Streets for People / Two Fatal Bikes Crashes This Week Are Two Too Many. Here’s 10 Things to Make Bicycling Safer

Two bicycle fatalities in Key West this week is two too many. While we don’t yet have the details of these horrible crashes on the 3700 block of N. Roosevelt or on 3rd Street on Stock Island, we do know that cars hit people on bikes and as a result the bike riders are dead. Whatever the particulars of each crash, that’s a tragedy. This isn’t something new. For decades our locality has been at the top of lists of places unsafe for bicyclists and pedestrians. These crashes emphasize the need for our City and County to work harder on addressing safety. It should also remind residents and visitors to be aware that Key West and Stock Island are full of people on bicycles and that we simply can’t drive like we do on the mainland. Here’s some things we can do as a community to make our streets safer.

Key West is Full of Cars AND Bikes – That’s Different Than Most Places

According to the U.S. Census 15% of Key West residents and 7% of Monroe County residents commute to work by bicycle. In top “bike cities” like Boulder, CO it is about 10%, Portland, OR it is 6% or in Washington, D.C. 5%. In the U.S. on the whole, it’s about 1 percent. In the annual People for Bikes City Ratings Key West residents said they used bicycles to get around more than most cities across the North America. This stat is one of the reasons Key West is ranked #15 as a place to bike. Local bike rental companies have told us they’ve been renting bikes to visitors at record rates the last couple of years. There’s a lot of bikes on our streets.

Traffic congestion has been a top concern here for decades and it is only getting worse. The data shows that 77% of the more than a million visitors who make it all the way to the island of Key West arrive here by car. That’s a lot of cars on top of resident, worker, and business vehicles. Beloved Keys Citizen newspaper and Key West Island News columnist puts it best when she says of Key West traffic – “Unless we ditch some vehicles the island’s gonna sink” explaining that “We’ve got too many motorized things clogging our streets…After all, our streets were laid out a couple hundred years ago. Tiny streets on a tiny island when both people and transportation devices were smaller and fewer. The island simply isn’t built to handle our crowds and must-have SUVs.”

Key West and Stock Island are different than most mainland places because we don’t just have traffic congestion, but we have it coupled with more bikes and pedestrians than most towns and more recently with e-bikes and e-scooters. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that Key West and Monroe County consistently rank among the worst Florida jurisdictions for bicycle crashes. And those same City Ratings said a survey of Key West residents gave us a 46 out of 100 score on Safety – meaning lots of people don’t feel safe biking here. People for Bikes Bicycle Network Analysis Map of Key West shows where those unsafe spots are.

So, if our little island community is different, why do we keep reaching for mainland, car-centric safety solutions? It is time to come up with fixes more attuned to our particular island situation. 

Our Mayor, Teri Johnston’s Response

Our Mayor, Teri Johnston told me this week:

“These 2 fatal bicycle crashes elevate the need for dedicated, connected bicycle lanes throughout our community. We are encouraging our residents and visitors to get out of their cars and onto a bicycle for a multitude of good reasons and they are responding positively. Now it is the City’s responsibility to create a safe way to traverse our island on a bicycle. Not one street should be upgraded without adding the dedicated bicycle lane. Our “one-way” study needs to be completed and recommendations made to the City Commission to move this long-delayed action forward.”

Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator, Ryan Stachurski’s Response

Ryan Stachurski, the City’s Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator told me this week:

“The recent collisions are tragic. I don’t think I know anything more than has been reported in the news, and it’ll be some time before the investigation is completed. I have some general comments below relating to safety: 

We continue to work to make Key West a safer and more comfortable place to walk and bike. As our city has a Vision Zero goal of zero serious roadway injuries by 2035, we have opportunities for improvement. On our website we have a map of scheduled road construction that identifies some of the intersections slated for improvement. There are things we can all do to improve safety for everyone in Key West:

  • Pedestrians should cross at crosswalks and obey traffic lights.
  • Bicyclists should ride predictably when on roadways and alert passing if using the sidewalk.
  • Car drivers should be alert to the numerous bicyclists and scooters frequenting our roads. Avoid distractions like cell phones, observe speed limits, and be particularly vigilant at crosswalks and traffic signals.

