Biking to Florida's Future—Land&People

Early on a fall Saturday morning, I swung my bike onto the Pinellas Trail near downtown St. Petersburg, Florida. A handlebar bag and rear rack held my belongings for a two-day ride. Stretching more than 33 miles north from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs, through one of Florida's most urbanized coastal counties, the Pinellas Trail is one of the nation's most successful rail trails. An energetic cyclist could easily complete the distance in a day, but my mission was to explore how the trail had positively transformed the communities it traversed. I'd be traveling about three-quarters of the trail, stopping overnight along the way and talking to a variety of people about the trail's impact.

Midway up Florida's west coast, Pinellas County is flanked by Tampa Bay to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. Like all of urban Florida the county's population is growing quickly, from 850,000 when the trail opened in 1990 to 925,000 today. The trail links the county's richly varied communities and attractions, threading not only parks, scenic coasts, remnant groves of oaks draped in Spanish moss, waterways, and tidal streams, but also homey suburbs, gritty urban areas, and vibrant downtowns.

I felt exhilarated as I rode along, legs steadily pumping, the paved corridor, like a river, defying the orderly roadway grid. Fifteen feet wide, the trail offered plenty of room for the universe of trail users that swept past: walkers, joggers, skating kids, casual cyclists, spandex-clad road racers. One man pedaled while exercising his dog. Moms pushed infants in baby carriages. Seniors, who once made St. Petersburg and its green benches synonymous with sedentary retirement, were out in force and in motion.

Walking or riding the trail provides a far different experience from driving on the busy highways that bracket it. Trail users pass walls of murals showcasing wildlife and human diversity. I'm sure mine wasn't the only nose tickled by bacon smells wafting from kitchen windows in the still-early morning, and that I wasn't alone eyeing grapefruit that hung over a fence for easy picking. Railroad buff that I am, I pictured myself as a diesel engine, legs propelling bike wheels where trains once rolled. I loved coming around bends. I loved the easy grade.

I soon passed beneath a colorful sculpture announcing that I was in Gulfport, due west of St. Petersburg. Modeled on historic railroad signals, whimsical markers such as this one announce each of the trail's eight towns: St. Petersburg, Gulfport, Seminole, Largo, Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor, and Tarpon Springs at the northern end.

Lovers strolled hand in hand across the half-mile-long Cross Bayou Bridge-built especially for the trail above a tidal inlet north of Gulfport. Oyster beds carpeted the shallows below and kayakers floated among the mangroves. Anhingas, ubiquitous black waterbirds, perched on pilings and spread their wings wide to dry.

Before the trail went in, this old railroad corridor was a north-south rash of neglect. The Western Rail Line, which operated for nearly a century, was abandoned in the early 1980s. People tossed trash and brush onto the tracks and erected sheds along the corridor. A lumber company fenced off part of it for security.

After Florida's Department of Transportation acquired the corridor in 1983, a group of cyclists proposed a bikeway. Since 1988, the corridor has been managed by the county, which now owns it outright. Twice voters have approved taxes to pay for construction of what is more completely known as the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail (for a retired county manager who championed its funding). Currently the Trust for Public Land is working to acquire a rail corridor that would connect the trail, which now ends at the outskirts of St. Petersburg, directly to downtown.

The trail clusters activity and affects how people live. At least six bike shops have opened along its length. Trailside homes feature gates in their fences for easy on-and-off access. Shops offer trailside doorways to attract walkers and cyclists. A McDonald's proclaims itself the "McDonald's on the trail." According to Jerry Cumings, county manager of the trail since its opening, the path gets a million users each year. A third of them use the trail to commute to work or to shop. "Those people save a lot of gas," Cumings says. "That's a lot of local transportation. If folks get tired, they put their bike on a bus." The system of bikes-on-buses is only one aspect of trail use explained in a free pocket guide published by the county, which also details rest stops, service stations, restaurants, pay phones, bike shops, park areas, and much more along the entire length of the trail.

Clearwater, which I reached at midday, provided a good view of Florida in transition. In recent decades, its downtown, like many others, has lost out economically to the city's beach district. But downtown Clearwater will soon have a heartbeat again, according to Geraldine Campos, the city's director of economic development and housing, who showed me around. Fifteen hundred new residential units are planned. An architecturally acclaimed library has gone up. A sculpture garden has replaced a dank alley. A master streetscape plan is being implemented, and the bayfront Coachman Park will triple in size. A spur from the Pinellas Trail links downtown to Clearwater's popular beach, three miles away. "The trail going directly through town turns out to be a big asset," Campos says.

But no community along the trail has fared better than little Dunedin, the next town to the north. Before the trail opened, a third of the Main Street shops were empty. Today the place is thriving, says Bob Ironsmith, a planner and former developer who became community redevelopment director in 1995. While it is county policy to close the trail at dusk, the town of Dunedin has assumed liability so as to keep its part of the path open at night, when all downtown is festively lit. To tame traffic, Main Street has been reduced from four lanes to two. Utilities are going underground. On Fridays local farmers purvey organic produce in a restored park. Fifteen hundred visitors now show up on weekends, and almost 120,000 a year visit Dunedin for special events. New apartments and town homes are being built. "The trail has become the mother tree of the town," Ironsmith says. "Everything has branched out from it."

Near Dunedin, I stayed the night at Green Gables Bed and Breakfast, which advertises its location as a half-block from the trail. Olivier Grielen, who runs the inn with his wife, Frania, cycles the trail to work as a physical therapist at a Clearwater hospital. His wife says that a week doesn't go by without at least one couple staying at the inn with their bikes.

Sunday morning, after a double helping of breakfast home fries with yams, I was on the trail again headed for its end at Tarpon Springs, a colorful community since Greek immigrants began harvesting sponges here at the turn of the 20th century. But despite its location on the gulf and the tourist appeal of its sponge docks, the town still awaits renewal. This could depend on passage of a new county referendum, perhaps as early as 2008, to fund the extension of the trail eastward and then loop it back south toward St. Petersburg on an interior route. Tarpon could become the halfway point on an 80-mile bike loop and perhaps enjoy a revival like Dunedin's.

Pinellas Trail advocates also are working to link the trail to other existing and planned trails that in the next decade could carry cyclists some 300 miles, from St. Petersburg northward across the state to Palatka on the St. Johns River, near my home. Still other planned trails would link to St. Augustine, the Kennedy Space Center, and Orlando in a 500-mile loop.

In the meantime, I'm happy to be pedaling this trail to Florida's future. As the state becomes increasingly urban, trails like this one will give all Floridians more to love in this place we call home.

Herb Hiller is an observer, critic, and writer about tourism. His new book, Highway A1A, Florida at the Edge (University Press of Florida, 2005), reviews tourism, development, and the emergence of year-round Florida downtowns.