Bike Dreams

Can we ever find a path that leads to bicycles and cars sharing the road in harmony? Many believe so. Here’s a bit of history and a look to the future.



Roberto Gonzalez

Two centuries ago, the Dandy Horse was introduced in Mannheim, Germany, by Baron Karl von Drais. It had two clunky, wooden wheels connected by a wooden frame, plus a rudimentary seat that looked anything but comfortable. The rider sort of pushed off the ground to move because there was no chain or pedals. From such humble beginnings sprang the bicycle.

Now, just about anywhere in Central Florida—but especially on weekends—you can see people wearing colorful jerseys and skin-tight spandex shorts zip about at 25 mph on sleek, carbon-frame cycles with tires little more than 18 millimeters wide. High-end bikes with electronic shifters can cost $15,000, or $3,000 more than a base-model Nissan Versa.


Billy Hattaway, head of Orlando's transportation department, says the city's view is that the streets are for everyone, not just vehicles. (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

If you pay attention, especially on neighborhood streets, you also can spot youngsters clacking along on training wheels, mothers with babies belted into carriers on the backs of their bikes, business people pedaling to work, right pant leg tucked into a sock, and students heading to school on two wheels, backpacks jammed with textbooks slung over their shoulders.

Yet bikes remain the exception on most Metro Orlando roads, which consistently are ranked among the most dangerous in the country for walkers, and, by extension, cyclists, by Smart Growth America, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

Cyclists and many of Central Florida’s civic and government leaders have been promoting biking in recent years, whether it is the occasional weekend rider who throws his/her bike in the back of the SUV and heads out to a multi-use path like the popular West Orange Trail in Winter Garden or someone who pedals to work rather than driving a car.

Leading the push are people like Billy Hattaway, a former Florida Department of Transportation administrator who used to be primarily involved with building roads. A cyclist, Hattaway was hired last year by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer to head up the city’s transportation department. Among his goals: getting more people to hop on bikes—and not just on the annual ride to work day that the mayor usually leads.

Hattaway concedes Orlando will never be like Copenhagen or any of countless other European cities where a third or more of the population rides a bike to work or the grocery store. Those densely packed and centuries-old communities, he says, were built around the concept that people walk and ride bikes much of the time.

A more likely outcome—possibly within five years, he says—is for Orlando and environs to become another Seattle or Portland, where a series of bike-only paths have been linked and combined with cycling lanes on roads to allow riders to get around town without fearing for their lives.

“I think that’s very realistic,” Hattaway says.

 
Eliza Harris Juliano commutes to her planning job in downtown Orlando. Bike-friendly areas on her list include Thornton Park, Parramore and Mills/50. (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

The problem facing Hattaway and any area cycling enthusiast is that bikes were not a part of the equation when Metro Orlando started to grow, even though Florida’s subtropical climate makes being outdoors a viable option year-round, albeit a hot, wet and muggy one through much of the year.

Starting in the years after World War II, the car became the main—and only—choice to get from Point A to Point B. Roads, as a result, were built wide and often straight, the sole intent being to move motorized vehicles at the fastest speed, practical or not.

Development became more dispersed over time with self-contained subdivisions springing up throughout the region, often connected to the rest of the community by major four- and six-lane roads hosting an endless string of strip malls anchored by a supermarket or pharmacy chain. Quite simply, people on foot or bikes were not really considered in the transportation plans.

So now when cyclists and walkers take to the streets, the results can be deadly. In early December, figures showed that during 2017, 11 bikers and 78 pedestrians were struck and killed by cars and trucks in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties. Eleven cyclists and 85 pedestrians perished in 2016, while 19 bikers and 83 walkers died in 2015.

Most of the pedestrian fatalities are the result of people being hit while scurrying across broad,  high-speed roads such as John Young Parkway, frequently at night, says Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Kim Montes. Usually, pedestrians are hit between traffic lights and not in a crosswalk, she says.

