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Florida Deadliest State for Cyclists

Frank Gilbert has been nudged a few times while riding a bike to work. Nudged is his term for cars bumping into him.

If you close your eyes and think of someone riding a bike to work, you might picture spandex and neon helmets. Maybe jean shorts and a handlebar mustache.

But that is not what Gilbert looks like. Gilbert is middle-aged, wearing khaki pants, a blue blazer and tie while cruising in his recumbent bike four miles to downtown Orlando. The trip takes him through residential streets and across busy highways four days a week.

“A part of my approach is to assume I’m invisible," Gilbert says while riding to work one recent morning.

Gilbert is one of the estimated 1,300 people in Central Florida who use a bicycle as their main way to get to work.  

It’s such a small sliver of his commute, but Gilbert has to constantly worry about people not seeing him in the road. I see his invisibility watching a line of cars make a right turn to get to a parking garage without yielding, one after the other.

“If I went out there, I would have to depend on them seeing and recognizing me,” Gilbert said.

  Orlando is latching on to a growing trend across the county of choosing a bike over a car to get around.  And nationwide, bike transportation is the fastest growing mode of transportation.

While more people are riding their bikes as their main means of transportation, in Florida it’s a deadly endeavor. The Sunshine State has the highest per capita rate of deadly bicycle accidents in the country.

One reason: Florida spent decades building roads designed to move commuters from homes in sprawling suburbs as fast as possible. Conventional wisdom says these roads were built for speed.

“That’s unfortunately true," said Joan Carter, the traffic safety specialist for the Florida Department of Transportation.

The state hired her to make the roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists. One example: the DOT passed a complete streets policy in October, which requires planners to include pedestrians and cyclists when designing roads.

“I’ve always said that DOT is kind of like a dreadnought," Carter said. "Originally it was aimed specifically at managing vehicular travel.”

But now they have to accommodate this growing number of cyclists. Now this may seem counter-intuitive, but what Florida needs is more cyclists and more pedestrians.

The idea is that, with critical mass, more drivers will see them, says Stefanie Feskin, deputy director of the National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America. And events like a bike to work day held recently in Orlando can help.

“Building those numbers, it really does make safety even better," Feskin said. "So you can be physically active without fearing serious injury or death with the more people out there.”

And some cities in Florida are taking matters into their own hands. Casselberry, Matiland and Winter Park brought in Bill Nesper to show them how to make their cities more bike friendly.

Nesper is with the League of American Bicyclists and Orlando hopes he’ll improve their rating. SunRail, the mass transit train for Orlando-area commuters, is a piece of the puzzle.

During a recent morning commute, Nesper rolled his bike onto a pretty crowded train car at a station in Winter Park.

“You’re seeing good things happen," Nesper said. "So right now, this is an example. I’m on Sunrail right now. I rolled my bike on here and I’m able to go to downtown Orlando now.”

Meanwhile, Frank Gilbert wraps up his 20-minute bike ride to work, from his Orlando home to his downtown job as an Orange County Public School administrator. To him, the risk of being hit is worth the saving of not owning a second car.

We pull into the garage at his work. The bike rack is right up front.

“I think you experienced it wasn’t a honk honk, beep beep kinda trip," Gilbert says to me.

How often does that happen?

"It's rare,” he said.

Abe Aboraya is a reporter with WMFEin Orlando. WMFE is a part of Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.