Crossing the beach from sand dune to sea in Daytona Beach on a sunny Saturday can be like crossing I-4 on the Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend.
Until March 1.
On that day, the cars finally will come off of a central one-mile stretch of Daytona's seaside north of the Main Street Pier, diverting instead into a 1,500-space garage whose opening just may help transform the World's Most Famous Parking Lot back into the World's Most Famous Beach.
At least that's the hope of boosters working to purge Daytona's seedy image and replace it with a resort environment that frowns upon the sort of traffic tie-ups for which portions of Volusia County's public beaches are known. Surfside driving has long been synonymous with Daytona; indeed, the inspiration for Daytona International Speedway was a sand-and-street loop. But the number of miles on which cars still can drive are shrinking.
Credit the garage to the development of Ocean Walk, a $200 million complex that includes condos, shops, restaurants, time-share units and entertainment venues targeting those less likely to wear tank-tops and tattoos. But give greater credit to sea turtles for the movement against cars.
Volusia County -- which maintains 36 miles of public beaches, not including the northern half of Canaveral National Seashore -- already was moving to protect turtle-nesting areas when a lawsuit sped up the creation of car-free zones in the mid 1990s, says Stephen Kintner, the county's director of environmental management. (Turtles were never directly threatened by cars, but rather by the weight of vehicles driving over buried nests.) The county also imposed tandem restrictions on beachside lighting that can disorient hatchlings. Coincidentally, the number of turtle nests in recent years has jumped 50 percent, to more than 600. Moreover, in those zones the dunes also experienced a rebound -- until Hurricane Irene took its toll last year.
Now officials are waiting to see how much tourism jumps, as those who prefer a combination of sand and surf that excludes car exhaust come to realize that Volusia County wants them. The value of residential property along car-free areas already is on the rise.
So far, beach tolls are holding steady as cars concentrate in fewer areas. Will drivers continue to feel welcome? Says beach services director Tom Renick: "I don't have a guess for that."