Cyclists, Montes says, often are hit from behind because the driver did not give the biker a three-foot clearance, as required by law. That’s what happened to former Osceola County Commissioner and Kissimmee Mayor Frank Attkisson, who died after being struck from behind last April while riding his bike on Kissimmee Park Road. The driver, Montes says, told FHP she was blinded by the setting sun and did not see Attkisson, 61, who was riding on the right shoulder.

The larger issue, Montes says, is few are willing to share the asphalt. “People feel they own the road underneath them, whether it’s a car or a bike,” she says.

That attitude sometimes plays itself out when motorists buzz so closely by cyclists that the air draft can move the bike a few inches. Practically all cyclists can recall being told in unfriendly terms to get out of the way by a driver.

A couple of years ago, the Clermont/Minneola Community Awareness page on Facebook had a long post about ways to intimidate cyclists. One suggestion was throwing tacks on the road.

“If you hit a whole pack [of cyclists], that’s double points,” wrote one person, who later added he was joking. He also wrote, “Let them bastards fly over your hood for not following stop signs. I bet they don’t run it anymore.”

The posts are now deleted, but they illustrate a real predicament. Roads all over the region are more crowded with cars and trucks, leaving less room for bikes because of relentless growth. And that can lead to frustrated motorists and cyclists.

For years, the answer was to build new roads or widen them. But the FDOT, the city of Orlando and other government agencies have concluded that just laying down more asphalt or concrete does not constitute a long-term solution to traffic gridlock. The cost is becoming too high and the enhanced roads typically just draw more vehicles when construction is completed, negating the improved traffic flow over time.

One way to cut congestion, transportation officials have decided, is to coax people out of their cars and encourage them to try walking and biking, at least for shorter trips.

Orlando, Hattaway says, has adopted a complete-street philosophy that contends roads are for everyone, not just cars and trucks. The city, as a result, has been adding painted bike lanes to roads and widening sidewalks from 5 and 6 feet to 12 feet to encourage everything from walking to biking to rollerblading. The City Council also passed an aspirational resolution in December calling for a “Vision Zero” plan to eliminate deaths and serious injuries to pedestrians by 2040.

Orlando now has more than 300 miles of bike lanes and multi-use paths, with more planned. A $9 million pedestrian bridge is under construction at Colonial Drive near Interstate 4 and should open in the fall.

There are 26 bike-only or multi-use paths covering more than 150 miles scattered throughout Orange, Seminole, Lake, Volusia and Osceola counties. Some of those will become part of the planned 250-mile coast-to-coast bike-only connector that will link St. Petersburg and the Gulf of Mexico with Titusville on the Atlantic. About 69 miles of gaps need to be filled in. The proposal is more than $63 million short on funding, according to the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation.

Like many cities and counties in Central Florida, Orlando does not really have a budget dedicated solely to cycling. Instead, it typically will stripe in a bike lane with funds it has for repaving a road or if a street is torn up for new sewers and then rebuilt.

Hattaway, who often rides his bike to Orlando City Hall downtown from his home about three miles to the east, says cycling sometimes gets a bad rap because people falsely believe the streets are too crowded with cars to bike safely.

“I really have not had many issues,” says Hattaway, who usually goes for a 50-mile group ride on Saturdays and chairs Bike/Walk Central Florida, which advocates for cyclists and pedestrians.

Aaron Powell, a Valencia College professor who lives in College Park just north of downtown Orlando, says he is “very optimistic” about the future of cycling in Central Florida.

“We’ve got a long way to go, but I see a lot of positive signs,” says Powell, who helped found the Orlando Bike Coalition, a pro-cycling group.

He is particularly heartened by the recent opening of a mile-long multi-use path along the east side of Bumby Avenue, between Colonial and Corrine drives. One of the goals of the Orlando Bike Coalition is the creation of more cycling- and pedestrian-only paths.

