How Walton County improved their bike infrastructure and added custom bike racks to attract more bicycling tourists
What makes a destination community special? Is it just beaches and mountains? Or is there something else going on that gives you a sense this place is truly different. For example, you may notice how easy a town makes it to get around and interact with all their beautiful scenery.
One great way to do that is with a solid bicycling infrastructure – bike lanes, bicycle parking racks (in South Walton’s case – custom bike racks) and accessibility to plenty of rental bikes or bike share programs.
South Walton in the Florida Panhandle is such a place. It’s located on the gulf, just west of Panama City, where spectacularly bright “sugar” quartz sand meets a calm turquoise-colored sea. This stretch of beach is called the “Emerald Coast” and it truly is one of the crown jewels of America’s coastlines.
There’s a 26-mile stretch of beaches that is home to 16 very cool and scenic communities. One of them is the famed “Seaside” town that was featured in the movie, The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey.
This whole South Walton region has received numerous accolades – “Best Beach on Earth” by Travel and Leisure Magazine, “Best Places to Travel in 2015” by Money magazine, “Best Family Beach” by the Travel Channel, “14 Best Beach Towns in America” by Thrillist, one of the “2015 Hassle-free Florida Escapes” by USA Today, “Best Wedding Destinations” in the United States, etc. The praise just goes on and on.
You can see why. South Walton is a laid-back mix of incredible scenery, interesting shops, intriguing galleries and mouth-watering four-star restaurants. Population is sparse with just 27,000 residents in a county with overall population of 59,000.
A two-lane Highway 30A runs right along the coast so any time you want, you can hop out of your car or jump off your bike and onto the beach. Enjoy a swim in the crystal clear water or watch a relaxing sunset with a glass of wine and a beach chair.
There isn’t a huge wall of towering condos blocking access to the beach or sun. Building heights are limited.
Sprinkled within that stretch of 30A are several interesting beach communities. Interspersed between them are plenty of protected areas with forests, lakes and sand dunes.
At Deer Lake and a few other locations, for example, you can see a rare coastal dune lake. It’s something you will only see in a few places on earth such as Madagascar or New Zealand. These lakes connect with the ocean and contain a mixture of salt and brackish water.
(Ironically, as if the beaches weren’t enough, Walton County is also home to the highest point in Florida – the 345 foot high Britton Hill near the Alabama border).
The local vegetation consists of tall pines, live oaks, scrub oaks, magnolias and palmetto palms. Unlike South Florida beaches, the South Walton coastline is filled with giant sand dunes, some as high as 25 feet.
Because so much land is protected, there’s plenty of wildlife too – White Tailed Deer, Gopher Tortoises, Red Headed Woodpeckers, falcons, eagles, White Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Florida Black Bear, coyotes, wild boar and foxes.
The area is certainly diverse, tremendously scenic and inviting to explore.
One of the state’s most popular resort areas
Because of those amenities, the area attracts a huge number of visitors. Most come just in the summer. Some come during the winter months, but the weather can get chilly compared to say Miami further south.
In fact, the area is so popular, is has earned the title of No. 1 Coastal Economy in Florida each summer, beating out even Miami or the Florida Keys.
“We’re a tiny place compared to those places,” said Jon Ervin, Walton County Director of Marketing and Communications, Tourist Development Council.
As you can imagine, because it is such a pretty location, without any major highways clogging up the coastline, getting around can be difficult.
“We do feel the pressure of traffic during the season,” he said.
So what is the best way to experience this special place?
Hop on a bike. The place is perfect for pedaling around.
Bicycling infrastructure and plenty of bike parking racks.
When you visit South Walton, and in particular the famous Seaside community, the first thing you notice are all the bikes. And bicycle parking racks. They are everywhere.
Bike rental shops along 30A will literally have dozens of colorful bikes parked out in front of their establishments.
Drive around town and you will see plenty of bikes available at different communities, resorts or condominium complexes.
And what you quickly realize is that it is much easier to find parking for a bicycle than it is for a car. So once you do find a parking spot for your car, the smart thing to do is leave it there.
Bicycling is the preferred mode of transportation.
This approach is particularly emphasized in the town of Seaside. The place is literally an architectural wonderland.
The smartly-designed homes with their small Southern town features include an incredible array of observation towers, pastel colored cottages, “sleeping “ front porches, white picket fences and brick streets. The beach pavilions, each designed by a different architect, are a visual feast in themselves.
