City works to support ‘cycling network,’ but foreign workers and highway traffic present challenges

Matt Algarin
Bicyclists along Destin's streets are not uncommon, this cyclist was recently seen riding along Beach Drive. As the city continues to make multi-modal improvements, Ken Gallander, the city's community development director, said additional bike paths would be added.

As the number of bikes — and accidents — on Destin's roadways increase, city leaders say planning for safe traveling becomes more and more important.

"Whenever we reconstruct a road, we go ahead and incorporate into that design multi-modal elements, such as multi-use paths, pedestrian paths and cycling components such as bike lanes," Community Development Director Ken Gallander told The Log.

Back in 2009, city leaders adopted multi-modal transportation district standards, which encourage a mix of land uses, transportation options, and pedestrian-oriented site and building designs. All developments located in the district are required to contribute to the bicycle, pedestrian and transit network in order to minimize vehicle trips and provide options for travel.

But it may take years for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists to get the multimodal message, and in the meantime, the road often called “Bloody 98” is living up to its nickname.

Bike related accidents

Since 2013 began, there have been more than 20 bicycle versus vehicle incidents in Destin, according to statistics from the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office. Of those, none were fatal, but about half of the incidents occurred on Hwy. 98.

In the past few weeks, there have been two accidents involving bicyclists just across the county line.

Becca Kudaiberdieza, 20, was hit by a vehicle while riding her bike, against traffic, on Hwy. 98 near the Silver Sands Premium Outlets on the morning of Aug 3. Kudaiberdieza was transported to Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast. She was charged with traveling against traffic.

On July 25, Onur Guler, 21, was riding west along Hwy. 98 near Ponce de Leon Street in Miramar Beach when he was struck from behind by a vehicle in a hit and run accident, according to a report from the Florida Highway Patrol.

In 2011 and 2012, there were at least three fatalities involving cyclists. In Okalooa County, Robert Crawford was killed after being struck from behind while riding his bike along Okaloosa Island on Easter Day. In Walton County, foreign worker Galina Bumbalova and Georgia Institute of Technology professor Kurt Lang Frankel were both killed after being struck by cars from behind while riding their bikes on the roadway.

Lost in translation?

Sgt. Mike Raiche from the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office told The Log that the majority of bikers on the road are foreign workers, who rely on bikes for transportation since they are typically not in town long enough to secure a driver's license.

"A lot of them come from Europe where it's a very common thing," he said of bike riding.

As part of an outreach effort to J-1 student workers, Cindy Wilson and the team at Destin United Methodist Church passed out 140 bikes this year. As part of the giveaway, each student is presented with a pamphlet from the city of Destin with safety information.

"We never give out a bike without a helmet, a lock and a light," Wilson said, noting that the tragic death of Galina Bumbalova led the church to step up its efforts.

Unfortunately, Wilson said, a lot of the incidents that occur with foreign workers go unreported to law enforcement, despite workers suffering injuries.

"When they do get hit or get in an accident they don't want to call the police," she said. "They are afraid they may get sent home or get into trouble."

"We try to explain to them that won't happen," Wilson added.

Rules of the Road

Explaining the rules of the road is also a challenge.

State statutes in Florida specify that cyclists who ride in the roadway must follow the same rules of the road as a car, which means they must travel with the flow of traffic.

Section 5(a) of the statute says " Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall ride in the lane marked for bicycle use or, if no lane is marked for bicycle use, as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway..."

Exceptions include when passing a vehicle or another bicycle, when turning left at an intersection, road or driveway, or when avoiding a "condition or potential conflict."

In Destin, Gallander told The Log that city code requires that bike lanes on roadways are at a minimum 4-feet wide, which allows cyclists plenty of room. When it comes to state-owned roads, such as U.S. Hwy. 98, bike lane requirements fall under the jurisdiction of the Florida Department of Transportation.

According to the city's acting public services director Tim Pietenpol, less than 1 percent of the city's roads have dedicated "bike lanes that are actually attached to the roadway." He said that does not include areas set off of the roadway, such as sidewalks, pathways or multi-use trails that are constructed for use by both pedestrians and bicyclists.

According to the city's acting public services director Tim Pietenpol, there are approximately 61 miles of city owned roadways in Destin and most of them have bike paths on the entire roadway or a portion of the roadway.

"I totaled the linear footage of bike lanes on Benning, Beach, Calhoun, Commons, Main, Matthew, Mountain and Stahlman which totals almost 7 miles of our 61 miles of roadway," he wrote in an email to The Log. This accounts for more than 10 percent of the city's roadway footage.

To be safe, Riache said that bike riders should stay as close to the curb as possible.

One area where deputies see a lot of incidents is at intersections of businesses or at driveways where are vehicles pulling out. Chapter 316, Section 125 of the state statutes require vehicular traffic to yield to pedestrian traffic, which includes bikes.

"They need to stop, look twice and make sure the area is clear before coming through the driveway," Raiche said.

Safety Tips

When on the roadways, Raiche said he encourages riders to wear helmets, even though they are not required by law, unless you are 16 years old or younger.

Unfortunately, most adult riders go helmetless, he said.

As an avid bike rider, City Councilman Jim Wood never leaves home without his helmet.

"The law says you don't have to wear it, but I try to set a good example and I always wear my helmet," he told The Log.

When he rides in the dusk or at night, Wood said he always wears brightly colored clothing to help give drivers a good visual. He said his lime green city council shirt is one of his favorites.

Much like cars, bikes are required to have working lights as well, Raiche said. They must have a white light in front and a red light in the rear. State statutes say that bicycles used between sunset and sunrise "shall be equipped with a lamp on the front exhibiting a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front and a lamp and reflector on the rear, each exhibiting a red light visible from a distance of 600 feet to the rear."

"We want people to be able to see you on the road," he said. "You should look for bicycles the same way you would look for a motorcycle."

"If you look for smaller vehicles, like bikes, you won't miss the semi," Raiche added.

A rideable city

Given the natural beauty of Destin and the close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, Raiche said there are no shortage of reasons why people take to their bikes and leave their cars at home.

"It's just a nice community to ride through," he said.

And while some areas are better than others, for the most part Councilman Wood told The Log that he "feels pretty safe" riding through Destin, having gone from the Destin Community Center to the Walton County line and back.

"There is a good bit of folks who are biking," he said.

He said some of his favorite areas to ride are the "back areas" of Destin, such as Indian Trail, since there are not as many motorists and "a lot of shade trees."

"Gulf Shore Drive to Norriego Point is also a pretty nice ride," he said.

As the city continues to encourage bike travel, Gallander told The Log that the city's public services crews are doing everything they can to keep the roadways and bike paths free of debris and other things that could cause riders trouble.

Currently the city doesn't have a street sweeping program, but talks are in place to potentially bring a service to Destin.

"This would help support our cycling network," Gallander said.

So whether it's keeping the streets clean for cyclists or planning for more multi-modal improvements throughout Destin, Gallander said the city is actively planning for ways to make the city more bike and pedestrian friendly.

"We're doing our best to provide for these different opportunities."