More bicycles and bike paths seen by visitors to county as best option for easing traffic woes, research shows

By 3-to-1 margin, residents more likely to perceive positive instead of negative impacts from tourism

A survey chart provides details about tourists’ views on bicycle use. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

The top solution to transportation congestion in the community, from visitors’ perspective, is more bicycles and bike paths, based on the results of a mobility study undertaken for the county’s tourism office, the members of the Sarasota County Tourism Development Council (TDC) heard last week.

Bicycles were cited as the most popular alternative to motor vehicles, while trolleys were in second place, Phillip Downs, senior partner with the research firm Downs & St. Germain of Tallahassee reported during the TDC ‘s regular meeting on June 22.

Downs noted that 19% of visitors said they are very likely to ride bicycles when they are on vacation, and 43% of them rated Sarasota’s bicycle options as excellent or good.

However, Downs pointed out that only one in five of the visitors surveyed were aware of The Legacy Trail, and only one in 10 had used it.

He added, “You might get 20% on a trolley.”

Furthermore, 46% of the tourists who participated in the study called free or low-cost bicycle sharing the most acceptable option for reducing traffic, and 39% said they are very interested in more bike trails being made available. Forty-five percent of the visitors surveyed in February and March expressed interest in more bike trails, the results show.

“Bikes and trolleys seem to be the most digestible options, if you will, to visitors,” Downs pointed out.

When TDC member Norman Schimmel questioned the findings regarding bicycle use, Downs told him, “We are of the same generation.” Because visitors to Sarasota County “skew older,” Downs continued, bicycle transportation is “going to take over more slowly.”

“A lot of people ask about renting bikes” when they stop in at the Visitor Center in downtown Sarasota, Erin Duggan, vice president of Visit Sarasota County pointed out.

A chart shows the survey results regarding visitors’ various modes of transportation. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

“I’m not a bike rider,” Venice City Councilman Bob Daniels told his colleagues, but “in Venice, we do have bike racks at restaurants and all over the downtown area, and they are used very heavily.”

As for perceptions about congested roads in the community: The survey showed that, on average, visitors to Sarasota County perceive traffic as slightly better than it is in other vacation destinations. Only 4% of the total number of tourists interviewed said it was much worse than the congestion they had encountered in other areas.

No matter where a firm undertakes surveys such as these — New York City or Orlando, for example — Downs explained that when asked about the greatest problems in their communities, “nine times out of 10, traffic and crime are going to be [No.] 1 and [No.] 2. … Traffic is just an easy whipping post.”

“Very rarely [tourists] come in and complain about traffic.” Duggan added, referring to the Visitor Center. “They’re not in a rush to get to a doctor’s office or to get their kids to school. … If anything, they’re sitting on the Ringling Bridge, looking out at that gorgeous view, maybe running a little bit late to get to the theater.”

The survey was conducted among tourists to the county during three different periods, Downs noted: August and September 2016; November and December 2016; and February and March of this year. Downs and St. Germain interviewed 900 visitors, he said, along with 750 residents selected at random from all over the county.

Delving into the data

A chart shows the variety of responses regarding the positive perception of tourism in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Among other findings, Downs reported the following:

  • “By a 3-to-1 margin, residents are more likely to perceive positive instead of negative impacts from tourism. Those in the majority on that question cited the fact that tourism means more money and jobs for the local economy, and visitors pay taxes that enable the county to provide a variety of services and projects, Downs explained.

“That 3-to-1 ratio is very positive,” Downs told the TDC members.

  • Increased traffic was the top answer among residents asked about the negative impacts of tourism — 70%; 84% cited that as a problem during the survey in November and December, compared to 66% in February and March and 59% in August and September. “Difficulty in finding a place to park” was in second place, with that answer coming from 47% of residents. The peak period for that complaint was also November and December.
  • The top mode of transportation for visitors is a motor vehicle, as cited by 71% of those surveyed. Forty-nine percent of tourists said they walk to destinations.
  • Four out of five visitors reported that “it is at least somewhat difficult to traverse Sarasota County without a car,” the survey results showed. “Reactions were more negative in late fall and high season,” the report added.
  • Out of all the visitors interviewed, only 38% said it was easy to find parking spaces as they traveled around the county. The best result for that question came in the August/September period, when 54% of visitors said the situation was “Excellent/Very Good,” and another 39% rating it “Good/Fair.”

For locals, 30% said the overall parking situation is excellent or very good, while 52% responded that it is good or fair. Again, the period with the most positive responses was August/September, with 34% of locals rating the situation “Excellent/Very Good and 51% saying it is good or fair.

Little time to focus on new options

A chart shows visitors’ responses regarding perceptions of seasonal traffic in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Because the last period for the survey was in February and March, TDC members pointed out, respondents had had little time to use the new i-Ride electric vehicle service in downtown Sarasota or the Breeze open-air trolley on Siesta Key, which is operated by Sarasota County Area Transit. The Breeze was launched on March 20, while the i-Ride service began on March 29. Both are free to riders.

One big reason the Breeze has proven so successful, Commissioner Charles Hines — chair of the TDC — pointed out to the council members on June 22 is that Siesta Key has sufficient density among tourists and residents. Another important factor, he added, is that the trolley “runs often enough that it can be relied upon.”

As for the i-Ride: Hines told the TDC members that the niece of a friend of his recently moved to Sarasota and is renting an apartment in the City of Sarasota’s Rosemary District. She has to drive to her work location near Interstate 75, Hines said, but she parks her car when she returns home and takes the i-Ride wherever she needs to go in downtown Sarasota. “[She] thinks this is just phenomenal.”