|Written by Craig Chester -- BT Contributor|
Our Brickell correspondent heads to Washington, D.C., but not before putting together a wish list for Miami
My friends often bemoan Miami’s transient nature, lamenting the fact that their peers regularly move to other cities in a seemingly perpetual brain drain. But I never thought they’d be talking about me that way.
Recently I accepted a communications fellowship with a national organization called Smart Growth America, based in Washington, D.C. I’ll be relocating there later this month. According to Smart Growth America’s official language, it is “the only national organization dedicated to researching, advocating for, and leading coalitions to bring smart-growth practices to more communities nationwide. From providing more sidewalks so people can walk to their town center to ensuring that more homes are built near public transit or productive farms remain a part of our communities, smart growth helps make sure that people across the nation can live in great neighborhoods.”
Needless to say, I’m excited to begin this new opportunity in our nation’s capital with such a respected and broad-reaching organization. However, the decision to leave Miami was not an easy one to make.
I’ve been an ardent supporter and advocate for civic improvement in Miami since relocating here three years ago. Even in that brief time, it’s clear the upward momentum is accelerating and the spirit of entrepreneurship is thriving, and general excitement for the city’s future is plainly evident.
Of course, there are things that could be improved, particularly with regard to the downtown experience. So I’ve composed a wish list of sorts for realistic, attainable, short-term enhancements for Miami.
Begin to treat transit riders with dignity. A few weeks ago, a text message from one of my friends read, “It’s raining on the bus.” On one gloomy afternoon, the leaks between the windows of the Miami-Dade Transit bus he was riding were so bad passengers along the entire left side had wet shoulders. Most riders simply stopped trying to shield themselves from the dripping water and instead sat dejectedly under the leaks.
Bus stops that lack shelter or, in some cases, even benches -- the “stop” is nothing more than a post in the ground -- are a common sight throughout the county. The route “schedule” is a similar fiction, bearing almost no resemblance to the reality of how often buses come and go. Many times, there are no crosswalks or safe ways to cross a street after exiting the bus.
A refurbished county bus fleet is on the way, but that represents only one piece of the puzzle. An ongoing federal investigation owing to financial mismanagement at Miami-Dade Transit has led to a freeze on federal funding for the department. This has stifled requests from many local municipalities for the installation of bus shelters and other basic improvements.
Despite those challenges, even simple changes in attitude, responsiveness, and public relations would make a notable difference. In Japan, it’s normal for bus drivers to welcome and thank passengers for riding. Is that such an unreasonable request here?
Return of Bike Miami Days. This one should be a no-brainer. Bike Miami Days was a popular cycling-oriented block party in 2008 and 2009 that lost city funding after the departure of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. Since then, the bike buzz in Miami has only grown exponentially louder. (The event did make a scaled-down comeback in 2011.) Anyone paying attention to happenings in Miami realizes that bicycling is not a fringe activity.
Often used as a barometer of sorts, the monthly (unsanctioned) Miami Critical Mass bicycle ride now features more than 2000 riders of all ages eager to enjoy an evening cruise through the city, sometimes alongside famous athletes like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, both of whom recently participated in Critical Mass.
There are dozens of other casual, group-oriented rides sprouting up throughout the county, more bike lanes and signage, and even cycling safety and education programs in local schools. In recognition of this improvement, the City of Miami was recently designated a bronze-level “Bicycle Friendly Community” by the League of American Cyclists -- a marked improvement from being ranked one of the worst cities for bicycling in the USA as recently as 2009.
The Bicycle Friendly Community program recognizes cities that demonstrate improvement towards promoting cycling in five key areas: engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation and planning.
During this past election, there was no box that said, “Make Miami bike-friendly.” If there had been, the measure would have won by a landslide. Ordinary Miamians are regularly taking to the streets in droves in sanctioned and unsanctioned group rides, the latter being a primal scream for public officials to dedicate more attention and resources to the issue of cyclist safety.
Mayors in three prominent American cities -- New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles -- are not viewing cycling as merely another routine issue; they are emphatically making accommodations for cycling a signature component of their tenures and legacy.
Even Coral Gables organized two well-attended Gables Bike Day events over the past two years, opening Miracle Mile and neighboring streets to bicyclists and closing them to automobile traffic. While progress is being made on Miami’s bicycle master plan (adopted in 2009), my wish is for Mayor Tomás Regalado to reinstate a larger, grander Bike Miami Days, which would surely be a resounding success.
Convert parking lots into parks. Since 2005, in more than 800 cities around the globe, residents, business owners, nonprofits, and everyday citizens have secured the right to convert parking lots into small urban parks -- dubbed “parklets” -- for one day. In Miami various groups have converted street parking spaces into temporary oases by laying down sod and bringing in outdoor furniture. Miami has a woeful lack of parkland per resident -- we’re ranked 94 on a list of 100 U.S. cities when it comes to park acreage per 1000 residents -- and with limited funding available, we need to think creatively about permanently reclaiming public spaces for people.
The opportunities for creating permanent parks from pavement are many, but maybe we should start with the parking lots under the Metromover along Biscayne Boulevard, adjacent to Bayfront Park. Converting these parking lots into attractive public spaces will create a natural extension of Bayfront Park, enabling an inviting, seamless connection between it and the rest of downtown, while taming the intimidating task of crossing of Biscayne Boulevard on foot. The Downtown Development Authority also shares this vision, so the time is ripe for moving forward.
So there you have it, Miami. And if anyone knows where to get a good pan con bistec or cortadito in D.C., let me know on Twitter at @MiamiUrbanist. ¡Hasta luego!
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
Sales, special events, and more from the people who make Biscayne Times possible