Fantasy Island

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.

Traffic on the main road is steady in both directions... and this isn't peak season.

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.

Trail pavement quality is inferior to roadway pavement. The cracks and upheavals make for a jarring ride.

Trail pavement quality is inferior to roadway pavement. The cracks and upheavals make for a jarring ride.

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.

What I discovered was almost a complete reversal of my expectations.

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

There are 3 signs approaching the crosswalk warning motorists to yield... or else. Can we get some of these for pedestrians on Edgewater Drive?

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).

Some intersections would never work without motorist awareness and compliance for yielding to bicycles in strange places. The crosswalk at the top right is completely obscured by vegetation until a motorist is around the corner. There are no traffic lights on the island. This intersection requires traffic-direction by police at peak times.

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?

Does this look complicated? It is. A two-way side path increases the area which a motorist needs to scan before executing a turn. In a congested environment, this burden can be too much. In the Real World it often requires traffic signals with special phases for bike traffic... and added delays for everyone.

Does this look complicated? It is. A two-way side path increases the area a motorist needs to scan before executing a turn. In a congested environment, this burden can be too much. In the Real World it often requires traffic signals with special phases for bike traffic... and added delays for everyone.

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

safety placard

The city has placed "Safe Biking Rules" placards at every bike rack in town. There are safety posters tacked up in interesting places — like the back of bathroom stall doors. The Sanibel Bicycle Club received an award from the FBA this year for creating an education program for renters. An effort is being made to educate cyclists.

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.

12 replies
  1. eddie
    eddie says:

    I grew up in Orlando and rode a bike so I could save money to travel. I’ve been a bike messenger in S.F. when critical mass just started up. I’ve been a commuter in Taiwan. And now I’m running the oldest running pedicab operation in the U.S. down in Key West.

    I read John Forrester years ago.

    I mention this only because I keep learning so much from your site.
    I’m now living car free down here with a twenty month old and just reading your site keeps me aware of the “watch out situations”.

    keep up the great work and put together a road 1 class soon and wife and I will make the trip up to take the class.

    better yet, come on down.
    key west is biking paradise


  2. Sylvia Guarino
    Sylvia Guarino says:

    I found this article very interesting. Not being a serious cyclist but enjoying the activity whenever on Sanibel, this detailed analysis of bicycling on the Island points out what a unique environment it is.

    People do change their behavior on vacation, and especially so in a “culture” where politeness and courtesy are not only encouraged but mandated.

    Those still reluctant to ride on side paths after reading this piece should keep in mind that alternate routes do exist.

    While you can not ride at a fast pace in Ding Darling Nature Preserve, the total absence of cross roads makes it a particularly worry free bike trail. Other enclaves of traffic free routes—sans side paths— also exist throughout the Island. On these back roads, a leisure cyclist interested in scenery can take in some pretty sights with no threat of traffic congestion or intrusion on the ride.

  3. Brian
    Brian says:

    You didn’t mention anything about pedestrians. Perhaps another reason why the system “works” is that there are relatively few pedestrians?

  4. Keri
    Keri says:

    Brian, I forgot to mention pedestrians. There were quite few in the residential/hotel areas, less in the commercial areas. The cyclists I observed were polite about signaling (most had bells) and passing respectfully. Pedestrians would often step to the edge or off the path when a cyclist approached. I got a sense that it was regarded primarily as a bikeway… but there was no other sidewalk.
    Sylvia, Thanks for the link. I made 2 trips through Ding Darling with my camera over my shoulder — I didn’t just take photos of infrastructure on my trip ;-). It was wonderful… much better on a bike than in a car (though the pavement is quite rough).
    Eddie, Thank you for the kind words! I actually may get to Key West. My parents sail down there every winter and live on their boat. It is a great town for cycling! (Milo is adorable, BTW)

  5. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    Keri: Did you run into anyone using the sidepaths with electric golf carts?

    In Boca Grande, the setup is similar to that of Sanibel. However, the sidepaths are frequently used by folks that use golf carts as transportation (to downtown, to the beach, etc). Kids are often at the wheel. It adds another element to the use of these paths …

  6. Keri
    Keri says:


    No golf carts. I don’t think they’re allowed.

    I saw some 4-seat pedal carts at a rental place, but didn’t see any in use. Those might be exciting to encounter, too, as the paths can get pretty narrow in places.

    I had a chance to see the system from the perspective of a novice rider, also. I rode with my Mom to Ding Darling (about 18 miles round trip and more than twice as far as she had ever ridden before). She’s not yet comfortable with bike handling and there were some crosswalks where she chose to walk the bike. The narrow sections of trails, especially with curves made her nervous, as did having to pass pedestrians or oncoming cyclists (especially if the latter didn’t slow down). She would have preferred to ride on the minor roads and have more space.

    My parents live just East of Gulf Breeze, FL which has a wayfinding system through connecting neighborhoods. So they are used to riding on quiet streets. I took some photos of that last time I was there, but didn’t get a chance to ride it. I’ll do that over Christmas and write about it.

  7. MikeOnBike
    MikeOnBike says:

    It seems that an essential feature of this system is that motoring is made less convenient, less efficient.

    Whether or not this is the most convenient, most efficient, least risky system for cycling is almost beside the point.

  8. Keri
    Keri says:

    On Sanibel, the main road is congested without the bike path system issues. Expanding the road capacity doesn’t seem like a good option because it would create other consequences.

    In general, this type of attempt to shift mode share does use the feature of making motoring less convenient. As MikeOnBike points out, the unavoidable flaw is it does so at the expense of efficiency, convenience and/or safety for bicyclists.

    Funny how the operational needs of those of us who actually use bikes for transportation count so much less than the irrational fears of the mythical ones who might use bikes for transportation.

  9. Recumbent Bob
    Recumbent Bob says:

    Hi Keri, We have a similar setup in Hilton Head SC, except the main artery is a 4-lane highway. The 2-way MUP is populated with skaters, joggers, and cyclists of varying skill and knowledge. Since the MUP is two-way, riders must be alert to rear-approaching, left-turn traffic from their right. Admittedly, this takes sometime to adjust to… sorta like cycling in the UK.

    Along the main artery there are countless convenience stores, strip shopping centers, and restaurants, with frequent entering/exiting traffic.

    Since this is a vacation area, many drivers are unaware of the MUP system and drivers entering the main road commonly drive right up to the highway, regarding the MUP as a sidewalk, at best.

    I too tried the roads… and was greeted with a never ending cascade of honking… except once when I cycled through a resort and was pulled over by security because I was not on the “bike path”.


  10. Wilbur Post
    Wilbur Post says:

    I was in Sanibel this past week. Sanibel is a very pretty vacation spot. Unfortunatlely, like many other areas, it has too many vacationers in too small of an area. It was not this way in the 1980’s when I first visited. I doubt that I will go back. Too crowded, too much traffic.

    As to the bike trails. They are all well and good if the people using them have a modicum of sense. Unfortunately they don’t. They walk, run and cycle on the wrong side (left). A group of cyclists will ride all sprawled out across the trail and you have to announce your arrival behind them to get them to slowly get out of the way (like cattle being herded). The best bike paths are the ones that are right beside (and part of) the vehicle roadway. This keeps most of the half-wits that don’t understand “stay right except to pass” out of the way of the cyclists and walkers/runners that actually know what they are doing.

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