Streets for People / City and FDOT Fail, Again, to Follow Key West Bike Plan. This Time On Whitehead Street
By Chris Hamilton. This story is cross posted in KONK Life newspaper on January 27, 2023. Follow us at Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown on Facebook, Twitter and check out all our Streets for People stories here.
On January 18, FDOT officials presented City Commissioners with an update about three projects about to begin construction in Key West. One of those is a $2.6M project on Whitehead Street between Truman and Fleming (the portion of the street that is part of U.S. Route 1 and thus FDOT’s) to reconstruct and repave the street and to replace damaged sidewalks. The City’s adopted Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan calls for protected bike lanes on this street. Instead, we’ll get essentially what we have now, 33 spaces for private car storage and no bike lanes.
We’ve heard this story before. On S. Roosevelt Boulevard. On First and Bertha Streets. On Palm Avenue. And now on Whitehead Street. The adopted Bike Plan calls for all of these to get bicycle infrastructure. In each case car convenience was chosen over bicycle safety. When asked why we aren’t building bicycle infrastructure in these projects FDOT, County and City officials circle the wagons and roll out a litany of bureaucratic double-speak to explain how they really care about building safer streets, but it just couldn’t happen in this case because well…
- people need parking,
- there’s not enough right-of-way,
- think of the trees,
- it would cost more money,
- the design was made before the Bike Plan was adopted,
- it would impact our schedule, or
- no bike advocates showed up to the meeting and asked.
Having multiple agencies involved in these particular projects helps each escape responsibility. In this case the City says it isn’t their street and FDOT says they consulted with the City, and this is what they wanted. The exact same thing happened on First and Bertha between the County and City.
There were three bike riders killed in crashes on Key West and Stock Island last year. Key West is full of cars AND bikes. That’s different than most places. And our Mayor keeps asking for bike lanes. And yet the prevailing bias for car convenience in all three bureaucracies makes change extremely difficult. And so once again, it looks like we’ll get Sharrows instead of bike lanes and that’s not safer for anybody.
The Bike Plan and City Strategic Plan Point the Way Forward
The Key West Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Transportation Plan, adopted in March of 2019 after two years and spending nearly $300,000 is an exceptional plan produced by the world-class engineering, urban design and planning firm Toole Design. It had a ton of public input, was thoroughly vetted and Commission approved. (For an overview read: Key West, Let’s Radically Speed Up the Implementation of Our Bike/Ped Plan, May 20, 2020.
One of the reasons for the Plan is because the State requires localities to have approved plans in order to seek State funding for projects and so when the State or local government do projects there is some guidance for what to do.
The Key West Forward Strategic Plan, adopted in 2021 emphasizes Traffic and Pedestrian Friendliness as one of the six overarching priorities, specifically to “improve the ease and safety of residents and visitors as they traverse the island.” Goal 1 of this priority reads: “Complete Streets: Ensure safe and more accessible bike and pedestrian routes in accordance with the Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan…Improve and expand bicycle and pedestrian trails and implement the three overarching goals in the Bike/Ped Plan.”
Whitehead Street is addressed as needing “separated bike lanes” in the Vision or Long-Term Plan on pages 34 and 72 as explained on page 46.
Optimal Time to Put In Bike Infrastructure Is During Street Rebuilding/Repaving
The optimal time to put in new bicycle infrastructure is when a street is rebuilt (such as in the case of Whitehead Street) or when it is repaved. So, the opportunity to implement the Vision Plan presented itself when FDOT said they were rebuilding the street because that’s when the curb line, if needed can be moved, that’s when tree wells can be moved and so on. And once a street is repaved it can be painted in any configuration you want.
So, if anyone at City Hall had the guts to actually follow the plan in the face of losing private car storage and moving some trees, this would have been the time to speak up. OR it would have been the time, as the Mayor has asked, time and again, to bring some options to the City Commission. But FDOT and City staff determined that because parking and tree removal are political third rails in this town they were simply going to opt for the existing short-term plan and default to Sharrows.
Sharrows Are Make Believe Safety Infrastructure
Sharrows are short for shared lane markings. They are used to indicate a shared lane environment for bicycles and automobiles. They are supposed to reinforce the legitimacy of bicycle traffic in the street and recommend proper positioning of the bicyclist.
