By Stan Purdum
This winter, and for the past few, my wife and I have been able to escape the northern cold and spend January and February in Florida. And so, of course, I bring my bicycle along.
Our place is in central Florida, not far from Disney World, but far enough away that I have some feasible options for road riding.
Feasible for the moment, that is. Apparently, a lot of baby boomers are moving to Florida after retiring, and the housing market (including new construction) is booming. Every year we come, we see hundreds of new homes on acreage that was empty the year before, and many more under construction.
By current estimates, Florida’s population in 2018 is 21.3 million, and the annual growth rate is one of the fastest in the United States, ranked 4th at 1.8 percent. When spread over the year, that means that the state’s population increases by more than 1,000 people a day. It’s currently the 8th most densely populated state in the nation (ranking only 22nd in total area).
Of course, that doesn’t count visitors. In 2016, the most recent year for which I could find figures, 112.8 million tourists visited the Sunshine State, and that was 5.9 percent higher than the previous year and was the sixth-consecutive record year for Florida.
More Vehicular Traffic Each Year
As a cyclist, this means that each year, I’m riding with more vehicular traffic around me. One nearby road that I count on for pedaling out of my immediate area seems to have double the traffic than it did last year, and some if it is moving faster. Even one rural road I use has more trucks rumbling on it thanks to a sand mine located nearby that is supplying fill for the plots being cleared for housing.
I’m doing what I can to be as visible as possible to drivers. I run flashing lights — red in the rear and white in the front — even on sunny days. And I wear high-visibility garb. (My new bright neon-green leggings make me feel particularly conspicuous, whether they actually get drivers’ attention or not.)
There are still open lands and rural areas in the state, as well as urban areas that can be navigated through on a bicycle, but depending on your location, you may need to drive a distance to get to some of these places.
One upside to the building boom is that new roads are being added, and existing ones extended, to reach new acreage for development, and so, until a zillion new homes are built there, those roads provide some cycling opportunities.
Bike Trails Are the Solution
But the lasting solution for cycling in Florida is asphalt-paved bicycle trails, of whichthe state has many. I have four established ones within reasonable driving distance: the West Orange (22 miles long), the South Lake (about 15 miles, counting spurs), the James Van Fleet (29 miles) and, my favorite, the Withlacoochee (46 miles).
Some, like the West Orange Trail, which runs through populated areas, are heavily used, especially on weekends, but never so much that I’m delayed while on them. The James Van Fleet, however, is laid out on old railbed through the massive Green Swamp. And since the swamp, which covers at least 322,000 acres, is a critical component in the state’s water supply, it is protected and not open for development. On my most recent excursion on the Van Fleet (on a Saturday, no less) I had the trail mostly to myself, encountering only a few other riders and hikers.
Beyond the “official” trails, however, some of the new housing developments — especially those that promote themselves as resorts or “villages” and offer such amenities as pools, dog parks, tennis courts, playgrounds and exercise facilities — sometimes also include paved bicycle trails as an additional benefit.
These trails are sometimes found where a sidewalk might have been, but are at least twice as wide. I have found places where these trails run for several miles and where two or more of them can be tied together by means of neighborhood streets. One way to find such trails is to use an online mapping site such as RideWithGPS.com and click on the “Bike Paths” button.
As we plan to continue coming to Florida each winter, I expect to have to revise my road-riding options from year to year, and perhaps start driving out to reach some of them. But I also expect that the trails will continue to provide reliable cycling venues.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.