everything that is wrong with coddling ignorance of safe cycling practices. They create a false sense of security while diverting the burden of safety onto other road users. And when those others fail to bear the burden, the price is high.
Back to the Real World
Island vacations are a wonderful escape from reality. I was told several times early on that I didn’t need to lock my bike. It took a few days, but I stopped locking my bike. That’s a small luxury provided by an island with one entrance/exit and a $6 bridge toll.
The bicycle infrastructure on this island is equally an escape from reality. It works here. Its pitfalls are contained. The heavy reliance on motorist compliance is possible in this slow-paced microcosm. However, this burden, coupled with the reduction of cyclist compliance, would quickly become a source of animosity and backlash (not to mention crashes) in the Real World. It would degrade the system for the cyclists who are currently using the road system with safety and ease because they made the effort to overcome cultural ignorance and learn how. (Don’t think for a second this stuff will be built on a large scale and not become mandatory. It already is in Oregon and several other states.)
While this system might work on an island—or in Holland—in North America it is best left as a vacation phenomenon. This kind of infrastructure can convince a large number of people (suffering from cultural ignorance of safe cycling) to ride bikes on an island. Though it does that with an efficiency cost for general traffic, and for cyclists who prefer to ride faster. It is also unlikely that most of the people cycling around a vacation island would use a bike for transportation in their every-day lives, even if such infrastructure existed. Americans are creatures of comfort and convenience. Even if we spent small fortunes of public money to build this stuff in an urban environment, it would still be “too hot, too cold, too wet, too far, it takes too long, I have too much to carry…”
Moreover, the kind of people who need an illusion of separation to ride a bike will want it to connect to every potential destination. The need for a “complete network” quickly oversteps appropriate applications and ends up spanning the range from gratuitous to insanely dangerous. Wherever the network did not extend, side-path-nurtured cyclists would ride on the sidewalk, where the lack of warning signage and motorist awareness would put them at greater risk… and it is unlikely they would understand the difference.
In the Real World, let’s focus on eliminating cultural ignorance, educating those who want to ride, facilitating those competent cyclists with appropriate improvements and encouraging civility and cooperation on the roads we have.