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Key West: Florida’s Livable Streets Oasis

4:42 PM EDT on September 3, 2009

Small islands are often natural fits for car-free or car-reduced environments. Some take advantage, some don't. Based on my dozen or so visits over the last 13 years, most recently in July, I'd say Key West, Florida, falls mostly into the former camp.

In many ways, Key West is a prototypical American beach town. There are plenty of novelty t-shirt shops, the requisite seafood shacks, and a plethora of bars for sun-baked tourists to imbibe to the sounds of bad cover bands. But in addition to its noted architecture, the southernmost city in the contiguous U.S. is also home to a significant number of historic sites, two of the most famous probably being the Ernest Hemingway House and Truman's Little White House. With these and other attractions dotting "old town," and with little space for wide streets or sprawl development among its six square miles of land area, Key West has maintained much of its original residential and commercial density, along with a highly walkable and bikeable street grid [PDF].

And unlike other tourism-dependent east coast towns that are inexplicably hostile to non-motorized modes of travel -- we're looking at you, Savannah -- Key West is that rare U.S. small city where pedestrians, cyclists and motorists commingle with relatively minimal conflict.

That's not to say that, considering the number of bike riders -- many of them inexperienced tourists -- the city doesn't have its share of cyclist-involved crashes. Key West bike coordinator John Wilkins does not have complete data, but says, "I do know it is not good if you look at the numbers only. We may have a high accident rate but not compared to the amount of people who bike."

Eddie Marsh is a member of the local bicycle action committee, and rents out bikes in Key West. "People use bikes as part of their life," he says. "It is a practical decision, not a political one. There is no typical cyclist here. It might be a drag queen, a tourist, or, as I once saw, a guy smoking, with a big John McCain sign.

"I send a lot of people out on the street who haven't ridden in years. I tell them to stick to the low-traffic streets, and take the advice of Thich Nhat Hanh: smile, breathe and go slowly."

Since the Keys segment of the Overseas Railroad was partially destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, then replaced by what is now the southernmost leg of U.S. 1, Key West has remained primarily accessible by car, plane and, of course, boat. In the not too distant future, Wilkins and others hope, bikes will be added to that list, at least for residents and visitors coming from the Upper Keys, with the planned build-out of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail.

In the meantime, says Wilkins, Key West is adding bike lanes. "We continue to iron out trouble spots as funds are available."

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