DUNEDIN — Picture it. A late summer afternoon on a popular portion of the Pinellas Trail:
A shirtless guy in an “Indiana Jones” hat does squats on the west side of the trail. His form, impressive. At the downtown intersection, a couple wanders across the dividing line. “Ooh, ice cream!” one says as a scooter nearly crashes into them. Farther down, a bold woman answers to no God. She walks a German Shepherd across the width of the trail, stretching the leash over all lanes like a slackline.
Who is right? Who’s a good boy? Did they get soft serve? Is this an NBC sitcom? And how many instructions do human beings require when it comes to sharing a public space?
The Pinellas Trail is a 57-mile community lifeline running through the most densely populated county in Florida. For our purposes today, we’re zooming in on one of its most high-traffic areas: Dunedin, charming coastal city of beer, art and dedicated townsfolk. Longtime readers may note that I am one of those townsfolk.
For the decade I’ve lived near the trail, I’ve observed that chiding those in the wrong lane has been something of a local pastime. The trail’s old traffic patterns perhaps defied American standards of movement, but they were clear:
Skinny side with image of walker = walking side. Wide side with image of cyclist = biking side. This split, at its most noble, kept runners, pooches and waddling children away from Tour de France hopefuls and tank topped bar crawlers on beach cruisers.
That was the decree, and it mostly worked.
Around February, though, trail users noticed curious black blocks covering our friendly stick figures with no signage explaining why. The internet sprang to life with theories. Were the markers being repainted? Were the rules... changing?
The truth is stranger than speculation. Fall down the rabbit hole of local governance minutiae, the interdepartmental hot potato, the snail’s pace of community progress, the wearying anthropology of human behavior, and prepare to cackle incredulously. Are you ready?
We’ve been using the trail wrong for years. Pinellas County changed the official philosophy to “keep right, pass left” in... 2014.
“It was never intended to be an immediate change,” Lyle Fowler, operations manager for the Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resource Department, told me. “We recognized at the time that it would need to be a progression of things.”
Back then, Fowler said, the county considered inking a deal with a trail sponsor. That deal didn’t materialize, but the effort resulted in 27 signs outlining the rules of the trail. Those are still up today, including in Dunedin, with the third bullet point stating:
Keep right except to pass.
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So, you could argue the instructions were there all along. But you’d have to stop, read the small print and decide that the third bullet point overruled the lane markers. Unlikely! Over the years, St. Petersburg covered its trail markers, Fowler said, and others markings faded naturally. Seven months ago, the county Public Works Department began a two-year project to finally restripe the pavement and install signs, though not all at once.
In Dunedin, this effort emerged like a cubist patchwork; at one point, the words KEEP RIGHT appeared all in white, only to be covered again, along with other shifting swatches of paint. Fowler said the project had some “false starts.” Messy or not, though, residents would have to adapt, something history tells us is always a seamless and pleasurable process.
“It wasn’t an option to have 1-mile in the Dunedin area that remained,” Fowler said. “We thought that would be too confusing.”
This one-size-fits-all mindset really rusts the gears of Steve Thomas, who retired to Dunedin from South Carolina five years ago. He spends his days finding lost heirlooms with a metal detector and jogs on the trail three times a week. He started asking questions and eventually joined the Forward Pinellas Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee, where he pushed for keeping Dunedin’s section as is.
In particular, he points to a certain area that I admit also vexes my aching brain. Dunedin has breakaway trail sections, as does Largo and Seminole (Fowler reports no drama in those areas). This means the wide and skinny parts are divided by a grass median. Keeping right on a bike could mean crashing into people and poodles.
At this literal and figurative fork in the road, I asked, what should the people do? Cyclists are welcome to stay right on the wide side, Fowler said. And if Dunedin wants to make a proposal, he said, the county could potentially look into paving the grassy area, which would turn those breakaway zones into one big block of pavement with equal lanes, matching the rest of the trail.
Is this all sounding very Pawnee? Like someone is going to show up to a government meeting with a miniature horse? Probably. But consider the gravity of seemingly small issues, roads and paths and patches of grass that get us to work, to a park, to a moment of peace. Routines become manna in a chaotic world. When they change, it can unmoor us — and lay bare our competing values.
The Facebook comments sometimes ran 80 posts deep and revealed two lines of thinking. Some people wanted more clarity, more messaging. I agree that more communication is better. Think of how often you go to the kitchen and forget what you came for!
“If you don’t educate, you have people who get upset with each other because they don’t know that things have changed,” Thomas said. “They try to enforce it among themselves, which doesn’t work.”
The flip side is this sentiment:
“Is it that complicated?” Dunedin city commissioner Jeff Gow said. “A skinny path versus a big path? If you’re a pedestrian, take the skinny path.”
For the record, Gow thinks “keep right” works along most of the trail but that the old way works best in busy Dunedin. He preferred to talk about what it all means, which is how alternate transportation can flourish in Florida. People are passionate about arrows and signs because they’re passionate about the trail.
“I like the fact that we’re community-driven,” he said.
Self-governance is hard. Any trail user can tell you that there’s always something to be cranky about. If it’s not directional arrows, it’s e-bikes. Speed limits. Ear buds. Hoverboards. Bike racks. Stop signs. Yacht rock blaring from portable speakers.
“It’s probably some kind of commentary on how people are willing to get along in crowded spaces,” Fowler said, a sentence that has haunted me since.
I do believe from experience that most people strive to get along. We wave and nod, coo at the dogs, woo at the revelers. Sometimes we just need a guiding hand. Or several.
In fact, every person with an official title seemed a tad tired of delivering a kindness reminder. They answered my questions well enough, then ended with impassioned pleas, behests for humanity to please keep their act together as we try to coexist in a variety of athleisure. Be nice, they said. Be clean. Be safe. Don’t holler at people or creatures, even when the urge to be correct wells up inside like a tiny fist. Civility, after all, is free in all directions.
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