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Two-Wheeled Targets PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer; Photos by Silvia Ros   
May 2017

Miami is a very dangerous place for bicyclists, but Plan Z offers hope for change

MCoveray is National Bike Month across the land, and has been since its designation in 1956 by the League of American Bicyclists. The group’s website proclaims National Bike Month as “an opportunity to celebrate the unique power of the bicycle and the many reasons we ride,” and a time to encourage more of us to take up the sport.

But Greater Miami isn’t like the rest of the nation. “In Miami-Dade County, [Bike Month] is March because it’s too hot for us in May,” explains Sue Kawalerski, president of the Everglades Bicycle Club and head of the county’s Bike305 program.

On this particular Sunday in mid-March, Kawalerski, a former television news consultant, is standing in the middle of NE 19th Avenue in North Miami Beach’s downtown. Any other day, Kawalerski would risk being hit by a car. But today the cars have been blocked off from NE 19th Avenue by steel barricades, squad cars, vans, and an armored police mobile command center. Instead of vehicular traffic, NE 19th Avenue is filled with vendor booths, food trucks, a sound stage, a bounce house, and people with bicycles. Lots of bicycles.

The cordoned-off area in front of the North Miami Beach City Hall is a starting point for the city’s Ciclovía (“cycleway” in Spanish) a mile-long bike ride along the Snake Creek Trail, one of a couple of dozen bike trails that exist around Miami-Dade County.

But to get from NE 19th Avenue to the Snake Creek Canal, the hundreds of bicyclists, many of them wearing orange “Bike305” T-shirts, will have to ride across streets outside the cordoned area. For this reason, the North Miami Beach Police Department has provided an escort, temporarily blocking off other intersections so the all-ages crowd can reach Snake Creek Trail safely. Without that police escort, chances are pretty decent that a car might slam into a couple of bicyclists riding in the event, in spite of their orange shirts.

Kawalerski, a resident of Miami-Dade County and an avid bicyclist since she was 18, is familiar with the hazards of bicycling in South Florida.

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“I’ve had many close calls, and I got hit on Key Biscayne,” she says. “Drivers are unconscious. They were driving unconsciously even back in the 1970s. And [driving unconscious] got worse with the advent of smart phones. People start doing everything except driving when they’re behind the wheel.”

Kawalerski is far from being alone in her anxiety about Miami drivers. The BT has interviewed more than a dozen bicycle enthusiasts over the past few months. Many of them have told their own stories about being hit by cars or harassed by drivers, or about friends and acquaintances killed on the road.

“I’ve been in five accidents with a car,” says Jameson Jones, president of the Magic City Bicycle Collective. “My scariest one was when I woke up in a hospital, not knowing what happened. I was blindsided at an intersection in Miami Beach by a valet.”

Or ask Hunter Hoover, a 25-year-old woodworker active in the Magic City Bicycle Collective and Critical Mass Miami about his experiences. “Are you kidding me?” he vents. “I’ve had people throw food at me while I was riding my bicycle for no reason at all.”

Florida has long been a dangerous place for bicyclists. Between 1975 and 2012, the fatality rate for bicycle accidents in the Sunshine State exceeded that of every other state in the continental U.S., according to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control report.

And among Florida counties, Miami-Dade is near the top in terms of number of automobile-related bicycle accidents, and fatalities.

In 2016, according to the most recent data from the Florida Highway Patrol, 737 bicyclists were hit by cars, or ran into cars, in Miami-Dade, a figure that is second only to Broward’s 749 car-related bike accidents. Last year, Miami-Dade had 81 bike-related accidents that resulted in incapacitating injuries, the second-highest in Florida. (Orange County, which includes Orlando, had 91.) As for the county that had the most fatalities? Miami-Dade and Broward tied, with each county having 13 car-related fatal bike accidents.

Bicycling advocates blame the high number of accidents on a lack of protected bicycle lanes and automobile drivers who are oblivious.

