With year-round sunshine, a thriving ecotourism scene and a growing network of trails, the Gulf Coast seems in many ways a cyclists’ paradise. So it came as a shock when Smart Growth America ranked the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton region as the 10th most dangerous metropolitan area in the country to walk or ride a bike. “That’s a Top 10 list we didn’t want to make,” says Colleen McGue, principal planner for the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). “It put a spotlight on us that hadn’t been on us before.” The study ranked regions based on the number of pedestrian deaths relative to the number of pedestrian commuters in the area, an index that delivered bad news across the state of Florida. Out of the 104 communities scrutinized in the research, eight of the top 10 most dangerous cities sit in Florida; the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area topped the list while Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater came in at No. 7.

But at least the dubious distinction came as officials in Sarasota and Manatee counties prepared to update a master plan for the region’s bicycle, pedestrian and trail ways. McGue says every dangerous intersection where crashes have occurred will be studied as officials seek to make the area more compatible with the way locals and tourists travel today. “In Florida, a lot of development took place after the 1950s and after most people were driving a car,” McGue says. “A lot of roads are designed for moving as many cars as we can as fast as we can. We’re going to try and take a step back and start focusing on every type of user.”

This push comes as the state sets aside more funding sources for improving trails and as local jurisdictions look to alter the mobility outlook. In the next few years, local riders may start to see bike racks on buses, wider sidewalks and more dedicated routes for cyclists.


Complete Streets


Transportation officials say the push toward better pathways for cyclists and pedestrians stems not just from safety, but a change in habits and lifestyle for those visiting or living along the Gulf Coast. Mike Lasche, founder of Bicycle Pedestrian Advocates in Sarasota, says the rising popularity of bike clubs and the increasing costs of auto transportation have led more people into local bike shops to pick out two-wheel transit options. “It’s the most efficient way to get around, even more efficient than walking,” he says. 

So while planning officials at all levels have tackled such issues as waterfront connectivity and improved public transit, the needs of cyclists have been kept in mind along the way. Such assets as the Bradenton Riverwalk and the Bayfront Multi-Use Recreational Trail in Sarasota have been designed with wide enough pathways to allow the safe passage of riders and walkers. “As we’ve looked through all parts of the transportation network in the city, we’ve looked at how we can add bicycle capacity,” says David Ohrenstein, Sarasota assistant city manager.

In municipalities like Sarasota, that has included development codes that require bicycle racks as part of parking requirements. The city also works to create viable pathways connecting parks and commercial districts of the city that allow riders to safely move between destinations. Whether that means designated bike lanes or better use of ‘sharrows,’ shared lanes of road where cyclists get preference over cars, there should be an increased accommodation for the needs of cyclists as Sarasota moves ahead with its transportation infrastructure.

The city has incorporated new transportation features that Ohrenstein hopes will help cyclists in the long run. A favoring of roundabouts over traditional intersections in areas trafficked by walkers and cyclists helps by slowing traffic to safer levels while still allowing cars to potentially pass through without stopping. Off-road trails allow cyclists now to go through southern parts of downtown to the Ringling Bridge, and Ohrenstein says the multi-use trail, when complete, will connect with designated paths in Bird Key and the St. Armands area.

All of that connects to a regional network of trails, most notably the county-owned Legacy Trail, which opened in 2008 and will eventually connect the downtowns in Sarasota and Venice. The path has grown in popularity throughout its first decade, and popularity tends to compound, says Patrick Lui, the Bicycle, Pedestrian and Trails coordinator for Sarasota County. “Once you experience a better way of doing things, you want to see more of those things,” he says. And while the trail remains popular with recreation riders who like to spend their weekends and free time riding the path, officials increasingly want commuters taking to the trails and seeing the bike paths as a way to functionally get around the Gulf Coast. That depends on the range of a network of trails, which officials at the state level want to boost as quickly as possible.


