Year-round sun, miles of oceanside roadways, few changes in elevation: South Florida should be a paradise for even the most casual of bicyclists. But the state is also home to plenty of thoroughfares with posted speeds in excess of 50 mph., three lanes of traffic in each direction and lots of traffic lights. Not exactly a recipe for safe and happy cycling.
As it stands the state ranks "somewhere in the middle in terms of how safe and appealing it is to bike in most places," according to Tim Blumenthal, president of PeopleForBikes, an advocacy group focused on promoting bicycling in the United States.
"Florida is steadily improving: It has a long way to go," Blumenthal says of the state's overall bikeability. Improvements can be attributed to South Florida political leaders who've become more in tune to the benefits of making cities bicycle friendly, as well as a growing and active bicycling community that has pushed for positive change.
"The state's on a good path," Blumenthal says. "I expect (bikeability) to increase and everyone will benefit from that."
Miami especially has been a leader in the region, initiating several programs that foster a pro-bike atmosphere. The Miami Bicycle Master Plan, completed in September 2009 as part of the Bicycle Action Committee, lays the groundwork for creating "a more bicycle friendly city, through the designation of primary routes and beginning a coordination of planning, infrastructure, development, and education."
"The city has come a long way in five years," says Collin Worth, bicycle coordinator for the City of Miami.
Worth cites the installation of more bike lanes and bicycle-friendly city planning in recent years as signs of progress. The bike-sharing/rental program DecoBike is another victory, with 500 bikes in 50 stations offering "connectivity to the beach."
The improvements have helped to make Miami safer for bicyclists and drivers, with a "significant reduction" in car and bicycle collisions in the city, Worth says. The greater metro Miami area, however, has a ways to go to reduce accidents, he says.
Why isn't Florida the cyclist's haven that it could -- and should -- be? Much of that can be attributed to how and when the region was developed. Blumenthal says the "invention of better air conditioning and mosquito control" at a time when "suburbs and sprawl were a core philosophy" helped to shape a state highway system that isn't bicycle- or pedestrian-friendly.
"The biggest challenge is the pattern of development," Blumenthal says of Florida's notorious "car culture." "People are very used to driving and having to drive for long periods."
There are changes on the horizon, especially in Miami Beach where as many as 6% of all trips are now made on bicycle, according to Blumenthal. He says millennials -- who are "looking to live a compact lifestyle" -- could help to drive the trend for more bike-friendly cities, including those in South Florida. He says many American cities already are improving infrastructure in order to attract the businesses that in turn want to attract talented young people.
To that end, the issue of bicycle safety in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties will require a comprehensive approach. While more bike lanes are a great start, the matter can't be solved with "a white paint stripe," Blumenthal says. City and state leaders must look at ways to keep bicyclists "separated but protected."
Worth says additional signage and a more visible biking community help to make Miami safer for bicyclists by making drivers more aware of the two-wheeled vehicles.
"The more people walking and biking, the more people will respond accordingly," Worth says.
While individual components (bike lanes, signs, bike stands, etc.) do affect the overall quality, Blumenthal says it's important to look at the big picture in terms of getting from Point A to Point B and back again. Any trip is "only as good as its weakest link," Blumenthal says. For an entertaining and informative look at this concept in real life, read New Times Broward-Palm Beach' harrowing (and hilarious) account of bicycling from Fort Lauderdale to the Everglades and back: "Bike to the Everglades! An Illustrated Beginner's Guide to Not Dying."
Interested in getting back in the (bike) saddle? May is National Bike Month, making this an ideal time to join the ranks of the growing national biking community, which the US Census Bureau says has grown 47 percent since 2000.
Before heading out, get a refresher on bicycle safety and laws, courtesy of the Florida Bicycle Association. The organization's site includes pointers on how to properly use bike lanes and share the road to remain safe and not impede traffic. Find more here.