The town is famous for its planned, distinctive look. It is constantly featured in home and architectural magazines, studied in architectural schools and visited frequently by designers.
“Seaside is probably the most known small town in the world,” said Jon.
The town consists of about 300 homes built on 80 acres owned by Robert Davis who inherited the land from his grandfather.
When he obtained the property, rather than just allow the development of a scattering of random homes here and there, Davis and his wife Daryl wanted to do something different.
They teamed up with cutting-edge architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk to create a new type of master-planned community.
Duany and Plater-Zyberk incorporated aspects of an ever-evolving and popular concept in town planning called “New Urbanism.”
That concept throws out the old idea of cities here, suburbs there and highways in between. The new model is to create communities that are a blend of residential, retail and office. Everything in one place. And then provide access to everything by making the entire community more walkable and bikeable.
“The creators put a great deal of thought into making Seaside a neighborly small town,” said Jon. “Seaside has become known around the world as the birthplace of new urbanism.”
The result – a mixture of very cool, vintage style homes, stores and offices situated on curved, tree-lined roads. This structure makes it easy to walk or bike to all destinations, including the town square or the beaches. It’s basically a return to simpler times instead of the present where in most communities we have to drive everywhere.
To provide that access, planners make sure bike parking racks are everywhere. Parking spaces are limited. That’s fine, because it means more green spaces and less asphalt.
“Seaside was designed with the purpose to make it inviting to take a walk to get a loaf of bread or bike to the beach for a swim or to watch a sunset,” Jon pointed out.
Architect Dhiru Thadani, who wrote an extensive book on the community, said, “The month I stayed there I didn’t have a car. I did have a bicycle. It showed me I could actually live comfortably in a place without actually owning a car. That’s remarkable in this country.”
That same emphasis on “New Urbanism” has spread to the neighboring beach communities – Miramar Beach, Sandestin, Dune Allen, Gulf Place, Santa Rosa Beach, Blue Mountain, Grayton Beach, WaterColor, Seagrove, Water Sound, Seacrest, Alys Beach, Rosemary Beach and Inlet Beach. Other similar planned developments are in the works.
In all those areas you will also notice there are plenty of bike parking racks. Bicycling is obviously the most efficient way to get around these small coastal towns. Leave the car at home.
The beautiful Timpoochee Trail
What’s really incredible about South Walton is that there is a fantastic, paved multi-use path that runs for 19 miles along 30A. The trail connects bicycle riders to all those beachfront neighborhoods with an incredible display of scenery in-between.
The path is called the Timpoochee Trail, named after a Native-American chief, and it is one of the most leisurely (and safe) bike trails a bicycling enthusiast could ever hope to encounter in their life.
For one, the trail is nice and wide. All the way through. Bicycles coming in opposite directions can easily pass one another.
Secondly, for the most part, the trail is mostly flat.
“It’s inviting for any age or ability and that’s the general appeal,” said Jon.
Next, the trail is not a bike lane that’s part of a highway like most bike lanes. There’s a buffer which keeps it separate.
And the bike lane is paved, providing a very smooth ride.
At intersections or other areas there are very clear trail markers letting you know which way to turn and when to be extra cautious.
For situations when the trail must run next to the highway, there are safety bollards with illumination tape installed between the road and the trail.
It’s this attention to bicycling detail (and again, to the safety of bicyclists) that makes the Timpoochee Trail a pedaling paradise.
“This trail is very well liked and used by many people,” said Josh Ervin, beach maintenance manager for the county (no relation to Jon).
Take a casual ride on this trail and you can stop at several points. Check out the dune lakes. Rest in the shade of a wooded area. Or park the bike and walk up the boardwalks that stretch over the dunes to jump into the gulf and cool off. There are plenty of fun restaurants and cafes along the way for lunch or dinner.
If you don’t have a bike, you can find several bike rentals places in town such as Big Daddy’s Bike Shop, Big Fish Bike Rentals, Sunny Days Bike and Beach Sports, 30A Bike Rentals and Yellowfin Ocean Sports.
For mountain biking, there are four state parks in Walton County plus Point Washington State Forest. That land covers 40% of the county and acts as a buffer between the coast and other residential or commercial areas.