Encourage your friends and family to do the same and challenge them when they don’t. We’re one human family after all. If you need a bell or lights for your bike, pick up a free set at the Police Station or City Hall.”

Ten Things to Make Bicycling Safer in Key West and Stock Island

In the broadest sense the solution is about infrastructure and engineering. It is about fixing our streets so that they are rebalanced to favor the safety of pedestrians first, then bikes and then vehicles. Many of the most beloved bike/ped cities in Europe do this with their downtowns. As do the most progressive, bike-friendly North American places. With this in mind, here’s ten things we should do:

1 – Slow Down This Ain’t the Mainland

This old Key West slogan can be taken many ways. But when applied to our streets, we need people in vehicles to take it literally. As we’ve explained, Key West and Stock Island are unlike places on the mainland. We’ve got tons of people on bikes in a small and compact place. So, people in cars can’t simply assume, as they do in car-centric places to the north of us, that everyone else is in a car too. In a town with a preponderance of bikes and pedestrians and e-vehicles the onus of responsibility for safety falls on car drivers because, well, 2-ton vehicles have a higher chance of hurting someone than does a bike. People in cars need to:

  • SLOW DOWN! Pay attention. There are lots of pedestrians and bikers out there
  • Put down the cell phone. Do not use it while driving
  • Pass on the left and must always provide three (3) feet when passing a bike
  • Remember, bikes can use the full lane. If behind one, slow down and be patient
  • Be attentive at intersections and driveways and check all directions. Bikes and pedestrians can be coming from all directions on sidewalks, even when traffic is going one way
  • Do not overtake and pass other vehicles stopped for pedestrians
  • STOP when you see flashing lights at the mid-block crosswalks along N. Roosevelt Boulevard. Only proceed once pedestrians and cyclists have exited the crosswalk
  • After parking on the street use the “Dutch Reach” (use your right hand furthest from the door) and look for bicycles before opening the door

Slowing down applies to bicycles, especially e-bikes and e-scooters too. Here’s the do’s and don’ts for e-vehicles in Key West. And people on bikes need to be aware of their surroundings, alert and predictable when riding and follow the rules of the road. More safety tips here.

2 – Educate Visitors This Isn’t the Mainland, and They Must Behave Differently On Our Little Island’s Streets

I don’t own a car and I ride my bike all over Key West and Stock Island every day. I generally find that most local residents get it. Locals in cars often ride bikes themselves. Or they have loved ones and friends that do. And they realize there are lots of bikes out there. Often times as I’m riding the Crosstown Greenway on Von Phister, Staples or Duck, cars will cede the right-of-way to bikes at intersections, even if they got there first. I’m not so sure I’d say the same of visitors though because on other streets I’m often flummoxed at the aggressive attitude of fast-moving drivers to the presence of me, a mere bike, on “their” street. 

If we can spend millions of dollars annually advertising Key West as a place to vacation, can’t we spend a few hundred thousand dollars educating those visitors that while they are here, they need to behave differently on our small, crowded streets, especially when driving? It is one thing to say, “slow down” and it is another thing entirely to actively, thoughtfully, and innovatively market the concept that we are someplace different and that people in vehicles need to slow down. THAT takes a marketing campaign and THAT takes money. The City has a nice Car-Free Key West website and Facebook page. But there’s no advertising budget to get the safety message out. THAT needs to change. I mean the City even spends $300,000 annually on promoting the Historic Seaport. Why can’t we spend some real dollars on a safety campaign. TDC, are you listening?

3 – Enforce Existing Speed Limits

The City Commission reduced the speed limit on City streets a couple of years ago to 20 miles per hour. This is important because a pedestrian hit by a vehicle traveling at 20 MPH has a 9 out of 10 chance to survive. At 30 MPH that’s only 5 out of 10. And at 40 MPH only 1 in 10. But the limit must be enforced to do any good.

I’m told by one prominent Key West bicycle advocate that “The City Commission unanimously passed a resolution asking for KWPD to increase speed limit enforcement, but crickets, nothing’s happened.”

The Police do an annual one-week safety campaign, funded by FDOT safety grant monies, to snag vehicles and bikes that don’t follow rules of the road. We’ve heard time and again from others about the lack of enforcement. We realize our local police are stretched thin, but this should be a year-round priority. We reached out to the Department but didn’t get a response by press time.

