Friday, August 29, 2014

Key West: Cycling Like A Local

It is said that a bicycle is the best way to get around the narrow streets and lanes of Key West, the only frost-free city in the United States mainland. While that may be true if you are going to work and lack a car, I am not so sure a bicycle is best for visitors.

Frost free it may be, with the lowest temperature ever recorded at 41 degrees, but a few yellow leaves blown to one side of the street give a creditable imitation of a northern Fall day. I suppose in a place where leaves get wet these could be construed as a road hazard to two wheeled vehicles but perhaps i am cavalier but I don't see them as a safety hazard.

I dropped my Fusion off at the Ford dealership for a power steering recall that I had been notified about and I took off on my bicycle, a Trek model no longer produced called a "Lime." It has three speeds that change gear automatically, a coaster brake so there are no cables and the bicycle is made of alloys to prevent rust. It works amazingly well, a gift from my nephew who used to work at Trek. I ride it more when I am between dogs and less when I have an adopted walking companion in my life. Currently its too hot for Cheyenne to do much walking so I left her home and took my bike for a ride around town while I waited for my power steering to be improved and rendered safe, or something.

August and September are the hottest months of the year, the peak of hurricane season, and the quietest tourist months, when schools are in session and vacations are in short supply. Thus Eaton Street early in the morning looking like a ghost town, in winter this street is like a freeway and hauling my slow elderly Labrador from one side to the other takes timing and finesse. The sidewalks are narrow, there is no room for a bike path and riding a bicycle here is a hazard in my mind. People do it all winter long and I wish them luck.

Work continues apace at the Key West Bight's new hotel, The Marker, all 96 rooms that the plans apparently call for most guests to live with bicycles and not expect much car parking space. Neighbors are not excited about that part of the plan which doesn't seem to take into consideration the realities of life with cars. Parking will become more hellish than normal, tempers will fray and none of that makes for a serene vacation. But the ocean view from your room will be worth it I am sure. It had better be considering the havoc this hotel will cause for the neighbors.

When riding a bicycle some of the rules of the road more usually ascribed to developing countries apply here. Might makes right. It seems like common sense to me but when an 18-wheeler is backing up, better to get out of the way than claim a right of way. However it seems hard for people, on bicycles or in cars, to put their egos away which is why there is always so much animosity between cyclists and drivers. I am so used to riding a motorcycle among cars I am thus used to doing my thing and keeping out of the way of larger vehicles, usually driven with less skill than trucks managed by professionals. I am astounded how much inattention I see among drivers, and what I used to think was drunk driving is nowadays supposed to be sober texting. If you don't ride defensively its you that will get hurt because expecting idiots to drive while paying attention makes you as silly as they are. Better convert your bike into an ornament.

In Key West bicycles are less of a status symbol and more of a lifestyle statement which may sound contradictory but as often as not a lifestyle in Key West requires evidence of how little you can get by on. To ride a $5,000 Bura SL weighing 786 grams would a royal pain in Key West. You can do anything you like but carrying a padlock and chain would weigh more than the frame of the bicycle and some cretin will try to steal it and pawn it. Much better you get a nice beach cruiser with a giant flaming basket and express your athleticism in some less vulnerable way. To find a well used, hard working bicycle check out somewhere as unlikely as a pawn shop, not among the hallowed ranks of high end specialized bicycles. Your station wagon could even be a tricycle, like this one carefully locked up outside Schooner Wharf Bar.

The fact is that if you require a high end bike to express yourself accept that it will have limitations, principally useful as a toy, which is no skin off anyone's nose. But I recall quite clearly that in the last major hurricane evacuation about one third of city residents had no car, which means bicycles are tools not toys for the most part in Key West. Like scooters which here are parked street side and used daily, in other places scooters are polished and cherished and express the owner's status in the world. Here if it runs it's good. On the other hand you probably don't want to be quite as local as some people who live out of the junque they carry on their bicycles, huge mounds of belongings that turn their bikes into wheelbarrows. However locals like baskets, usually on the handlebars, an easy place to carry stuff.

I have a luggage rack on my bike rather than a basket because I don't haul much stuff on my bike which I ride for fun mostly as I live in the suburbs and do my shopping with powered two wheelers. I use easily removed silicon clip on lights which make me legal on my bicycle after dark and provide just enough light to ride by yet are easy to stash in my pocket or man purse so they won't get stolen when I leave the bike. Theft is a real hassle in Key West, as it must be in a city where bikes are daily transport so you have to use a lock with absolute discipline every time you park the bike and don't leave accessories that can be removed easily.