Gulf Coast Trail


The MPO master plan for the region calls for connections to trails from North Port up to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and to existing trails in Hillsborough County. Ohrenstein notes that in January, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, which covers a region extending north through Pasco and south through Sarasota counties, held a special workshop in Venice to address the southern portion of what will be known eventually as the Gulf Coast Trail.

The ultimate plan, one with a 20-year horizon, will be for cyclists to have access to a working trail network connecting from Naples up through the Pinellas Trail in Clearwater. Along the way, that will mean purchasing a number of underutilized railroad tracks to convert into trails. Lui says the county’s efforts have focused on how to complete the Legacy Trail and the ways that route can be connected to existing bike paths in the North Port area and Lakewood Ranch. McGue says the region today benefits from state funding for Shared-Use Nonmotorized Trails, or SUN Trails, a statewide effort to establish more bikeways and walkways throughout Florida. Additionally, the Department of Environmental Protection since 1998 has funded more than $330,000 for trail improvements in Sarasota County and more than $1 million in trail improvements in Manatee County through the statewide Recreational Trails Program. A Florida Greenways and Trails System Plan approved in 2012 lists such local projects as the Legacy Trail, Venetian Waterway Trail, Sarasota County Trail and Cape Haze Pioneer Trail as priority projects in establishing a statewide network.

“There’s a growing demand across Florida and across the world for better biking and walking,” Lui says. “People today are much more conscious about their health and their quality of life, and are more environmentally conscious of the footprint they leave and how they can reduce it. Some of that is the products we use, and some of that is how you get around.” The Sarasota/Manatee MPO plan for the region sets priorities for trails along the coast but also imagines a working trailway that runs through east Sarasota County and Lakewood Ranch, and which eventually shoots toward Zolfo Springs and into trails in Hardee County, in addition to connecting with systems in Hillsborough and Pinellas.

As ecotourism becomes a larger part of the visitor economy, McGue says, the trail network in the region will become an even bigger priority. County tourism data shows that 83 percent of visitors to this region spend part of their visit exploring wildlife, whether that means looking for sea creatures on Lido Key or going bird-watching or kayaking along the Myakka River. A trail network allows better access to wildlife, McGue says, and improves on public access to the natural assets here. 

But the outdoor lifestyle in Florida also attracted many of the permanent residents who decided to live here. And increasingly, officials say the public at large expresses desires to cycle the region not just on the weekends but during their daily routines as well.


Commuting by Pedal


McGue knows this. She lives in North Sarasota a short distance from her office and bikes to work whenever she can. But she knows the challenges don’t just lie in safe intersections. The Southwest Florida climate promises afternoon storms in the spring and sweat-drenched T-shirts to those who stay outside longer than a minute in the summertime. “I know if I have an important meeting, I’m not going to choose to bike to work,” she says. Lui says the county deals with humidity issues in this climate by putting hydration stations along the Legacy Trail and other pathways. The county does benefit from having a flatter terrain than many areas with trails, so it’s less of a struggle to bike long distances, but regular signage encourages riders to rest regularly in shaded areas.

At some point, McGue would like to see public-private partnerships to help establish showering stations for bicycle commuters so that people can ride in any weather and not worry about their appearance when they reach their destination. Ohrenstein says cities also need to find ways to put more individuals on the backs of bikes. Major metropolitan areas like Tampa and Orlando have worked with private vendors to set up bike-share stations where individuals could rent a cycle in one part of downtown and drop it off at another station on the other side of the city. Usually with a set-up as simple as a stroller rental machine at a mall, this lets anyone with a credit card and a spontaneous inkling to cycle to commute across town even if they didn’t bring a bike to work. 

But McGue also wants more people bringing their own vehicle, even if they have to commute a great distance. The MPO has worked with both Manatee County Area Transit and Sarasota County Area Transit to get busses equipped with racks that can hold two or three bicycles on the front or back. “Maybe you can’t ride your bike the whole way,” she says, “but you can ride to the bus, take your bike on that bus to get close to where you want to go and get back on the bike to ride that last mile.”