The Ancient City Ramble

I’ve always maintained that the best way to see a city is on a bicycle. And in the past few years I’ve had the good fortune to be able to tour Ottawa, Edinburgh, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Montreal, San Francisco, Helsinki and a few other great cities on two wheels.

But, listen, one of the best city bike tours you can take is right here in Florida. Try this 26-mile  self-guided Ancient City Ramble to experience the best that historic St. Augustine has to offer (sorry, New Mexico, Virginia and Mass, but we’re still No. 1 on the oldest city list).

Leave from the Ocean Pier on St. Augustine Beach. Why? Because it’s a great spot for a start-of-ride photo.

0.9 miles: Where the white crosswalk crosses Beach Blvd. look for a short unpaved footpath. Turn right there to get off A1A and into a lovely tree covered old Florida neighborhood. 

2.2 miles: That’s the St. Augustine Amphitheater on your right. There’s probably a concert there tonight. We’ve seen Willy Nelson, Steely Dan and a few other oldies but goodies there. 

2.9 miles: Stop and take the walk to the top of the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Best views in the city.

3.9 miles: The Conch House is one of the better known restaurants in St. Aug. Think a fish house on steroids. 

5.1 miles: Cross the historic Bridge of Lions. Take your lane, the cars behind you will wait.

5.9 miles: If you haven’t seen the honkin’ big Castillo de San Marcos, now’s your chance. Bristling with cannon and history.

6.6 miles: That’s the Great Cross on your right. Mariners can see it from miles out at sea. Great photo opportunity. Beautiful grounds. 

7.0 miles: The Fountain of Youth is not nearly as tourist hokey as it sounds. In fact, it’s a beautiful stroll along the Matanzas River and an informative walk through early Florida history.

6.6 miles: Yeah, you’re gonna cross that really tall bridge. It’s the only way to get to the quaint seaside community of Vilano Beach. 

8.8 miles: Well, you did the hard work of getting over that ginormous bridge. Might as well take a quick spin through Vilano before you have to ride back over it.

12.5 miles: That lovely campus on your right is the Florida School For The Deaf and Blind. 

13.8 miles: You are at Ft. Mose Park, site of the first free African settlement in North America. The fort is gone but there’s a museum there preserves its history and a really beautiful boardwalk stroll will lead you out into the marsh to the original site. 

14-14.3 miles: Exercise CAUTION on this left turn onto U.S. 1 quickly followed by another left  to get off of it. It’s a four-lane divided highway so take your time and execute these turns carefully and safely.

16.1: You’ve reached the Old City Gates and all of the Ancient City attractions on the pedestrian-only Spanish Street. Park your bike and take a stroll through history.

16.6: Flagler College is another excellent place to stop and walk. I recommend the guided tour, which will take you to the roof for great views.

17 miles: St. Augustine Distillery. You know what to do.

18.1 miles: That compound to your right is where the horses live when they are not pulling carriages up and down Ancient City streets.

18.1: You have arrived at one of St. Augustine’s best kept secrets, Freedom Park. Its circular bike-ped path gives you great views of the San Sebastián and Matanzas rivers, and there are great sculptures depicting the city’s African American heritage.

19 miles: You are in the heart of St. Augustine’s historic African American neighborhood. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested near here. Check out the Civil Rights House.

19.4: The coolest neighborhood in St. Aug. is the quaint waterside neighborhood of Lake Maria Sanchez. 

19.9: Lightner Museum on your left. The restored San Marco Hotel (great bar) on your right. 

20.2: Why did the cyclist cross the Bridge of Lions twice? To finish the ride of course. 

22.2: St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park. In addition to a swampload of reptiles this place boasts a world class rookery (birds like it here because the gators protect them from predators that can climb trees).

22.8: Can’t visit St. Augustine without seeing Anastasia State Park. You can rent kayaks and paddle boards on the salt run. Or walk for miles on its car-free beach. 

25.4: Thousands of motorists pass the St. Augustine Beach Sculpture Garden every day and don’t give it a second thought. But that’s their loss. This quirky collection of statuary clustered on the edge of a small lake is very cool.

26.2: You’re on Beach Blvd. Tons of great restaurants in case your hungry. 

26.4: Back at the Ocean Pier. You took a beginning-of-ride photo, might as well end the same way to commemorate a memorable urban ride.fba5f828-c6ed-49b3-9d37-6f7a394f98a2 Continue reading “The Ancient City Ramble”

The deadliest state to walk

Welcome to Florida. We’ve got it all.

Stunning beaches, world class theme parks. Enjoy your visit.

Just don’t get out of your car. 

Because outside the protection of your air conditioned steel exoskeleton, Florida’s car friendly roads are mean streets indeed.

Add to the growing list of things we don’t want tourists to know about – red tide, green algae, Florida Man – is this stunner. 

Florida is the most pedestrian deadly state in America.

Eight of the nation’s ten most dangerous metro areas for walkers are right here in the Sunshine State. Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Daytona, Ft. Myers, Sarasota…the usual suspects.