The cops will stop you if you ride without lights at night and riding the wrong way on a one way is also probable cause for a bike stop. You can ride on the sidewalk in Florida but you must warn pedestrians of your approach and you have to give them right of way. When I'm driving I always look both ways at intersections even on one way streets because cyclists routinely ride the wrong way and will approach from the least expected direction. And they get pissed when cops stop them and lecture them for riding the wrong way.

Standing there photographing my bike I started to have pangs about my dog snoring at home waiting for me:

Kids routinely get to ride around town on their own in Key West. Some people worry about safety in this place but it is still an isolated small town and most neighbors keep en eye out for the welfare of each others children, or at least so I am told by responsible parents. Making your own way to school, Norman Rockwell style, is still possible in the Southernmost City.

And there again sometimes adults play Tom Sawyer on their bikes and use them to go fishing.

Helmets aren't mandatory for adults in Florida and I used to wonder why I saw people taking their helmets for a ride around town. Some alert reader advised they were probably off the Navy base where passive safety requirements like clothing, are required on base. If you live in a well regulated world where helmets are the norm Key West's generally cavalier attitude may seem odd but riding with a helmet is not the local way. When I used to ride in California I got yelled at for not wearing a helmet. I prefer the Key West way though because no one pays much interest one way or the other. I feel perfectly at home wearing my helmet on my scooter even though almost no one does around town. I enjoy being mistaken for a visitor, people don't often ask for directions or accost me for advice when they see me photographing crap locals are too cool to notice.

Rules of the road should be followed of course and even though some scofflaws like to run red lights a concerted police campaign to reduce traffic accidents has seen better compliance form what I can tell as I motorcycle around town. In a state not much given to transportation by cycling, Key West has the highest per capita fatality and injury rate in Florida. Which I suppose is the price one pays for getting people out on bicycles instead of in SUVs. In the end that's really the bottom line: if you ride and try to stand on your rights you are the one at risk. Expecting your driving neighbors to worry about your rights is plain silly, but defensive riding is my habit as I have fallen often enough to know it hurts. Getting run over by a distracted SUV could only feel worse.

Rental bikes are widely available and not terribly expensive, about twelve to fifteen bucks a day, or up to 24 hours. They are easily identified by their numbers painted on them and their uniform accessories. It's hard to see in this picture but these bikes have their lights bolted on with metal stripping. Like I said if it can be easily removed it will be. By all means try renting one if you like and feel free to disagree with my preference for walking. Or do as I do and use the bike to get somewhere where I can then stroll at my leisure.

Bike paths you'd think would be everywhere but they aren't. Bike parking is to be found on most streets so technically if you lock your bike to a street sign it can be impounded but that doesn't often happen unless the space around the sign you are using is needed by the city. For peace of mind use a bike rack. And don't park scooters in bicycle parking as that gets you a ticket!

Hotels and guest houses usually have cruisers for rent or free for use by guests and cycling is popular, oddly enough among people who never seem to ride at home as usisng a bike as transport Up North is frequently viewed as eccentric behavior. Its unfortunate but a lot of visitors think they are at Disneyland and treat Key West streets as amusement arcades. Locals are a pretty unforgiving bunch when it comes to getting around so be wary and look both ways and if you see me coming know I am impatient with slow pokes.
So why is it I sound anti-cycling when I'm not really? I guess I don't find cycling the Southernmost City the relaxing proposition it should be. I think an urban plan including bicycle paths, one way streets, adequate sidewalks and shade trees is far beyond the scope of that which the city can imagine so in the end, expecting nothing to change for the better I advise caution. It is true that you can make more distance in a shorter time, and even in winter people from colder climes seem to find walking Key West to be a sweaty proposition. But walking is my preferred way to see stuff. A bicycle is a vehicle and it requires you pay attention. It wafts you past interesting sights fast enough that you miss a lot on two wheels. Plus traffic most of the year is pretty busy and the streets are clogged and you are jousting with locals in a hurry and visitors who don't know what they are doing as they drive inappropriately large vehicles on these small streets... And there you are trying to remember riding skills last used when you were a child. Walking suddenly looks much more fun. I'd suggest hiring a cab to take you to your destination and then taking a gentle meander on foot back to your starting point.

My wife and I don't often bring our bikes to town for a ride. We find dealing with traffic keeps us busy such that we rarely get to ride side by side and chat as one might on a broad comfortable green way up north, a path set aside for the esoteric amusement called riding a bike.

But there again there's lots to see in this small town and you may find a bicycle to be perfect, lots of people do. They are allowed in the cemetery along with cars, though motorcycles and scooters are not. Bad behavior by a few ruined this place for all, as usual.

And I call it fitting that we end this essay at the Captain Outrageous monument in the Key West cemetery. He did a fine job decorating bicycles among other forms of transport.