Florida Keys News
Saturday, December 15, 2012
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2,500 bicycle stops in push for safety
Some critical of 8-month $95K grant program

Ralph Salvas, a grant manager for the Florida Department of Transportation, has his own you-won't-believe-it Key West bicycle anecdote from spring break 2011.

"Key West was packed and this older guy was riding his bike down Roosevelt, popping a wheelie on a 10-speed bike, with traffic behind him," Salvas said the other day from his office in Tallahassee.

That is Roosevelt Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of U.S. 1 that runs north and south along the island.

"He was coming toward me," Salvas said. "I rolled down the window and told the guy, 'That is very dangerous.'" In response, the brazen bike rider held up his middle finger for Salvas to survey.

"You guys have a lot of pedestrians and bicycles in that area," said Salvas. "It's the best way to get around. It's really not that big of a city."

Eight months and more than 2,500 traffic stops later, Key West has wrapped up its bicycle and pedestrian safety program, fueled by a $95,000 federal grant administered through the state and monitored by Salvas.

The police statistics are in, and while city officials are claiming progress on bicycle safety education, some prominent residents who rely on two wheels for transportation feel they've been taken for a ride.

For now, the February through September program is history.

"Thank god," said Tom Theisen, vice president of the Key West Bicycle Association. "They've alienated us. They could have spent that money on signs instead of overtime for police officers."

Of the 2,528 bicycle stops, more than 1,900 were for stop-sign violations, while 867 were for people failing to have lights affixed to their rides, and 418 were wrong-way violations, according to the city's last report.

"We're No. 1 for bicycle deaths and No. 4 for pedestrian deaths for a town our size," said city spokeswoman Alyson Crean. "In order to try and address that, you try and educate people on bikes."

Key West ranked first on the list for the most bicycle fatalities and serious injuries between 2004 and 2009, according to the statewide survey.

"A lot of these cyclists are transient, so who are they educating?" said Theisen, 52, who runs a business providing rental bikes to local resorts. "The whole thing was a joke. Every two to four years they do this. They harass all the bicyclists."

The city applied for the grant, which paid police officers overtime to conduct special details and paid for a video camera used to make public service announcements, in response to a 2011 report that named Key West as the most dangerous city in its population class for bicycle crashes.

Yet in tiny Key West, where bicycles are many people's sole mode of transportation, the stepped-up patrols that netted 2,528 stops for the two-wheelers alone and 76 citations drew criticism for its approach.

"Early in the program, there were some members of this bicycle-centric community sensitive that they might be singled out for enforcement," wrote Key West Police Lt. Kathleen Ream, the project's director, in the city's final report to the state, dated Oct. 26. "As the initiative progressed, there seemed to be less opposition and a noticeable change in observed behavior of many local cyclists."

Crean, who earlier this year responded to a few criticisms of the program on social media, said the grant enabled the city to draw media coverage and pay officers to work the special bike enforcement details.

"We're not trying to 'catch' people, we're letting people know not to do it," said Crean.

The city didn't apply for a 2013 bicycle safety grant, but FDOT has received notice that the Police Department is interested in a 2014 grant.

Motorcyclists, however, will receive the next round of education treatment, according to FDOT, which will send $81,528 to Key West in the new year.

"They've got a campaign, 'Share the Road,'" Salvas said. "It's a motorcycle awareness campaign in Key West. It's for motorcycle safety."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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