Florida by bike
My knees have grown balky in recent years, the result of too much intramural basketball when I was young and too much inactivity as I’ve gotten older. One consequence is that I have come to enjoy bicycling, both as a means of exercise and transportation.
I have no interest in racing, and refuse to wear The Biker Costume: Tight jerseys in Life Savers colors and bulgy, padded shorts that look like Spandex diapers. But I recently bought a decent bike, and Florida is becoming a better place to use it.
Since the 1980s, the state — most recently through the Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Greenways and Trails — has worked to create greenways and bike/ pedestrian trails throughout Florida. Florida developed the first comprehensive plan for ecological greenways in the nation and in 2008 was honored with an award as the Best Trails State in the U.S.
The state, until recently, has been miserly with financial support. But trails have proved so popular that they’ve generated their own momentum, with local governments and non-profits picking up the slack. There are now more than 50 paved bike/pedestrian trails throughout Florida, most on former rail lines. Most notably, a push is under way to fill in the gaps between the existing trails in mid-Florida and make it possible, within five years, to bike or walk on a paved trail from downtown St. Petersburg on the Gulf coast all the way across central Florida to Titusville on the Atlantic Ocean. That’s 275 miles of dedicated trail — not bike lanes added to surface roads.
Most of the individual trails that comprise the Coast to Coast Connector (C2C), as it is called, are already in use or under construction — some 200 miles’ worth. The Pinellas Trail, for example, runs 40-plus miles from downtown St. Pete all the way up past Tarpon Springs. Another link, the Seminole Wekiva Trail, on the former Orange Belt Railway line, runs for 14 miles through both scenic and commercial areas around Altamonte Springs. The first six miles of the 51-mile East Central Florida Regional Rail Trail through southern Volusia County were completed last year. Of the seven gaps that need to be filled to make the C2C network continuous, the longest is a 30-mile stretch in Sumter and Lake counties between the Withlacoochee State Trail and the South Lake Trail.
The group that’s spearheading the C2C linkup is the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation, a non-profit created to raise money and support the state Office of Greenways and Trails. The state DOT is constructing the missing links as part of its five-year work plan, with the Greenways Foundation (FGTF.org) coordinating the management and promotion of the project. “Our job is to make this one of the safest and most enjoyable trails in the nation,” says W. Dale Allen, the foundation’s president.
Anyone with any question about the economic clout of trails should visit Winter Garden, a town of about 30,000 some 15 miles west of Orlando. I recently rode the West Orange trail, a 22- mile multi-use trail that runs smack through the middle of Winter Garden and is a piece of the C2C. The town has leveraged the trail’s presence in redeveloping its historic center into one of the most charming, energetic and down-to-earth small downtowns in the state. The occupancy rate for downtown buildings is more than 90%, with a great mix of shops and restaurants.
The trail’s appeal hasn’t been lost on developers, who are constructing several attractive urbanist-style housing developments along the trail west of downtown. Billboards hype the trail as a key amenity. Dunedin in Pinellas County likewise used the Pinellas Trail in its renaissance. And as the pieces of C2C link up, entrepreneurs in communities along the way, from bed-and-breakfast operators to clothing stores, will find ways to cater to the cyclists and hikers who come to enjoy it.
Along with catering to the growing appeal of biking as a form of tourism, the effort that’s going into creating the C2C reflects several broader trends that Florida communities shouldn’t ignore:
The millennial generation wants alternate transportation, ways to get to work and play that don’t require climbing into an automobile. As trails proliferate, more people will use them to bike or walk to work as well as for exercise on the weekend.
More of those who are retiring to Florida now are active and want opportunities for outdoor recreation that Florida often seems to lack. If you’ve visited Oregon or Colorado in the past 20 years, you know how much more outdoor activity seems to go on in those states than here in Florida, where the weather is so much better and the environment much more diverse and interesting.
We’re increasingly aware of the role that our built environment — our homes, commercial buildings, streets, etc. — plays in public health. Our state ranks 27th for its low rates of physical activity and sixth in the percentage of adults who are overweight — both factors that contribute to chronic diseases, which cause nearly two-thirds of the deaths in Florida. Access to trails and other outdoor recreational opportunities is an important part of keeping our society healthy. Last year, the city of Lakeland even wrote a “Healthy Communities” policy into its comp plan.
As walking advocate Mark Fenton maintains, we wouldn’t give a developer a variance to build homes without toilets — so why do we continue to allow the construction of communities without sidewalks and trails?
So good luck to the Greenways Foundation. At some point within five years, knees willing, I look forward to taking a week of vacation and riding from St. Pete to Titusville. I’ll be the one not wearing The Costume.