Commuting Without the Car
Adapted from an interview with Dakota Parks
I was born and raised in Pensacola and graduated from Escambia High School. In high school, I started mountain biking on the trails at the University of West Florida and riding around downtown Pensacola on my bike taking photos for a photography class. In college, I used my bike to get around campus. I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a B.S. in Civil Engineering in 2002. I’m 45 years old, a single parent to my 13-year-old daughter, Ava, and I’m a structural engineer at Schmidt Consulting Group. We have a cat named Flower and a Beagle-mix named Sokka that I actually adopted during a Bike Pensacola slow ride.
My passion for a lifestyle independent of the automobile began when I moved to New Orleans. The 2008 economic recession forced me to look for work outside of Pensacola. The closest city where I was able to find a job was New Orleans. My daughter was a newborn at the time, so I would drive back every weekend. The amount of time that I was spending in a car was having serious impacts on my physical and mental health, so I decided to start riding my bike into work. I remember how nervous I was at first, but it changed my life. New Orleans is very walkable and bikeable, so my car would rarely be used on the weekdays.
In 2016, I finally found a job that allowed me to move back to Pensacola. Luckily the office is downtown. I found a 1908 historical home only a couple miles away in the Eastside Neighborhood that I have been slowly working on, so I have been able to arrange my life to be able to use the car as little as possible. Now, if I have to drive somewhere, it almost seems like a burden where riding my bike seems so convenient.
I use my bike as much as possible for as many tasks as I can. Frequent destinations include the office, the grocery store, Palafox market, breweries, the YMCA, restaurants, and coffee shops. I have two bikes set up for commuting with racks, lights, and bags. One of them is a folding bike that is well suited for the urban environment. It folds up into a compact package and can be loaded onto public transportation or stored in a small living space. My other bike is a long trail cargo bike, the Yuba Mundo. It is meant for hauling and transporting. I originally purchased the bike to transport my then 4-year-old daughter around. Until she was 10 years old, I would ride her into school. Now that she is a teenager, she wouldn’t be caught dead on the back of the bike. These days it’s mainly used for fetching groceries.
Biking really makes every day more pleasant. I don’t dread the commute anymore. One of the best things about riding is the connection with the community. At speeds of 10-15mph without a steel and glass enclosure, I am able to connect with the people and places as I pass through them. Unfortunately, it has made me more cynical about how we build our cities. I see the society that the car-dominated culture creates, and it isn’t pleasant, it isn’t attractive, and it isn’t healthy.
There is a lot of work to be done to make Pensacola a safer and more bike-friendly city. Bike Pensacola does this in several ways by encouraging bike use and hosting slow bike rides, advocating for safer bike and pedestrian infrastructure, attending council meetings, reviewing local projects and providing comments, educating on social media, and encouraging citizen involvement in the discussion.
In general, you need several key elements to create a bikeable and walkable community: you need people, places to go, and a comfortable way to get there—car free, of course. I think Pensacola has great bones though. Its tight rectilinear street grid allows for people to travel through the city without using any major automobile thoroughfares. Improvements in these areas would include mapped bike routes. While these routes would allow automobiles, they would give deference to alternative forms of transportation by slowing cars through the use of traffic calming measures.
Other improvements would include better neighborhood development aesthetics. This could be accomplished with a form-based code similar to the one in the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) overlay districts. By doing so, we could get vehicles out of front yards, eliminate the front-loaded garage, hide parking, move the front of the houses and buildings to the sidewalk. When you aren’t driving at 35 mph, aesthetics matter. We need to plant more trees, create shady routes, and build more and better sidewalks.