4 – Engineer Our Streets for Slower Speeds

Lower speed limits and enforcing them is one thing. But study after study shows that people drive at the speed a road is designed for, not the speed limit. As our friends at Strong Towns are fond of saying “We can’t regulate our way to safety. We must design our streets to be safe.” 

It’s all about psychology. Narrower travel lanes, shorter block lengths, a tree canopy, and car parking and/or adjacent bike lanes all contribute to drivers traveling more slowly. Conversely, wide lanes, long block lengths, and open skies communicate to drivers that higher speeds are appropriate – no matter what the sign says the speed limit is. Think N. Roosevelt Boulevard, Flagler, S. Roosevelt, First, Bertha and Palm, and other streets where drivers tend to pick up speeds.

The Crosstown Greenway shows how you can redesign some of our wider, suburban residential streets, with paint, bollards, curb stops, and signs to help slow the cars down.

In a story a few weeks ago, Improving Lazy Way As a Great “Shared Street” Can Set the Stage for More of the Same Around Our Historic Downtown, October 14, 2022 we discussed how you can even apply more traffic calming techniques and slow the car speeds down to 5 mph on some select pedestrian priority streets.

Bottom line is you get the street you engineer for. If we want safer streets for bikes and pedestrians, we have to design them that way.

5 – Invest in New and Upgraded Bicycle Facilities

The Key West Bicycle and Pedestrian Masterplan, or Bike Plan, adopted by the City Commission in 2019, specifies new and upgraded bicycle facilities across Key West and Stock Island. We need to:

  • Finish the Crosstown Greenway
    Identified in the Bike Plan, the Crosstown Greenway is a safe East/West corridor for bicycles that spans the island from S. Roosevelt Boulevard to Reynold Street along Duck, Staples and Von Phister Avenues right through the middle of the City. It is a safe alternative to N. Roosevelt Boulevard to get across the island. After many community meetings and much help from some volunteers, a pilot project on part of the route was initiated in late 2020 using some green paint, bollards, curb stops and signs. A year later surveys revealed that people felt safer and traffic had been slowed. But little work has been done on the project since. In fact, much of the initial project has fallen into disrepair. The City needs to redouble its efforts and finish this very worthy signature project.

  • Build Wickers Trail
    Part of the Crosstown Greenway is the Wickers Trail segment, also called out for in the Bike Plan, that cuts through the Wickers Sports Complex between Kennedy Drive and Glynn R. Archer, Jr. Drive. Construction had initially been slated to begin this summer but complications and cost overruns have delayed the project. The City’s Interim Engineering Director Gary Volenec hopes to have the design complete and funding in place to start construction next summer. Let’s make sure this happens!

  • Build the Salt Ponds and Smathers Beach Bike Trails
    The Bike Plan calls for the Salt Ponds Trail to provide a safer and shorter commute for residents of Ocean Walk, Las Salinas and Seaside, where many of our workers live. It also calls for the Smathers Beach Trail to provide New Town residents with a short-cut to Smathers Beach without having to go all the way around S. Roosevelt Boulevard. Land is needed behind the airport for these facilities and is caught up in a potential land swap between the County and City. The City’s Parks and Recreation Board has formally asked that getting these two trails built be included in any negotiations. So far, nothing has happened, but we need to keep these two trails on our radar and get them built.

  • Build the South Street and United Street Bike Lanes
    In an effort to formally connect up the Crosstown Greenway into downtown, the City’s Transportation Coordinator is making sure new bike lanes are put in on South and United Streets. While the South Street portion is in the Bike Plan, the United Street leg is a new innovation. We need to support the completion of both.

  • Install More Bike Boxes, Green Paint, and Intersection Treatments
    In general our bike lanes need to be better demarcated; we need bike boxes at intersections where we have bike lanes and signals; and we need to start helping bikes all the way through intersections with paint. All of this is called for in the Bike Plan.

There are a lot of other bicycle facilities called out in the Bike Plan, including major upgrades on White Street, Front Street on Stock Island, Whitehead and Simonton, Caroline, Northside Drive, Duck, First and Bertha and more.  In our article 10 Things to Make It Safer to Bike from the 667 New Housing Units on Stock Island to Key West, June 17, 2022 we discussed:

  • Putting in bike lanes on College Avenue (also in the Bike Plan), 
  • Widening the five-foot sidewalks on the northbound side of the Triangle, and
  • Putting an official crosswalk at Duck Avenue and S. Roosevelt

Amongst other things.