Google “are Sharrows safe” and you’ll get a string of articles, none of which are flattering about this supposed “infrastructure.” Up pops “ineffective.” “Unsafe.” “Worse than Nothing At All.” But my favorite is “Sharrows Are Bullshit.” Yes, that’s the title of an excellent article by Peter Flax. I highly recommend reading the entire thing, but here it is in a nutshell:
“Sharrows are perfect for city officials who care enough about safety to do the very least. There’s only one problem: Sharrows are make believe safety infrastructure.”
The Project We’re Getting for Whitehead Street Looks an Awful Lot Like It Does Today
The plan presented by FDOT for this stretch of Whitehead Street calls for the street to be rebuilt and repaved. Sidewalks will be fixed. Broken curbs mended. Signage will be improved, and pedestrian beg buttons will be upgraded. And best of all, as FDOT touts in nice red writing, 33 of the existing 38 car storage spaces will be kept. In a nod to what they say is a safety improvement, some car parking spaces will be removed near intersections and driveways so as to improve sight lines, making it easier for people in cars to exit onto the street and not have to contend with trying to see around those mega vehicles so prevalent today, without hitting people. The street will no doubt be shiny and new, but it is essentially the same street. And no bike improvements. We get those good for nothing Sharrows.
Are Master Plans Only Good for Gathering Dust? We Asked Advocates, FDOT and the City
We asked some bicycle advocates what they thought about the Whitehead Street plan presented by FDOT and here’s what Evan Haskell, owner of the WeCycle bike shops on Stock Island and Key West told us:
“Just a couple meetings ago, the City Commission gave 6 acres of public land to the airport, with nothing in exchange. That land was identified in our master plan as a critical connector for the hundreds of residents in the Ocean Walk and Las Salinas apartments. Only Commissioner Kaufman protested that appalling giveaway. Now, we learn that staff continue to ignore the Bicycle Master Plan in their daily operations and the upcoming Whitehead Street project will include no improvements for cycling. Unfortunately, we are seeing again that in this City, Master Plans are only good for one thing – gathering dust.”
When we asked FDOT if they’d consulted the plan their Communication Manager Tish Burgher said:
“Regarding the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, the FDOT Design Team reviewed it; however, it was determined that incorporating bike lanes would impact trees located within the utility strip and also require widening the road, acquiring potential easements, removing parking spaces, and adding additional storm water drainage improvements. The associated costs would result in an increase of approximately $3.5 million and would impact the schedule of this project.”
They went on to further explain that when they met with City staff in March of 2020, everyone agreed “to include Sharrows with sign routes for bicyclists, instead of separate lanes due to the scope and limited right-of-way in this project.” FDOT was adamant, they coordinated and got approvals from the City.
We asked the City the same questions as FDOT and didn’t get an official response.
Again, if you are literally going to rebuild the street, curb and gutter and sidewalk, that would have been the time to do something brave. Even at the cost of parking, a few trees and more money. Alas, we get Sharrows.
After our deadline for KONK Life news we did get a response from our friend Alison Higgins, the City’s Sustainability Coordinator saying:
“We’re taking the longview on the separated lanes for Whitehead and Simonton. Because we’ll never have the political will to remove parking without an alternative, we’re working on off street parking options for those areas. We’ll be doing renderings of six different roof deck parking options this year to start the ball rolling on that. Once we get alternative parking, we can remove the existing parking, and get the bike lanes we desire.”
Going Forward, Let’s Do Better By People on Bikes
It seems like the last few years haven’t seen progress on bike lanes in our City. But we’ve got a great Bike Plan and a Strategic Plan that emphasizes getting bike projects done. We have a Mayor who gets it and has asked that every repaving project consider bike lanes. We also have a fairly new and progressive team in the Engineering Department in the persons of Interim Engineering Director Gary Volenec and Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator Ryan Stachurski who weren’t around when these projects were approved by others. And we think our friend Alison’s take above bodes well for the future. So we’re hopeful.
Key West is full of cars AND bikes. That’s different than most places. We are one of the few places in the country where so many bikes, pedestrians and e-bikes/scooters share our compact streets with vehicles. Add the fact that many of the folks out there are visitors from the mainland, unfamiliar with this, makes for an unsafe mix on our streets. So, we can no longer accept that status quo of always taking the easy path of what we’ve been doing before. We need to do things differently. We need our staff and politicians to be brave enough to lose some parking or car lanes and make our streets safer. Our island will be better for it. Let’s lay down a marker here and say from now on we expect better by everyone involved.
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