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Road Locked in the Sunshine State

What makes a community bike friendly? How does infrastructure dictate recreational opportunities in a community? These are some of the questions flitting around my mind at the onset of this year as I find myself “road-locked” in suburban Florida, flush with sunshine and beautiful weather, but coming up short on bikeable road.

 

Yulee Florida, like most of our urbanized areas, caters foremost to the automobile. The town itself is at a crossroads, parallel to Interstate 95, and bisected by highways 17 and 200. The Yulee Wikipedia page describes it as a “residential bedroom community”. Put another way, the area is a corridor designed to transport people from their home in a subdivision to a job somewhere and to any point along what seems to be a continuous vein of strip malls, box stores, and fast food joints. With such continual and rapid expansion, parts of this area feel like they sprung up overnight, subdivisions and Starbucks rising from the surrounding swampland like pages from a pop-up book. Orange construction cones accent the landscape like native ornamental plants.

the cyclist or pedestrian is alien, occurring as a lone figure straggling along narrow strips of trash strewn shoulder.

On Highway 200, which is under full construction, a few “Share the Ride” signs spring crookedly from piles of construction rubble. I like to imagine some well-intentioned civic planner insisting on the signs. Well-meaning or not, any attempt to ride on the road, where 50mph traffic is squeezed between rows of concrete barriers, would be suicidal. In this suburban Florida town, the cyclist or pedestrian is alien, occurring as a lone figure straggling along narrow strips of trash strewn shoulder. I would know because that was me on my first ride of 2019.

Before going on my ride I researched possible routes online. A Strava search of the area confirms a lack of established routes, while a Google maps study shows some promise from above.  While studying these maps, I couldn’t help but feel like an early settler attempting to find safe passage through the mountains, that fabled Cumberland Gap. However, as my ride would prove, there is no safe passage.  Roads like Pages Dairy Road, while sounding bucolic and looking promising on a map, are mainly narrow shouldered cooridors.  Despite stitching together a roughshod and nerve-wracking 17 miles I really couldn’t break out of the maze.

The ride was not without its strange and unexpected joys. The mere act of pedaling under blue sky cannot be discounted, especially in January. Also, part of the joy of biking is exploration. At one point, I found a small roadside park featuring a wooden boardwalk that jettisoned into and above the dense swampland, a small reprieve from the bustle beyond.

The ride was not without its strange and unexpected joys

There was also a surreal stretch along Highway 200. The newly laid section remains off-limits, with both lanes of traffic being funneled onto the existing old road. In an act of defiance, I circumvented a wall of orange construction barricades and road my bike across this new surface, the entire width of this future highway to myself, while just on the other side of the partition, thousands of commuters funneled by. I felt the sensation that a nude sports stadium streaker might feel – liberated and in possession of some crazed secret the rest of the world is not privileged to.

It was also along this stretch of road that another cyclist, the first I had seen in a week, appeared on the far shoulder across the gulf of traffic. The old man, slung low on a beat up off-brand mountain bike, wearing a hi-vis construction vest and smoking a cigarette, let out an enthusiastic greeting audible across the drone of traffic. This was a holler of recognition, of solidarity and I hollered back. In that moment, we were two members of the same tribe, proud and defiant cyclists braving the constructs of an automobile-centric modern world.

In total, I stitched together a nerve-wracking 17 miles of roughshod road, narrow shoulder, and broken sidewalk to form some semblance of a ride. These were miles well-earned. Afterwards, to celebrate the occasion and to calm my nerves, I enjoyed a beer on the patio of my relative’s home. On my cell phone I checked the weather back home in North Dakota. It was an uncommonly warm day for the month of January, with temps hovering just above freezing and within my comfort zone for cycling. While I hesitate to even admit, for a minute I would have traded in that Florida sunshine along with my flip flops and shorts for one good brisk ride along the frosted, but bike-friendly, paved trails of home.

How does the infrastructure in your community add or detract from cycling opportunities? Please comment below.

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