The point is that building these projects would make our streets safer. The City and County need to redouble their efforts and invest in safety by moving these many projects along more quickly.

6 –Connect All of Our Bicycle Facilities In One Seamless Network

Nothing is worse than being in a bike lane that suddenly ends, and you are thrown back into traffic. Or coming to an intersection on a bike lane and there’s seemingly no way to navigate through and no lane on the other side. This happens on Southard, Fleming, White, Eaton and Reynolds Streets. Most of our bike lanes are not connected up. Our “safer” Crosstown Greenway on Duck Avenue simply ends at the 35 MPH S. Roosevelt Boulevard with no safe way to cross to the other side to get to Stock Island. These are but a few examples of pieces of bike infrastructure that aren’t all connected up. To be really useful these bike facilities, including our multi use paths on N. and S. Roosevelt, Berth and Atlantic, need to be one seamless connected network. And that includes through the intersections.

Despite lots of us biking, there’s a perception, at least by a large group of residents, that it isn’t safe, and that is backed up by local surveys and crash statistics. The fact that many visitors to the island ride their bikes on the sidewalks is another indication. National surveys related to biking say that about 50% of people in general are Interested in bicycling but are concerned and would be willing to bike if “high quality bicycle infrastructure was in place.” 

High quality bicycle infrastructure means a connected network of good bike lanes, protected, or separated bike lanes and bike trails. 

7 – For a Change, Let’s Choose People on Bikes Over Car Storage and Convenience

The Bike Plan calls for First and Bertha Streets, as they are a critical way to cross the island, to get separated bike lanes or a trail, as a continuation of the multi-use path on Bertha between Atlantic and S. Roosevelt. What happened when the County rebuilt the First and Bertha Street corridor? They decided to ditch the bike facilities and keep underutilized parking spaces instead.

The Bike Plan calls for separated bicycle lanes along S. Roosevelt Boulevard to separate the bicycle traffic from pedestrians along Smathers Beach. What happened when the choice was between four lanes of vehicle traffic or two on that stretch? After first voting against the bicycle lanes the City Commission tried to rectify that vote, but only if it didn’t cost any additional money or take any more time. Result. No bicycle lanes.

The same scenario played out when they rebuilt the Palm Avenue Bridge. Transportation experts tell us the best time to add bicycle facilities to streets are when they are rebuilt or repaved. In the last few years Duval Street, Simonton Street and Whitehead Street have all been rebuilt and repaved. All three streets had bicycle facilities called for in the Bike Plan. All three streets were put back together again, exactly as they were before. With car parking. I recall when a new bicycle lane was put in on Reynolds Street, on the westbound side one neighbor objected and the bike lane ends on their block and picks back up on the next. Time and time again, when faced with a choice between car storage/convenience and bicycles, the City and County have chosen against bicycles. Even when it goes against the Bike Plan.

The Mayor said this week “Not one street should be upgraded without adding the dedicated bicycle lane.” It may be too late for the streets named above, but let’s hold the Mayor and City to this promise for everything going forward.

8 – Do Something About N. Roosevelt Boulevard

According to a Keys Citizen story on Wednesday, “speed was a factor” in the crash that killed a bicyclist at a pedestrian crosswalk in the 3700 block of N. Roosevelt on Saturday, November 5.  

Everyone knows the most unsafe street in the City is North Roosevelt Boulevard. Why this homage to the car-dependent, suburban style mainland is allowed to exist in its present form on our little tropical island paradise is perplexing. It doesn’t look like nor function like the rest of our island. It looks like it was moved here from Del Boca Vista. With a speed limit of 35 MPH and cars often doing much more it is frightening to anyone on two feet or two wheels. What’s especially scary are all the curb cuts for the strip retail centers. Bikes can be on either side of the street on the sidewalks and cars forget to look both ways. No one says they like the five HAWK crosswalks but the alternative – “just let them walk a mile to the next traffic light” – isn’t a real option either. 