 
Ricardo Williams estimates he has ridden bikes from the Juice share program 5,800 miles in less than three years. (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

The drawback of the Bumby trail is that it dumps cyclists and walkers off on two heavily traveled roads, Colonial and Corrine drives. Another project—improving sewer lines and burying power lines along a section of Central Boulevard, did not add or widen bike lanes, much to the consternation of cyclists. Hattaway says the work was scheduled and designed several years ago, before the bike push started in earnest. “That ship sailed long ago,” he says.

Peter Martinez, who helped start the Juice bike share program in Orlando five years ago, says those renting  the sturdy orange cycles put out by his former company invariably stopped when they reached a major road like Colonial. Quite simply, he says, they wanted nothing to do with the traffic.

“You have to know how to navigate the streets,” he says about riding in Metro Orlando.

Local actor and filmmaker Ricardo Williams knows how to get about because he likely is the most prolific Juice biker around. He reckons he has ridden some 5,800 miles on the rentals since the spring of 2015. Most of his trips cover two to three miles, but he occasionally will throw in a 20-miler. He owns a car and drives it for longer trips.

The bikes, he says, are more convenient than driving because they relieve him of worrying about parking since he lives downtown and does much of his business there. Yet, as much as he rides, he often worries about being hit—which has happened three times in recent years. Fortunately, all the mishaps were minor, he says, and he escaped injury.

“Drivers can be very aggressive. It can be very unsettling,” Williams says.

The Juice program now rents more than 200 bikes at nearly 30 locations throughout Metro Orlando. It started with four sets of racks and 20 cycles.

Eliza Harris Juliano, who bikes recreationally as well as to and from her urban planning job downtown, says some parts of Orlando are easy and fun to ride in; others not so much. On the good side of her cycling ledger: Mills/50, Thornton Park, Parramore, Audubon Park and Baldwin Park. Traffic generally is light and there often are bike lanes or paths in those neighborhoods. She stays away from places like Millenia, UCF and Conway, where cars and trucks are thick and there’s little room for cyclists and walkers.

“Those areas may need some real work to make them bike friendly, like adding new paths and connections between neighborhoods, shopping centers, and office parks,” she says. “I believe we can solve the technical problem. The biggest challenge will be political, as many people are used to seeing their suburban neighborhoods as private enclaves.”

One group of riders has set out to dispel the notion that bikes don’t belong on Metro Orlando streets. They meet after work at Loch Haven Park on the last Friday of every month to ride seven to eight miles through downtown, then back to the starting point.

The ride, similar to ones held all over the country, is called Critical Mass. Usually 150 to 300 men, women and children pedal along, taking up an entire road lane—which bicycles are allowed to do, by law. The Orlando Police Department has no issues with Critical Mass, says department spokeswoman Michelle Guido.

“It’s a pretty cool event,” says Brandon Tuma, who participated in Critical Mass for five years. “We show up to ride bikes and have fun and to make people aware bikes are on the road.”

Tuma, who managed Retro City Cycles on the east edge of College Park before moving to North Carolina several months ago, is an avid biker who races as well as goes out for slow, meandering rides like Critical Mass.

“Forward motion,” he says, is what he most enjoys about cycling.

Just how many people regularly ride in Central Florida is almost unknowable, says Mighk Wilson, who teaches a bike safety course and is a cycling and pedestrian advocate with MetroPlan Orlando, which sets transportation policy in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties. He suspects the number is stagnant.

Biking for fun and commuting, Wilson believes, likely will grow in the urban core such as downtown Orlando and the surrounding neighborhoods, because there is a plethora of low-volume residential streets and plenty of likely destinations, like Lake Eola Park, shops and restaurants.

He is not so optimistic about the far-flung ‘burbs.

“It’s a simple matter of time and effort, especially when you consider the heat and humidity. That’s a real non-starter for a lot of people,” Wilson says.

Sweltering temperatures probably were not an issue for Baron Karl von Drais when he unveiled his Dandy Horse in 1817. His vision for the future of his invention is unknowable, though maybe he hoped someone like Aaron Powell might one day hop on for a ride.

“I can breathe better,” Powell says of cycling, “get out the stress of the daily grind. It’s almost a meditation.”

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