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“They’re not aware that when they’re driving there could be, may be, possibly be a cyclist driving within a mile of them,” Hoover says. “In that mile, they could be looking at their phone, not paying attention, and hit that cyclist. [The automobile driver’s] life would be completely untarnished, physically, and the person on the bicycle will end up with injuries, maybe dead, or completely paralyzed.”

In Miami-Dade, of course, cars are the dominant form of transportation. “About 95 percent of commuter trips in Miami-Dade are in passenger cars,” says James Wolfe, the Florida Department of Transportation’s secretary for District 6, an area that encompasses state roads in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

But bicycling advocates insist that more and more Miami-Dade residents are bicycling, either for recreation or commuting purposes. Kawalerski, for example, knows of several companies that are installing showers in their offices to accommodate their employees who bike to work, even during humid weather.

Still doubt the popularity of biking? Then you probably haven’t checked out Critical Mass Miami, the monthly ride organized by bicyclists (sometimes with the cooperation of local governments, sometimes not) that aims to make car drivers aware of their presence by sheer numbers. This past March 31, a 20-mile Critical Mass ride through the City of Miami, North Bay Village, and Miami Beach drew some 2000 people.

To keep up with this demand, and to encourage more people to bike instead of drive (more on this later), traffic engineers, nonprofits, and architects are contemplating ways to make bicycling safer.

Among those leading this charge is a prominent architect who has come up with the idea of building bicycle expressways along one of the most scenic routes in South Florida.


ACoverStory_4n accordion plays in the background as the camera’s eye swoops in from the sky, giving us, the viewers, the sensation that we’re hovering above a computerized animation of the Rickenbacker Causeway, the highway that connects the Miami mainland to Virginia Key, Crandon Park, and the Village of Key Biscayne.

But what is that snaking above the fast-moving cars? Why, it’s an orange-and-yellow elevated pathway. And there are people on bicycles zipping along the two-lane orange part of the pathway while pedestrians amble along on the yellow part. In places, the pathway itself is ringed with steel barricades.

A written narrative appears at the top of this image:

“A 12-mile redesign of the 20-mile independent cycling and pedestrian trail.”

“Transforming the Rickenbacker Causeway into a Safe Recreational Asset.”

“An Urgent Necessity for Miami, One of America’s Least Safe Cities on Two Wheels.”

We’re flying fast now as we get views of the water, the trees, and the Miami skyline. The orange and yellow lanes are on the ground now, running parallel to the causeway. More narrative:

“Protected Bike Lanes = 90% Fewer Injuries Than Those with No Bike Infrastructure.”

“A Continuous Trail and an Observatory to Stop and Enjoy the Miami Skyline and Waterfront.”

The accordion, backed by bass and drums, goes up-tempo as we get views of Biscayne Bay and the William Powell Bridge portion of Rickenbacker Causeway. Then the music slows as we levitate over land. More narrative:

“Before Reaching the 20-Acre Rickenbacker Park.” And then we get views of a lovely, wide beach.

That is the first half of a four-minute YouTube video titled “Repurposing Rickenbacker Causeway to Rickenbacker Park -- Plan Z for Miami” (youtube.com/watch?v=z0E2UPZHuco).

The creator of the video and Plan Z is Bernard Zyscovich, a Miami-based architect and urban planner who has designed projects of all kinds throughout Florida and points beyond.

Of all the proposals floated over the years to make Miami-Dade County more bicycle-friendly, Plan Z has received the most attention. Local news sites and architectural blogs have featured it. It’s being showcased in the Coral Gables Museum until May 14. And it has received rave reviews from county and state officials, including FDOT’s James Wolfe. “Plan Z is a bold vision, something that would be seen in a world-class city,” he states in an e-mail to the BT.

Normally, Zyscovich crafts urban plans at the behest of a client. In the case of Plan Z, the idea was sparked by death and frustration.

“It started with a guy named Christopher,” Zyscovich tells the BT.

