Key West: Florida’s Livable Streets Oasis

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."

  • JSD

    Sounds like Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

    Strictly enforced speed limits. Cars drive at and under the speed limit. Drivers seem to be extremely courteous at all times. Bicycles abound, and not just among the vacationing, rental set. Many residents of the area use scooters or bicycles for all sorts of trips.

    It’s a great place to see what is truly possible in smaller-medium sized towns.

    Now, right outside of the town center, with outlet malls and oceans of parking, the driving mentality seems to take over. Still, I saw a fair amount of cyclists braving the traffic. Lots of respect to those folks.

  • Good news in Savannah this week:

    More details soon.

  • JM Palacios

    I was just down there last month for the first time. Took my bikes and rode everywhere, and my wife and I both enjoyed it. Those streets are so narrow and the speeds so slow in Old Town that no bike lanes are needed. Sharrows would be the most that might help in that part of town. I had a bit of road rage from some local in a pickup truck who passed me too close and I told him he needed to give me 3 ft. He had the audacity to tell me to get off the road! My wife pointed out afterwards that he didn’t have room to give me 3 ft. because there were bicyclists on the other side of the road too. Doesn’t justify his passing too close, but it’s a nice problem to run into!

  • Rehoboth does remind me of Key West, JSD. The biggest difference, as you say, is the area away from the boardwalk district (or whatever it’s called). What a no-man’s land. I’ve seen many pedestrians and cyclists risking their lives there, too. Key West is also laden with wide-road strip mall development just as you enter town on U.S. 1, but it’s not nearly as bad.

    Plus, Rehoboth has pedestrian permission buttons on its main commercial street, which doesn’t make sense in an environment so conducive to, and reliant on, foot traffic.

  • I spent a weekend on Block Island a few months ago. It’s connected to New London, CT by ferry. The area near the pier is very walkable and beautiful. But as you move away from the ferry, the sidewalks begin to run out — so my friends and I opted not to take a late-night walk through quiet neighborhoods. There are bike rentals, motorists are fairly calm, and the people in our party who spent a day biking had a good time.

  • MrManhattan

    “Slow Down, This ain’t the Mainland”

    Why don’t WE have stickers like that?

  • Kaja

    > “Slow Down, This ain’t the Mainland”

    Brilliant. Wish I’d thought of it. I’ve always liked the description of nyc as an island off the coast of America. Maybe I’ll cafepress some of these.

  • For all the reasons identified and more, you may choose to drive to Key West, but once in Old Town, Key West is a park-once kind of town. Cars need not apply.

    The next step is for Key West to deliver a robust bike sharing system, replete with racks to hold your snorkel gear and a six pack.

  • eddie

    @mike: well I just invested a lot of my capital on bikes to rent, so I hope that you’ll let the private sector handle that one. bike rental is very cheap here, compared to other places, b/c there are a lot of companies doing it. around ten bucks a day, add five for snorkelling gear or a hammock. all bikes come with baskets, but you gotta supply the six pack.
    think about it, you can choose from a wide range of bikes, even get them delivered to your hotel,provide livelihood for locals,all without having to ever beg for tax money.

  • eddie

    another cool thing about key west is the taxis all having bike racks.

  • JohnBike

    Cape May New Jersey is another great bicycle friendly beach town. We just got back from a week’s vacation there. We had arrived on a Saturday and didn’t drive until Thursday, even then we could have biked and walked to the kayak rental shop near the main bridge, next year we’ll do that.

    A lot of people bike around town, to the stores, pedestrian shopping mall, to the beach. The bike racks are always being used and some are usually full, even the one at the liquor store. What struck me this year was the number of teens that I saw riding on there own, says a lot about the perception of safety, both with bicycle riding and crime.

    Certainly one of the most underrated bicycle friendly east coast towns that I know of.


  • clever-title

    I’ll echo JohnBike’s comments on Cape May, NJ. It’s almost a case study on cyclist safety being a function of the proportion of bikes on the road. Any vehicular cyclist would be aghast at the way cyclists ride on & off sidewalks and behave in ways counter to automotive traffic laws. Amazingly, I see very few arguments between cyclists and motorists, since the cyclists do those things in fairly predictable ways.

    The city does enforce a few restrictions on bikes where it makes sense. Bikes are prohibited on the walkway along the beach and in the pedestrian-only shopping street a few blocks west. There are racks all around these areas, so it works pretty well. Nearly all businesses provide racks as well, since so many of their customers (locals and tourists) are on 2 wheels.

    Since the Cape was fully-developed before cars were common, it was impossible for the government to build wider, faster, straighter roads, or acres of parking, so traffic speeds stay low and people choose bikes over cars due to convenience.


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