Bicycle parking racks everywhere
To enhance their bicycle parking capabilities at the beach communities, South Walton recently added about 200 new custom bike racks they purchased from The Park and Facilities Catalog, a national distributor of bicycle parking racks and other site furnishings.
For one, beach maintenance officials wanted to make sure there was plenty of access to these spectacular beaches. Some beach areas have restricted private entrances. To do that, the officials decided to provide an abundance of sturdy, secure bicycle racks in public areas so people could lock up their bikes correctly and safely.
Locking bikes to a tree or post can be unsightly. Previously, with the county’s existing bike racks, there was also a mishmash of different types and styles.
“There were no standards,” said Josh, “We wanted to present a consistent product at all access points and these bike racks certainly helped accomplish that.”
The custom bike racks they purchased display the words “Visit South Walton” which is laser-cut into the metal, along with their unique wave/dune logo. The town chose this particular format because they wanted to reinforce the branding they work so hard to promote.
“We wanted to make sure visitors know they are in South Walton and to sustain that destination marketing (in their minds),” said Jon.
Harsh weather, rain or the hot sun are not going to stop those bike racks from delivering their message. The racks are also treated with a tough powder-coating to prevent rust and wear from the elements.
With the large diameter tubing, these bike racks will support two bikes upright. The bikes can be locked securely with a U-lock through the frame and even with secondary locks for the wheels. Considering the price of some bikes these days, using multiple locks on a stable, inverted-U bike rack is the smart way to park a bicycle.
For South Walton and the town of Seaside, bicycling is basically a way of life.
“You will see families dressed up in the finest clothes and still riding their bikes to a four-star restaurant,” said Jon, “The bicycle is the solution.”
As you can imagine, when you create a great beach destination and people flock to the area during the summer months, parking close to the shore can be an issue. In a place such as Seaside, parking is very limited and restricted. There are only a few public access points to the beach.
Then you have the traffic along 30A, which has mostly low speed limits. In fact, most beach towns across the country face the same traffic situation during the summer months.
How do you fix it? Make it easier to bicycle to the beach or other key locations. That’s a strategy advocated by South Walton officials – and it works.
“The response to these new bike racks has been positive and they are well received,” said Josh.
Again, it’s those little touches of attention to bicycling detail that can make a huge difference to bike enthusiasts and tourists in general.
Jon said future bicycle-related improvements might include funds to improve and expand existing trails. Upgrades are proposed for the “Long Leaf Greenway,” a 27-mile path that connects several parks and wooded areas.
Another part of South Walton’s marketing strategy is to promote itself as a year-round destination. Incredible and smooth bike paths or fun mountain biking trails are certainly a draw when it comes to bicycle tourism. That strategy could actually be a very pleasant reason to visit in the cooler months of fall, winter and spring.
Here’s one key statistic that is a testament to South Walton’s appeal. A random sampling of visitors was surveyed and 95% indicated “intent to revisit.” In the tourism industry, that number is huge.
What those results mean is “They found us and now will keep coming back,” explained Jon, “and biking is a huge part of that.”
A destination with one or two amenities can be appealing. But perhaps it’s not enough to inspire people to return. People generally prefer something new or novel. They tend to move on to other locations for a vacation.
But with South Walton’s incredibly complete package – crystal white beaches, turquoise water, diverse scenery, awesome dining, exciting retail and an emphasis on a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, the area creates such a favorable impression that most people don’t want to venture anywhere else. They love the place. It meets all their needs. There’s plenty to do and explore there.
Visitors are content to come back, park the car, hop on a bicycle and ride it to the beach or a café. All the time immersed in an incredible display of natural beauty and awesome architecture.
That’s because the county purposefully made it easy to get around on a bike in a space that has more wilderness than roads. That’s also because you can not truly appreciate the beauty of nature sitting in your car. Those are the appealing ingredients that make this South Walton destination an extraordinary one.
About The Park and Facility Catalog
In business since 2001, The Park and Facilities Catalog is a national provider of commercial bicycle parking racks, custom bike racks and bike shelters. The company also offers outdoor site furnishings such as park benches, picnic tables, trash receptacles, aluminum bleachers, lockers and other Division 10 and 12 construction items. Clients include municipalities, businesses, contractors, architects, parks, schools, universities, shopping centers and office buildings. For more information visit the website at www.theparkcatalog.com