In just the past decade, more than 5,400 pedestrians in Florida have been killed by motorists. 

This according to the latest annual “Dangerous By Design” report by Smart Growth America.

Nationally, more than 49,000 pedestrians have been killed in the decade just past. 

“That’s more than 13 people per day, or one person every hour and 46 minutes,” the group reports. “It’s the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of people crashing—with no survivors—every single month.”

And here’s the really worrisome thing. Pedestrian death rates are on the rise even as overall traffic fatalities are decreasing. 

The last decade saw a 35 percent increase in pedestrian deaths. Meanwhile, fatalities among motor vehicle occupants shrank by 6.1 percent. 

So cars are getting safer? Well, they are certainly getting faster, bigger and heavier – witness the increase in SUV and pickup truck sales, while sedan lines are being discontinued for lack of consumer interest.

“Why is this happening?” poses SGA. “We’re not walking more, and we’re only driving slightly more than we were back in 2008.”

Rather, “we are continuing to design streets that are dangerous for all people.”

And you don’t have to go to Orlando or Tampa to see examples of dangerously overdesigned “stroads” (high-speed roads disguised as city streets). 

Just take a drive east on Archer Road through the heart of the UF medical center complex – at the point where the speed limit abruptly drops from 45 mph to 25 and then 20 mph.

That corridor is a pedestrian rich environment, with health care workers, visitors and patients alike crossing Archer to get from one hospital to another. So 20 mph makes eminent sense

But try driving the legal limit there and watch the cars speed past you. 

Again, the problem isn’t the posted limit. The problem is that Archer – and 34th Street, and 16th Blvd, and 13th Street and so many other Gainesville stroads – are designed to highway specifications, with broad, multiple travel lanes, clear lines of sight, and few roadside obstructions. 

Traffic engineers call them “forgiving” roads, designed to minimize the potential for injuries and deaths when motorists do something reckless. Like drive too fast through the heart of the city. 

But forgiving roads are also empowering roads. By their very design they encourage people to drive faster than the law or common sense dictates. That’s good for motorists in a hurry, but a potential death sentence if you are on foot and trying to cross the road.

Gainesville is among a growing number of cities that are beginning to adopt “Vision Zero” and “Complete Streets” policies aimed at calming traffic and making life safer for pedestrians and cyclists. But transportation funding priorities and road design standards are largely decided by state and federal officials. 

Listen, if jumbo jets were falling out of the sky at a rate of one per month they would certainly sit up and take notice in D.C. and Tallahassee. 

So why are so many dead pedestrians of so little concern?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

A land so strange

Jean Ribault was The First Coast’s First Tourist. 

The French explorer made landfall, on April 30, 1562, where the placid St. John’s empties into the Atlantic. There Ribault discovered a “faire cost, streching of a gret lenght,” and an “infenite number of highe and fayrc trees.” 

Hey, the guy was from out of state. 

But never mind that. The point is that, thanks to public ownership of the Talbot Islands and the primitive wetlands of the vast Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, much of the coastal landscape between Mayport to the south and Amelia Island to the north remains pretty much as Ribault must have found it: Miles of deserted beaches, wide stretches of palmetto scrublands broken up by forests of salt-sculpted, moss-draped oaks and stands of palms…all of it sandwiched between the ocean and a wonderland of twisting creeks, sloughs, mud flats and rookeries. 

Which is why this is one of my all time favorite Florida bike rides – a 40-mile trek up the Talbot Islands to Fernandina Beach and back. 

Start riding at the entrance to Little Talbot Island State Park, my all-time favorite winter camping ground.

For the first mile and a half you share A1A with some fairly fast moving traffic. But it’s got bike lanes and there are only two place, both narrow bridge crossings, where you briefly have to share the road with cars. Just be careful.

Mile 1.5: A quick right jog and you’re off the highway and onto the Timucuan Multi-Use Pathway. This is a beautifully designed off-road bike/ped path that runs the rest of the length of Big Talbot all the way to Nassau Sound. Winding and tree covered, it is a gorgeous trail.

Just after the 4 mile mark, you’ll arrive at Big Talbot Island Boneyard Beach. If you’re on a hybrid or fat tire bike you can ride down to the Boneyard  – so named for all of the fallen trees strewn along the shoreline like bleaching whale bones. If you’re on a road bike it’s still worth a short hike to the bluff overlook for the amazing view.

Leaving Boneyard Beach the paved trail soon becomes a wooden walkway. There are two covered bird watching shelters here overlooking a beautiful expanse of shallow blue water and mangrove swamps alive with – what else? – birds. 

Mile 5. You are crossing Nassau Sound on the long, slender Coastal Highway Bridge. To your right are awesome views of the Atlantic. To your left fishermen are lined up along the old George Crady bridge….long since closed off to traffic and now reserved for anglers. (I used to write about then-Rep. Crady when he was in the Florida Legislature, back in the ’70s. He would bring his guitar to the House floor to entertain fellow lawmakers while they were waiting for the leadership to hammer out a budget agreement.)