Says local bike rental company owner, Tom “The Bike Man” Theisen:

When I go out at 6am there is already a high volume of traffic on North Roosevelt Boulevard, by 7am it is totally jammed with speeding drivers zig zagging their way down to old town. Adding to the chaos are high speed electric vehicles on the bike path whose riders have little concern for pedestrians or cyclists. In my opinion North Roosevelt is now ruined as a safe place to enjoy a bike ride or take a walk, I only use it when I really have to. Lack of any enforcement on North Roosevelt is the problem, it’s as if the police are hiding out on South Roosevelt because it’s too dangerous to pull people over on North Roosevelt. And I have never seen the police enforcing the bike path laws, nothing, nada, never, zip. The 35 mile an hour speed limit should be reduced to twenty-five on NRB but are the police chief and mayor willing are to fight the FDOT to get it reduced or perhaps they like the higher speeds? When the boulevard was reopened the speed limit was 25 MPH for two months and everything went fine. I will continue to avoid NRB and its businesses for the foreseeable future, it’s not safe.”

Citizen Survey on North Roosevelt Boulevard Happening Now
Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover reminds me that as part of an ongoing effort to improve the N. Roosevelt Boulevard corridor there’s a survey out for citizens to participate in. If you want dedicated bike lanes and better/more crosswalks, wider sidewalks, slower speed limits and such, please PARTICIPATE in the survey. And Commissioner Hoover says, don’t just check the boxes, offer some ideas.

9 – Safety In Numbers: Get More People, Especially Visitors, Out of Their Cars

It may be counterintuitive but studies in Europe and North America show that as the number of people bicycling increases, so does bicycle safety. The increased visibility of bikes on the road makes people in cars more aware of their presence and as a result there are less crashes. Bikeshare advocates have noted that when cities start bikeshare programs, all of a sudden more people are biking on the streets and safety goes up. Check out some reading here, here, here, here, here and here for more.

So, if more bikes on our streets would help make it even safer to bike, we need to get more people, especially visitors out of their cars and onto bikes. Inspired by a 2019 “Toward Car-Free Key West” study out from the University of South Florida on how to get vacationers to either not bring a car to the island at all or if they do drive here to at least park it and never use it again until the day they leave, we wrote: Ten Ways to Make Car-Free Key West a Reality for Visitors – Part 1: Marketing, April 8, 2022 and the follow-up article: Ten Ways to Make Car-Free Key West a Reality for Visitors – Part 2: Services, Infrastructure and Policies, April 15, 2022. These two articles, along with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – A Dozen Marketing Things KW Transit Can Do to Increase Ridership, April 9, 2021 offer a roadmap for getting more people to bike, walk and use public transit. 

The key here, like with safety marketing in number 2 is to ACTUALLY spend some money doing this. Again, and not to belabor the point, but if the TDC can spend tens of millions of dollars marketing Key West as a destination, can’t they use a portion of those marketing dollars to market a car-free experience? Getting more cars of the roads is one of the ways to make our streets safer.

10 – Speed and Red Light Cameras, No More Right Turn On Red

When I’ve talked to some bicycle advocates and people at City Hall, they tell me that speed and red-light cameras and no more right turn on red are things that would be cost effective safety measures to put in place.

But as local bicycle advocate Roger McVeigh tells me: “FDOT refuses to allow red light cameras and speed limit cameras, because Florida is the “Freedom State” where drivers can drive as unsafe as they wish without being told what to do.”

The City and County can do these things on the City and County streets, but Roger is right, we’d need the State to act to put these in on U.S. 1 and N. and S. Roosevelt, where they are really needed.

Key West Is Unique. To Make Our Streets Safer We Need Some Uniquely Key West Solutions

Key West is unique in so many different ways, including on our streets. We are one of the few places in the country where so many bikes, pedestrians and e-bikes/scooters share our compact, historic streets with vehicles. Add the fact that many of the folks out there are visitors from the mainland, unfamiliar with our distinctive ways, and that can make for an unsafe mix on our roads.

The tragedy of two bike crash deaths in one week reminds us that we all need to do better. City and County leaders need to redouble efforts to invest in engineering our streets to be safer and to build more bicycle facilities while spending some real money on safety education marketing, especially aimed at visitors. That and all of us on our streets need to take our One Human Family motto to heart and slow down and watch out for one another.

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