Streets for People / Construction on First and Bertha Streets Doesn’t Follow the Bike Plan. Is It Too Late?

Frustrated drivers know that the construction on the First and Bertha Streets corridor has been ongoing for more than a year and doesn’t seem like it will be completed anytime soon. Imagine if you will, this corridor, conveniently cutting across the island between Palm Avenue and North Roosevelt Boulevard on the Gulf and South Roosevelt Boulevard on the Atlantic, locked in a Groundhog Day time loop, in a permanent state of construction, rendering it largely impassable as it is today. Useless as a crosstown throughway. Doesn’t sound fun, does it?

And yet, for people on bicycles who want to cut across the island quickly and safely, this permanent state of impassability is their reality because the busy and fast-moving road (when it isn’t under construction) isn’t at all welcoming to bikes and won’t be when it’s finished. The City’s adopted Bike/Ped Plan indicates this corridor is highly stressful for bikes and as a result calls for protected bike lanes or a trail/multi-use path to be built from Palm Avenue connecting to the recently widened multi-use path on Bertha that’s between Atlantic and S. Roosevelt Boulevards. 

But the County didn’t follow the Bike/Ped Plan and is putting the corridor back together largely the way it was prior to construction with little if any useful bicycle infrastructure. And City officials agreed with their approach. Why? In a word, parking. City engineers were afraid of losing a few little used private vehicle storage spaces and so, no bike lanes for you. The irony is that the construction has taken out the parking for more than a year and people found alternatives, proving the parking really isn’t needed. So, with the construction taking so long, and the final layer of asphalt and paint being months and months away in the future, we must ask one more time. Is it too late to put in some bike infrastructure or will we get useless sharrows? 

A healthy, green, and prosperous island needs a well-connected bicycle network as an alternative to the congestion and pollution the increasing number of cars brings to our paradise. And our beleaguered workforce needs a decent option to the spiraling costs of commuting by car. Let’s dive into what’s going on and discuss the possibilities of a last-minute reprieve for people on bicycles.


Bike/Ped Plan Calls for Trails and Protected Bike Lanes of First and Bertha

The Network Analysis Map shown here is updated annually using data from OpenStreetMap and was used in forging some of the recommendations in the City’s Bike/Ped Plan. The map clearly shows the First and Bertha Streets corridor as a bright red “High Stress” facility for bicycles. As this is a major crosstown corridor, the Bike/Ped Plan calls for a Bike Trail and/or Separated Bike Lanes to be installed for the entire length of the corridor. 

There has always been a multi-use path on Bertha between the multi-use paths on Atlantic Boulevard and the Promenade on S. Roosevelt Boulevard. As part of the recent construction project, they widened this path from between 8 and 9 feet wide to 10 feet wide and it makes all the difference in the world. It’s great. You may recall that the multi-use path on Atlantic Boulevard was resurfaced and given protections from cars in the fall of 2020. 

The idea should have been that the multi-use path on Bertha, instead of ending at Atlantic Boulevard like it does now, would have continued on, all the way to Flagler. And then should have crossed Flagler and picked up on First Street and continued all the way to N. Roosevelt where it would join with the Promenade or Multi-Use Path. THAT’S what the Bike/Ped Plan said to do. That would have provided a completer and more connected bicycle network. That would have provided bicycles with the same great quick access that cars have across the island.


The Perfect Time to Add Bike/Ped Facilities is When We Rebuild/Repave Our Streets

According to the Federal Highway Administration “The best time to create bicycle lanes is during regular street reconstruction, street resurfacing or at the time of original construction.” FDOT, County and City engineers will tell you the same thing too. As this is a County corridor, their engineers should have designed the rebuilt streets with this in mind. They didn’t. And when we asked about it, they told us the City engineers told them to keep the parking instead. For the full sad, he-said-she-said story of that decision visit our reporting on that here

This is what our Mayor, Teri Johnston said last week in discussing the City’s PeopleforBikes City Ratings Score:

“Unfortunately, we squandered an opportunity to incorporate “complete streets” to the long-awaited South Roosevelt Boulevard road construction project which could have taken bicycles off of the sidewalk and given them a safe, dedicated bicycle lane. Once again, we missed an opportunity to add bicycle lanes on First and Bertha. We cannot improve our bicycle safety unless bicycle lanes are prioritized at the beginning of every city infrastructure project.”


With Reconstruction So Far Along, Perhaps the Only Hope Is to Change the Paint on Top of the Asphalt

The result of both the County and City Engineers failing to follow the Bike/Ped Plan is that a full-blown, grade separated multi-use path, like on Bertha between Atlantic and S. Roosevelt, likely can’t be done at this point because the curbs would need to be constructed further into the road to accommodate a 10-foot-wide multi-use path. And for most of the corridor, it seems this part of the construction – the curb and gutter – is mostly completed.

The sad irony here is that the sidewalk on the westbound side of Bertha between Atlantic and Flagler is 7 feet wide – and 5 feet on the other side. Had they simply added 3 feet to that sidewalk it would have mirrored the Multi-Use Path width shown here. And viola’! But no one was thinking, were they?