Now you are on Amelia Island, home of the rich and shameless. There is a separated bike path running up the southern stretch of the island, but using it necessitates frequent stops at the entrances of hotels, resorts and condo communities. I prefer to stay on A1A, which has perfectly adequate bike lanes.

Mile 9.6: Hang a rightcf447d95-09e9-4958-8fde-18663c56e8aa960c28f2-7028-4a00-84b8-3dcfad8ca4b6 on Burney Road and head to the beach. In this case, historic American Beach.

Why historic? Because in 1935, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, bought up this stretch of beach so his employees could vacation there. For decades it was one of the few Florida beaches where blacks could afford to live and play. Now it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a relatively modest and quiet beach community. 

Mile 11. You’re on the Amelia Island Parkway, a two-laned, low speed canopied road that takes you past the Ritz Carlton. Hey, stop for cocktails if you have a fat wallet. 

Mile 13: You’re on South Fletcher Ave., a two-laned road with narrow bike lanes that runs for several miles along the beach. But don’t count on seeing too much ocean…literally hundreds of beach houses block your view. 

Mile 18: That’s Ft. Clinch State Park on your right. I know I said this was a 40 mile ride (out and back) but if you want to chalk up still more miles take a detour through that long, skinny state park to its Civil War- era fort. The fort is spectacular and the views along the way are breathtaking. It’s about three miles in and three miles out if you go all the way. You might even catch sight of some of the wild horses that live on nearby Cumberland Island. 

After passing Ft. Clinch you’ll cross Egan’s Creek. That elegant tower off to the right is Amelia Lighthouse, one of the oldest in Florida. 

Mile 20: You have arrived in the heart of historic Fernandina Beach. A classic old Florida downtown. Need lunch? There are a ton of great restaurants and cafes. A beer maybe? The Palace claims to be the granddaddy of all Florida saloons. 

And just before you get to the waterfront stop at the Visitor’s Center in the old railroad station on Front Street. That gent sitting on the bench is David Levy Yulee. He doesn’t say much – heck he’s bronze after all – but Yulee has a fascinating history. He opened up the Florida frontier when he built a railroad from Fernandina to Cedar Key. He was a U.S. Senator for a while, but also got tossed into prison for supporting the confederacy.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to visit the Shrimp Museum and take a walk on the waterfront. 

Then get on your bike again, turn around, and head back to Little Talbot. The return ride is every bit as scenic and spectacular. 


Our most dangerous act

Imagine you are hurling through space and time.

Perhaps you are running late. Or you have a long way to go.

And your speedometer begins to creep up….70 mph, 75….80…

No worries. You are encased in a modern vehicle with all of the latest safety features.

And you are on a wide, multi-laned interstate highway designed by experts to accommodate large volumes of traffic moving at high speeds over great distances. 

Perhaps it is high noon. Or the dead of night. There may be fog. Or a bit of rain, or gusting wind.

And all around you are fellow travelers moving at more of less equivalent velocity. 

Except for that troublesome fellow who insists on driving a notch below the speed limit while he stubbornly occupies an inside lane. 

Do you pass him to the right, or stay on his tail?

And what about that rocket jockey, forever darting from one lane to the next and hopping from one empty space to another determined to get out in front of the pack?

And those drivers whose vehicles are 10 times the size and weight of yours. They are pros who work behind the wheel. Surely they can be trusted. 

Say, is that pro nodding off?

Is that woman texting? Is that guy watching a video? Are those tires as bald as they look? Shouldn’t the junk in that truck bed be tied down?

Call it the autoAmerican paradox. 

For most of us, driving is the single most dangerous thing we do in the course of our ordinary lives. 

But because we do so much of it, it is also the most mundane, ordinary and casual function we perform. 

Much of the time we hardly think of its inherent risks. We get behind the wheel. Switch on the ignition. And drive. 

Until that one panic-filled split second when the terror of it all is suddenly driven home to us. 

It must have been like that in the split seconds leading up to that fiery collision last week on I-75.

And just like that seven people were dead. 

Five of them children. 

And once again we were reminded, in brutal fashion, of just how dangerous this most mundane, ordinary and casual act can be. 

And if that gruesome accident grabbed your attention, if only for a moment, then please pause to consider that it really wasn’t so unusual at all.

On any given day in America, about 90 people die in traffic. 

And those kids? Did you know that car crashes are the leading cause of death for American children? Far outpacing gunshots, cancers, drownings, overdoses or other causes of youthful mortality.

Please consider that the sheer, staggering body count on the nation’s highways must surely qualify death by driving as a public health epidemic.

An epidemic that demands full mobilization of our resources and expertise.  

“In 2016 more than 37,000 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes,” so notes the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in its 2018, 15th annual “Road Map” report.

Add to that some 2.4 million injuries, and Advocates concludes: “This is a major public health epidemic by any measure.”

So let’s talk about that. Please. 

I intend to do so in some of my future columns going into 2019. And up front, I will tell you this: There is no simple answer. No easy solution. No quick fix. No magic cure for this epidemic.

But we really do need to talk about split-second life and death in autoAmerica. It is that important.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.)