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Islander peddles safer streets

By Staff | Jan 14, 2015

Darla Latourneau at a November bike path dedication in Sanibel. Billy Kirkland joined in the event. PHOTO PROVIDED



Florida bicyclists and joggers safely enjoying a pathway or a bike lane on a local roadway, in some part, can thank Darla Letourneau.

It’s better today for bicyclists and pedestrians because Letourneau and others at first begged and later demanded change in roads and how new streets and transportation should look. They formed BikeWalkLee and networked, introducing Complete Streets to southwest Florida. It’s a national movement to re-tool communities with public transportation, bikers and pedestrians in mind.

BikeWalkLee’s actions, for instance, argued for and achieved the narrowing of vehicle lanes for adjoining bike routes, and a shift in transportation planning in southwest Florida. Lee County has added miles of bike/pedestrian paths, spiderwebbing over great distances. A bicyclist today can pedal from Sanibel to downtown Fort Myers, mostly away from traffic. The near goal is to knit the routes into a vast recreational and business friendly pathway. As a government affairs professional, Letourneau was directly involved in the changes.

Letourneau receiving an award from the Florida Bicycle Association. PHOTO PROVIDED

But was a tough haul, most everyone agrees, with Lee County planners, in some cases, reversing decisions to join the movement. The progress has lessened the devastation on roads to cyclists and pedestrians. But Florida remains on a watchlist as one of the more dangerous states to ride or walk with traffic, according to state figures.

Still, injuries and deaths are down, when just a few years back it was a free-for-all between cyclists and drivers, with long stretches of fast roads criss-crossing southwest Florida.

Complete Streets is grabbing traction. Some 700 towns and states embrace its principles. It counters, in part, the bowling-alley life for a bicyclist. Sixteen pedestrians and eight cyclists through November had been killed on Lee County roads.

Letourneau has helped lead the Complete Streets campaign, as co-founder of BikeWalkLee — an advocacy group with few funds, no officers or official members — to lobby change. BikeWalkLee and a powerful network of like-minded groups have shifted the thinking in regional road growth and planning, rewarded with miles of shared roadways or new pathways in southwest Florida. And as a bicyclist, she recently received an award as citizen bike advocate of the year from the Florida Bicycle Association. She picked up the award at a Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting.

Her advocacy, which some say borders of zealotry, has earned praise.

“Lee County is a better place for cyclists and pedestrians because of the work of Darla and the BikeWalkLee coalition,” Florida Bicycle Association executive director Becky Afonso said at the ceremony for the award.

Anyone in proximity isn’t surprised Darla Latourneau produces. Results are her life, which included time in Washington as a policy analyst and Senate liaison. Her job was defined as a problem solver, a strategist in two administrations. She worked long hard hours, producing mountains of precise information in civil rights, health, budgeting and other issues on Capitol Hill. The professional career was an extension, she said, of her father, a former university science instructor at Purdue, a creative man that “loved the idea of really enjoying his job, the process,” said Letourneau, an islander since 2008.

A father’s relish for life translated to his daughter, a self-described policywonk just organizing her Sanibel home office in California Closet. She was forced to file stacks of boxes on Complete Streets, traffic studies and the minutiae of local government linked to safe bicycling.

“My career was government related,” she said, “get the facts, make your case, and master a (new) topic.”

BikeWalkLee goals:

Advocate for a multi-modal network that includes active transportation on complete streets in Lee County.

Raise public awareness about the county’s active transportation system and opportunities for improvement.

Promote the benefits and joys of bicycling and walking, and inspire more people to choose alternative transportation.

Advocate for policies, funding, and programs that support active transportation and complete streets in Lee County.

Partner with a broad array of stakeholders to improve and support our quality of life through safety, health, and mobility on complete streets in Lee County.