Finding the Way
While visiting my parents over Christmas, I joined them for several bike rides on Gulf Breeze (a spit of land between Pensacola Bay and Pensacola Beach). Much of this peninsula is essentially a sand bar with a busy US Highway running through it.
Years ago a recreational cycling loop was designed to circle the sound from Gulf Breeze to Navarre to Pensacola Beach and back to Gulf Breeze. It’s no longer a complete loop because the beach road was washed away in Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis.
Part of the remaining route includes 6.5 miles of connected low volume roads marked by numbered wayfinding signs. This allows cyclists to bypass busy and complex US 98. It connects them to a bike path and to numerous commercial destinations. It has given my parents a unique opportunity to ride on roads with light traffic and no bike lanes… an ideal environment for novice cyclists.
This is the part of the route that most interested me. I took several trips on it and saw a lot of other cyclists, some recreational, some appeared to be utility cyclists. It was good to see my parents ride safely and confidently in the narrow lanes with motorists passing courteously. The numbered route signs are a nice navigational aide for people who aren’t familiar with the roads, as well as a reminder to motorists that it is a cycling route.
The Naval Live Oaks Area preserve occupies a 3 mile stretch of land between the eastern neighborhoods of the peninsula and Gulf Breeze proper, where the Bob Sikes bridge connects to Pensacola Beach. FDOT has constructed a bike path alongside US 98 connecting those neighborhoods to the city limits.
The path is wide and has only two intersections in 3 miles—the entrance to the park visitor center and the exit from the park. The adjacent highway has shoulders and “bikes sharing roadway” signs. Side paths and shoulders are optional in Florida, so cyclists can still legally claim the right lane. This is what Dan Gutierrez refers to as “Inclusive Design.” In an ideal world, inclusive design would also include a cultural awareness of a cyclist’s right to the use of the lane, regardless of any facilities present.
Unfortunately, like too many facilities built in a culture which doesn’t respect bicycles as vehicles, the path runs into problems before connecting to the city and the bridge to the beach.
At the end of the public land is a piece of private property and a shopping center. The private land owner refused to allow the trail to extend through his property, so the nice wide trail ends abruptly and is routed onto a less wide sidewalk wedged between the highway and overgrown vegetation.
It then dumps into a parking lot entrance, after which it becomes a narrow winding sidewalk (I’ll come back to this). The local cyclists have created their own bike route through the shopping center parking lot and an adjacent office complex to connect to the bridge. The parking lot route isn’t bad, it follows a somewhat-predictable road, but it contains one dicey left turn when headed west. Parking lots are full of unpredictable movements by both vehicles and pedestrians, they are not ideal bike routes. The best and safest bike route for entering the bridge is the driving route over the cloverleaf. It’s very easy to use from the westbound side of US 98, but it isn’t easy to get to from the path.
Once beachbound cyclists return to the path on the bridge road, they must cross the road in order to ride with traffic. There is no traffic light for this crossing, and the crosswalk is oddly marked. There are crosswalk warning signs, but they are for another crosswalk after the place where cyclists cross.
The Bob Sikes bridge has wide shoulders on both sides and cyclists are able to bypass the toll paid by motor vehicles.
Pensacola Beach has suffered a lot since Ivan, but the roads have been repaved. The bike path appears to be repaved in places, but it has been chopped and patched in numerous spots for what appears to be utility placement. The patch jobs are horrible, sometimes with 3 inch drop-offs in the pavement. The smooth roadway pavement is far more inviting.
Turning around to head back to Gulf Breeze, there are no bike lanes or paths until you reach the bridge. This is, of course, ideal for bicycle drivers. But the cyclists lured to the beach by bike paths are left to ride through a series of parking lots, or ride the wrong way back across the bridge. Many choose to ride against traffic across the bridge, we passed several wrongway riders on our way over (a nerve-racking experience for Mom who had enough excitement dealing with her first climb and descent).
We returned on the correct side of the road. The peninsula-side parking lot improvisation was easier riding east than it was on the way out. I returned a day later to check out what the trail looks like past where we turned into the business complex parking lot. As if the narrow sidewalk wasn’t bad enough, part of it isn’t even paved!
The path system is riddled with the kind of careless design and neglected maintenance which makes things much more difficult for cyclists than using the road. Looking at this path system from the perspective of an experienced bicycle driver, it’s ridiculous and unnecessary. Looking with the eyes of a novice, it has some frightening gaps and requires several nerve-racking technical maneuvers. One has to wonder just who it is designed to serve.
The wayfinding system, OTOH, serves all levels of cyclists. It creates a desirable alternative to US 98. It allows cyclists to follow the rules they understand as drivers of other vehicles. It creates no illusions of safety. It contains no tricky turns. It gives cyclists the same standards of design and maintenance motorists receive.
When we think about finding ways to encourage people to ride bikes, let’s think in terms of the gold standards of what best serves cyclists of all levels… above a basic standard of competence. Anything added to the existing transportation network should really accommodate cyclists, not simply get us out of the way or create an illusion to lure novices. It should encourage correct, law-abiding behaviors. Good solutions empower cyclists to expand their range and travel network, not enable them to cling to fear. Facilities should enhance access, not make bike travel more difficult.