Since the First and Bertha are still torn up and the final layer of asphalt doesn’t get laid until the entire corridor’s construction is complete, is it too late to redesign the paint that goes on top of the new asphalt? The painting could be 6 months to a year away. Isn’t that time to change the designs of the paint? That’s the big question. 

Here’s 3 things we can do with paint:

1 – Remove Parking on First and Put in a Two-Way Bike Lane 

Parking on either side of First street is supposed to go in for the entire stretch between N. Roosevelt and Flagler. Although a major connector, First Street is largely residential. All the single-family homes have driveways and many of them face the side streets rather than first. The George Allen Apartments have their own huge parking lot. The parking spaces on either side of the street weren’t full to begin with. During the over year’s long construction, there’s been no parking for the entire stretch. So, people have obviously found alternatives. The construction proves the parking isn’t needed. 

When we asked local bicycle advocate and bike rental company owner, Tom “The Bike Man” Theisen about this last year he said: “First Street is a disaster (referring to the project). Why keep those few parking spaces and lose a full-on bike lane and corner visibility? They need to remove all parking on both sides and create safe bike lanes. Their plan does nothing for us.” We agree, so…

If there is room for two lanes of parking, then there is room for a two-way bicycle lane on one side of the road that can connect to the Multi-Use Path on N. Roosevelt instead. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) says the “desirable two-way cycle track width is 12 feet and that it should include a 3 feet buffer. That’s 15 feet total. In constrained conditions NACTO says you can use 8 and 3 feet or 11 feet total. A typical Key West City parking space is about 7 and ½ feet wide. Multiply that by both sides of the street and you have 15 feet to work with. The Multi-Use Path on Bertha between S. Roosevelt and Atlantic is now 10 feet wide and works perfectly well, so if 12 + 3 feet isn’t available, 10 + 3 feet works too. So…

Get rid of the parking and paint in a new two-way bicycle facility.

NOTE: We realize the County has so far installed a couple of bump outs that don’t look like they are going to hold trees. These will need to be removed. 

2 – Ditch the Half a Loaf on Bertha Between Atlantic and Flagler

Bertha has a bit more commercial uses closer to Flagler, but these all have parking lots. Like First Street the rest of Bertha is residential single-family with driveways. But plans call to put in parking on one side of the street and bike lane going west-bound – away from the beach. Why half a loaf? As it isn’t much needed, get rid of the parking on the east-bound side and get rid of the one-off disconnected piece of a bike lane going in the west-bound direction. That gives you the room to continue a painted, two-way bicycle path from the Bertha Multi-Use path, where the parking is on the east-bound side. Isn’t it logical that the Bertha path simply continue all the way to Flagler? YES!

3 – Fix the First/Flagler/Bertha Intersection and NOW You Have a Bike Corridor

The intersection where Bertha Street, Flagler Avenue and First Street all meet is a difficult one because First and Bertha aren’t directly across from each other. Intersections are always where the most crashes occur, especially for bikes. The engineers need to come up with a way to connect the new two-way bike paths on First and Bertha through this intersection. This is likely the most complicated part of the project, but it is crucial because it make it a connected corridor.

If It Costs a Bit More Money to Redesign the Paint, Let’s Do It – County Commissioners Cates and Scholl – We’re Counting on YOU!

The City had a chance to make changes with FDOT on putting in bicycle infrastructure on S. Roosevelt Boulevard last year. But the Commissioners who said they wanted to rectify an awful 2017 decision to leave the road with four through car lanes, hamstrung their decision by saying to only make the change in favor of bicycles if it didn’t cost any more money and didn’t hamper the timeline. Of course, the engineers came back and said it will cost a little more money and may hamper the timeline and so, no nothing will happen. No separated bicycle lanes for anyone. 

This time someone must have the guts to say, hey, if we can add some protected bike lanes with paint and bollards for the length of this corridor, including through the Flagler intersection, let’s do it. Even if it costs some more money and takes a few more months to do. 

Our leaders have lamented the squandered opportunities to incorporate safer “complete streets” into projects and said we have to prioritize bicycle safety at the beginning of road construction and repaving. That’s great! But how about somebody try to fix First and Bertha before it’s too late. County Commissioners Cates and Scholl we’re counting on you to get the ball rolling by asking your staff to work with the City staff to make it so. Everyone in Key West, especially our beleaguered workforce who need better commuting options to having to own a car, will be better for it.

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For more detail and analysis about the First and Bertha Streets Corridor project read: First and Bertha Streets Corridor Road Improvements Are Another Missed Opportunity to Make Bicycling Safer and Easier; June 4, 2021

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You can find a year’s plus KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and here and the most recent 2022 stories below:

Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. He’s a native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led nationally renowned efforts promoting transit, bike, walk and smart growth for Arlington County, VA’s DOT. Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a few non-profits. Follow him on Twitter here and his blog here.

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