CoverStory_6Christopher LeCanne, a 44-year-old cyclist, was killed at a little past 8:00 a.m. on January 17, 2010, in a hit-and-run by 28-year-old Carlos Bertonatti, a Key Biscayne resident who, prior to the accident, had made jokes about his bad driving habits on his MySpace page. After slamming into LeCanne on Bear Cut Bridge, Bertonatti, who had been drinking at Club Space, kept on driving, dragging the bicycle for several miles beneath his Volkswagen Jetta while LeCanne died from his injuries on the road.

LeCanne was the first of three fatal hit-and-run accidents on the Rickenbacker Causeway in a space of five years. The second fatality was 36-year-old auto dealer Aaron Cohen. Both he and his cycling companion, who survived, were hit by a Honda Civic on February 16, 2012, by another Key Biscayne resident, 25-year-old Michele Traverso. Keyes Company CFO Walter Reyes, age 50, was the third fatality. He and a companion where hit from behind on January 21, 2015, by 21-year-old University of Miami student Alejandro Alvarez.

Originally built in 1947 and reconstructed in the 1980s, the Rickenbacker Causeway is a favorite destination for bicyclists, thanks to the height of the William Powell Bridge (about 80 feet), views of the skyline, the bay, and some of the only sandy beaches within Miami’s city limits.

“You come here at six in the morning, and you’ll see five, six, or seven hundred of them,” says Bernard “Frenchie” Riviere, a bike-racing promoter who has designed off-road mountain bike tracks at Oleta River State Park and on Virginia Key.

Sometimes Zyscovich is among them. “I’m one of the weekend riders,” he says. “I work too much, but I’m there when I can.”

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Currently there are paths for bicycles and pedestrians on both sides of the causeway, though they aren’t contiguous. There’s also a walled path on both sides of Bear Cut Bridge. However, a protected pathway is only found on one side of the towering William Powell Bridge.

Early-morning cyclists, though, don’t use the protected path. Walkers and joggers do. “They [bicyclists] can’t get the speed they need over there,” Riviere explains. Besides, bicycle-riding on the protected path is officially prohibited, though that is often ignored.

As a result, many hundreds of bicyclists ride a three-foot-wide bike lane and pedal along the Rickenbacker Causeway with their backs to oncoming cars -- cars that are traveling in excess of 40 miles per hour, sometimes much faster.

Every weekend Riviere oversees the bumpy and sometimes treacherous mountain-bike paths, or tracks, he helped create seven years ago, near the county’s sewage treatment plant on Virginia Key. He often rides the tracks (where a bike helmet is required) and assists people who crash, sometimes breaking bones, while navigating a trail.

But Riviere rarely rides along the Rickenbacker Causeway, or along any streets in Miami for that matter. Bicycling near cars in Miami, he says, is just too dangerous.

“I lost five friends who were biking [on the street],” Riviere says. “Out of those five, three of them were on that causeway.”

Zyscovich didn’t want to let that stand. Three years ago he pushed for a 16-foot-wide zone for pedestrians and bicyclists that would have been separated from cars by a line of vegetation. Cost to implement: around $30 million and the removal of a lane of traffic.

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Because Zyscovich has many contacts at the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County, he hoped the bike lane idea would gain some traction. It didn’t. “We basically found that there was a lot of empathy, but not action,” he says. The most he could get out of the county was the implementation of bike lanes painted bright green, with solar-powered lights along Crandon Park, a project that was completed last year.

So Zyscovich decided go back to the drawing board and think bigger. This time he designed 30-foot-wide bike and pedestrian zones without removing vehicular traffic lanes or exit ramps on the causeway. He did this partly by adding a bike-and-pedestrian bridge that’s similar to the Cykelslangen (Bicycle Snake), an elevated, serpentine bicycle pathway in Copenhagen, a city famous for its bike-friendly infrastructure.

Zyscovich says he also looked at the publicly owned swale and drainage space adjacent to the causeway and figured if the road were realigned somewhat to the northwest, a bit closer to Miami Marine Stadium, there’d be enough room on the opposite side for a spacious bayfront park with broad, sandy beaches.

