Five years after moving to Miami to start working at UM, it is a good time for a quick recap: the good and the bad. And while what happens (and crucially: doesn’t happen) on the Rickenbacker Causeway is important, it is symptomatic of much larger systemic issues in the area.
Let’s start with some of the good developments. They are easier to deal with as unfortunately they aren’t that numerous. Miami-Dade Transit has – despite some questionable leadership decisions and pretty awful security contractors – put into place some important projects such as a decent public transit connection from MIA and while the user experience leaves a number of things to be desired, it generally works; so do TriRail and the express buses to Broward and elsewhere; a number of cities have local trolley systems and while not a great solution in some places, it’s a start; Miami Beach has DecoBike and it seems that it is being used widely – and the service is slated to come to the City of Miami some time in 2014; Miami is finally becoming a city, albeit an adolescent one with a core that, while still dominated by car traffic, is more amenable to foot and bike traffic than it was five years ago (and there are plans for improvement); and at least there is now a debate about the value of transportation modes that do not involve cars only.
Yet at the same time, it seems like Miami still suffers from a perfect storm of lack of leadership, vision and long-term planning, competing jurisdictions which makes for easy finger-pointing when something goes wrong, civic complacency and the pursuance of self-interest. Add to that a general disregard for cyclists, pedestrians and those taking public transit. All of this leaves the area as one of the most dangerous places to bike and walk in the country. And instead of actively working towards increasing the safety of those – in an area where many drivers are behaving in a dangerous manner – that do not have the protection of the exoskeleton of 4000 lbs of steel or aluminum, infrastructure is being built without regard for the most vulnerable.
Poor Leadership and Lack of Political Will
At the top of the list is the rampant lack of genuine support for the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians as well as public transit. The area remains mired in car-centric planning and mindset. While other places have grasped the potential for improving the lives of people with walkable urban environments, we live in an area whose civic and political leadership does not appear to even begin to understand this value (and whose leadership likely doesn’t take public transit).
This starts with a mayor and a county commission (with some exceptions) whose mindset continues to be enamored with “development” (i.e. building housing as well as moving further and further west instead of filling in existing space, putting more and more strain on the existing infrastructure). How about building a viable public transit system on the basis of plans that have existed for years, connecting the western suburbs with the downtown core? How about finally linking Miami Beach to the mainland via a light rail system? How about build a similar system up the Biscayne corridor or, since the commission is so enamored with westwards expansion, connect the FIU campus or other areas out west? And while we’re at it, let’s do away with dreamy projects in lieu of achievable ones? Instead of trying to build the greatest this or greatest that (with public money no less), one could aim for solidity. What we get is a long overdue spur (calling it a line is pushing it) to the airport with no chance of westwards expansion.
Few of the cities do much better and indeed Miami consistently ranks among the worst-run cities in the country (easy enough when many city residents are apathetic in the face of dysfunctional city government or only have a domicile in Miami, but don’t actually live here). When the standard answer of the chief of staff of a City of Miami commissioner is that “the people in that street don’t want it” when asked about the installation of traffic calming devices that would benefit many people in the surrounding area, it shows that NIMBYism is alive and kicking, that there is no leadership and little hope that genuine change is coming.
Car-Centric, Not People-Centric, Road Design
One of the most egregious culprits is the local FDOT district, headed by Gus Pego. While the central office in Tallahassee and some of the other districts seem to finally have arrived in the 21st century, FDOT District 6 (Miami-Dade and Monroe counties) has a steep learning curve ahead and behaves like an institution that is responsible for motor vehicles rather than modern transportation. Examples include the blatant disregard of Florida’s legislation concerning the concept of “complete streets” (as is the case in its current SW 1st Street project where parking seems more important to FDOT than the safety of pedestrians or cyclists – it has no mandate for the former, but certainly for the latter) or its continued refusal to lower the speed limits on the roads it is responsible for, especially when they are heavily frequented by cyclists and pedestrians. All of this is embodied in its suggestion that cyclists shouldn’t travel the roads the district constructs. According to their own staff, they are too dangerous.
The county’s public works department – with some notable exceptions – is by and large still stuck in a mindset of car-centricism and does not have the political cover to make real improvements to the infrastructure. Roads are still constructed or reconstructed with wide lanes and with the goal of moving cars at high speeds as opposed to creating a safe environment for all participants. Yes, that may mean a decrease in the “level of service”, but maybe the lives and the well-being of fellow humans is more important than getting to one’s destination a minute more quickly (and if you have decided to move far away from where you work, that’s just a factor to consider). The most well-known example is the Rickenbacker Causeway which still resembles a highway after three people on bicycles were killed in the last five years and where speeding is normal, despite numerous assurances from the political and the administrative levels that safety would actually increase. Putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t make things much better and that is all that has happened so far. But even on a small scale things don’t work out well. When it takes Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami months to simply install a crosswalk in a residential street (and one entity is responsible for the sidewalk construction, while the other does the actual crosswalk) and something is done only after much intervention and many, many meetings, it is little wonder that so little gets done.
(Almost) Zero Traffic Enforcement
It continues with police departments that enforce the rules of the road selectively and haphazardly at best, and at least sometimes one has the very clear impression that pedestrians and cyclists are considered a nuisance rather than an equal participant in traffic. Complaints about drivers are routinely shrugged off, requests for information are rarely fulfilled and in various instances police officers appear unwilling to give citations to drivers who have caused cyclists to crash (and would much rather assist in an exchange of money between driver and victim, as was recently the case).
The above really should be the bare minimum. What is really required – given the dire situation – is for public institutions to be proactive. But short of people kicking and screaming, it does not appear that those in power want to improve the lives and well-being of the people that they technically serve. I view this issue as an atmospheric problem, one that cannot easily be remedied by concrete action, but rather one that requires a mindset change. A good starting point: instead of trying to be “the best” or “the greatest” at whatever new “projects” people dream up (another tall “luxury” tower, nicest parking garage [is that what we should be proud of, really?], let’s just try not to be among the worst. But that would require leadership. The lack thereof on the county and the municipal level (FDOT personnel is not elected and at any rate, is in a league of their own when it comes to being tone-deaf) means that more people need to kick and scream to get something done (in addition to walking and biking more). Whether this is done through existing groups or projects like the Aaron Cohen initiative (full disclosure: I am part of the effort) is immaterial. But if there is to be real improvement, a lot more people need to get involved.
- Time to stop playing politics on the Rickenbacker Causeway, every Sunday should be a ciclovia on the Rickenbacker.
- Just another Sunday morning on the Rickenbacker Causeway
- Rickenbacker Ride A Success, Momentum Continues
- Miami-Dade County: Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Secondary to Car Traffic on Bear Cut Bridge
- Reposted:Transit Miami Recommendations for the Rickenbacker Causeway
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