The region’s first “cycle track” heralds a shift in mindset in a state with the highest pedestrian death rate and a region not designed for bicycling.
This past summer was a disaster for the Orlando’s brewing urban renaissance. It started with Governor Rick Scott scuttling funding for the University of Central Florida’s downtown campus, and it ended with a dismal report from the Center for Disease Control that pegged Florida as the most dangerous state for bicyclists. Its fatality rate of 0.57 per 100,000 population is more than double the national average of 0.23 per 100,000. To put this finding in perspective, in 1975 the national bicycle death rate was 0.41 per 100,000. Pedestrians also die at an alarming rate in Florida, and metropolitan Orlando is the flashpoint. It has the nation’s highest Pedestrian Danger Index, and bicycling is equally dangerous.
Orlando spawned the nation’s killing fields because its “transportation system” was reduced to an exercise in road building. The opening of Disney World in 1971 spurred the construction of a mass of wide high-speed roads that fueled a repetitive suburban pattern, which had the subtlety of a Stalinist Five-Year plan. In 1998 the Orange County Commission rejected federal dollars to build a light rail system, ensuring the spread of a fragmented mass of paved mediocrity designed to SUV dimensions. By 2000 Orlando was the most sprawl threatened city in the nation. Its disjointed form resembled a mutant human body with the elongated tentacles of a freakish octopus attached to its torso. A renegade group of traffic engineers at the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) realized their tangled system would eventually implode, and they started pushing for reform.
Billy Hattaway personified the effort. He had a “conversion experience” in 1996 after spending 10 days examining pedestrian-friendly infrastructure in West Coast cities. Frustrated by the failure of FDOT to evolve from its 1970s mindset, he shifted to private practice in 2002. Over the next decade he became an expert in designing “complete streets,” and a change in leadership brought him back to FDOT in 2011 as a district secretary. He now leads a ramped up bicycle-pedestrian safety initiative. The problem is Billy Hattaway is not governor and, while change is fomenting, FDOT simply does not have enough Billy Hattaways.
I learned this lesson first hand. In 2013 the final plans for SunRail, Central Florida’s new commuter rail line, were being completed. I oversaw a $25,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency that funded a team of Rollins faculty and students to draft plans to improve pedestrian and bicycle access to Winter Park’s new SunRail station. Winter Park was forecasted to be the busiest station so we had an opportunity to provide a prototype for the other 15 SunRail stops. Students proposed developing the SunTrail, a bicycle route on the railroad right-of-way modeled after Cambridge, Massachusetts (it has the highest bikescore in the nation) to center a system of complete streets and green streets. The SunTrail would link several of the stops in a four-mile section of the SunRail. If the plans were idealistic, they were also grounded. A five-day trip to Portland (sans automobiles) allowed faculty and students to examine the only major city in the United States awarded Platinum standing by the League of American Cyclists. Green streets, cycle tracks, and bicycle boulevards were foreign to Orlando, and we marveled as commuters zipped by at rush hour, running in packs and sounding like giant swarms of bees. The Orlando City Council was set to adopt a sustainability plan modeled on Portland, so our faculty group was eager to share our work with FDOT planners.
The meeting was desultory at best. The idea of narrowing traffic lanes, building cycle tracks, and reducing traffic speeds drew the response of a Stalinist planner encountering the profit motive: NYET. The fact that the proposals were drawn from historical precedent and Baldwin Park, a thriving New Urbanist adjacent to Winter Park, mattered little. “Baldwin Park is contrived,” one apparatchik informed us. “It is contrived,” I replied (I live in Baldwin Park), “contrived for pedestrians, bicyclists, and, good health.” Hoping to find common ground, we shared our enlivening experience in Portland. “Portland is not a good model for Central Florida,” was the response. After a deep gulp, I broke the silence and asked, “What is the model?” I’m still waiting for the answer.
Disappointed but not deterred, we turned to the City of Winter Park. Rick Geller, an astute attorney and former Orange County Planning Commissioner, took the lead. He was championing an effort to construct Central Florida’s first cycle track on Cady Way Road, which would link the Cady Way Bike Trail to Brookshire Elementary. He regularly biked with his two daughters to Brookshire and knew the dangers. After our trip to Portland, he also knew a cycle track was the solution. The PTA soon supported his initiative, but he was stymied after a report from a consultant hired by Winter Park dismissed the project. Geller drafted a 34-page rebuttal. Thorough, rational, and data based, it made a much more compelling case. He was shocked when the bike coordinator for MetroPlan, the region’s transportation agency, claimed the project was unnecessary because “there were no collisions between bikes and cars on Cady Way Road during the past 10 years.” It was an obvious non sequitur. Cady Way carried 5,000 automobiles a day, which is 250 percent higher than the maximum traffic volume for safe biking. Geller pressed his case and logic, and opposition gave way.
There is a new mindset in Winter Park. The city is spending $500,000 to remove two traffic lanes on Denning Drive to create a buffered bicycle path. At the same time, Forest Michel, the greenway expert who led the student design of the SunTrail, and Jill Hamilton-Buss, the director of Healthy Central Florida, have engaged Winter Park officials to implement the SunTrail. This summer the Winter Park public works department constructed the Cady Way Cycle Track. A local television station featured Geller and his daughter biking to the first day of school. It was a hard won victory, and the pink tee shirt Melissa Geller wore embraced the vision the FDOT planners lack. It had one word, “Portland.”