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Letter From The Keys: Getting Around Island-Style

Andy Newman
Florida Keys News Service

  In 24 years living and working in the Keys, I've had a bunch of different jobs. My longest commute was less than five miles. I felt pretty sorry for myself — because I had to get in the car every day.

Most of the time, my primary transportation has been my bike. That's not without some drawbacks. In summer, you have to prepare for downpours. And you can get sweaty just riding a mile across the island.

But it's so worth it. Bikes are cheap — you can get a really good one for the equivalent of one month's car payment. No insurance or registration required. Fueling up with café con leche and cheese toast is a lot more affordable than buying a tank of gas. Parking is free and convenient. I feel aggrieved when I have to lock my bike more than half a block from my destination.

And when you're traveling through Old Town Key West — which was designed for humans, not cars — a lot of times it's actually faster on a bike.

A lot of us who live in Old Town rely on our bikes this way. But we're lucky and we know it. For most people who live in the Keys, there's no escaping the car. Especially once you're outside of Key West, life in the Keys has a defining and unifying factor: U.S.  1.

The Overseas Highway, along with the water pipeline that runs underneath, makes life as we know it in the Keys possible. Most of what we eat, drink or otherwise consume is trucked down here from the mainland. Our economy relies on tourists, many of whom drive here. So do the workers for a lot of our hotels, restaurants and stores, especially once you get above the Seven Mile Bridge.

If you live along the island chain, U.S. 1 can really dominate your life. To the point where you calculate what time to run out for groceries, when to leave for work, how many after-school activities your kids can do. That may sound familiar if you live in Kendall or Weston. Except ... we don't have an alternate route. Our only road is the aptly named U.S. 1.

If Islamorada is part of your commute, you have to factor in Snake Creek Bridge. That last drawbridge on the Overseas Highway opens once an hour so sailboats can travel between Florida Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. On land, everything comes to a stop.

On weekends, especially in the Upper Keys, it's an even more serious question. Like Cape Cod or the Jersey Shore, we're the weekend getaway for a major metropolitan area. And it doesn't feel like there's much of an off-season any more.

So how — and why — do we cope with that? I learned to deal with traffic slowdowns on the Overseas Highway a long time ago by trying to envision it as a train. If you look at modern U.S.  1 that way, you can just accept that you're on a single track, and you don't control the speed.

Enjoy the view. There's nothing like topping the Seven Mile Bridge arch over Moser Channel and seeing the mangrove islands and blue-and-green water spread out before you. Driving home after a long day that includes 200 miles of highway, I still think: Wow. I get to live here.

Like all of South Florida, tourism is booming in the Keys. That boom means more cars,  and more cars mean more brake lights more often. Technology is helping. The Monroe County Sheriff's Office offers cellphone notifications when the highway is closed and when it re-opens.

We gripe about the delays, but the truth is most of us live here by choice. Sharing that highway — that lifeline — is typical of our community. We live in close quarters but value independent thinking. We have to share one road — but we're still comfortable with everyone going their own way.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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