“All we have to do is move the road over, and we can capture 20 acres of under-utilized area and add it to the beach,” he says. “We can have a 20-acre waterfront park without having to buy any land.”

But that’s not all. Plan Z imagines connecting the Rickenbacker’s new elevated pathway and protected bike lanes to another urban bike plan that’s already being implemented and known as the Underline. That scheme, pushed by a nonprofit called Friends of the Underline, seeks to develop ten miles of a neglected 30-mile pathway, known as the M-Path, beneath the Metrorail. Once the Underline is complete, artwork, benches, exercise equipment, bike facilities, vegetation, and additional paved paths, plus protections for bicyclists at intersections, will be installed from Brickell Station to Dadeland Mall.

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Thanks to funding from the City of Miami, the county, and private donations, the Underline already has $73 million of the budgeted $100 million, says Meg Daly, president of Friends of the Underline. Construction is set to commence this October.

Plan Z has a nonprofit behind it, too. What it doesn’t have yet is money. Or, for that matter, even a cost estimate. Zyscovich refuses to give one. “I’d rather talk about the benefits of this,” he says.

That makes a couple of local activists nervous.

“I’m conflicted because I like the design idea and I think it’s very creative, but the financing is highly questionable to me,” says Greg Bush, a longtime advocate of public waterfront space and a former member of the Virginia Key Advisory Board. “How are we going to get the money to pay for this?”

Peter Ehrlich, the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami’s representative on the Virginia Key Advisory Board, says he’s worried. Although bicyclists and pedestrians can walk along the causeway for free, cars are charged a $1.75 toll. Ehrlich wonders if tolls would be increased along the Rickenbacker to pay for those enhancements.

“I think there are many unanswered questions,” he states in an e-mail.

Zyscovich contends that the Rickenbacker has to be replaced anyway. A 2015 report from the Federal Highway Administration revealed that the Rickenbacker and Julia Tuttle causeways were highly vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise because of their low elevation.

“The plan is bold in its concepts, and I hope that it will all be implemented over time,” Zyscovich says. “The question is not how can we fund it, but how can we afford not to do it.”


PCoverStory_10lan Z is an ambitious example of the kinds of reforms that bicyclists would like to see happen in Miami, and what urban planners may need to create in other parts of South Florida.

But some bike advocates protest that even modest infrastructure for bicyclists isn’t being built.

Darren Venditti, owner of Miami Bicycle and Pro Shop at 1800 Biscayne Blvd., fumes that FDOT left out a bike lane that had been promised as part of recent renovations to the Boulevard.

“They said it was too expensive to complete [the renovation] with the bike lane,” he says. So they placed the bike lane on NE 2nd Avenue. But that lane, Venditti says, is now used as parallel parking for cars.

Contacted by the BT, FDOT’s Wolfe says he doesn’t know why the bike lanes were left out of the Biscayne Boulevard renovation. Yet during a Knight Foundation forum on bicycling held at Miami-Dade College on March 2, Wolfe acknowledged that merchants and restaurant owners in Miami will fight for parallel parking even if it means bike lanes get nixed.

However, at that same forum and in an e-mail to the BT, Wolfe noted that FDOT doesn’t have the room to build vehicular roads that will accommodate Miami’s burgeoning population.

“Population is projected to continue to grow at a rate of two percent per year, while our ability to add roadway capacity falls well short,” he notes.

This means that, in order to maintain mobility in South Florida, residents will be forced to use modes of transportation other than cars to get around, Wolfe says.

CoverStory_11In response, officials from the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) and the Miami-Dade Transportation and Public Works Department are trying to solve a seemingly intractable problem: how to improve public transit so that residents will actually use it.

Bicycles are a huge part of that formula, says Elizabeth Rockwell, Miami-Dade TPO’s chief communications officer, since they’re often used as the “last mile” by commuters.

“Transit only works if it’s accessible to passengers and to their destinations,” Rockwell explains in an e-mail to the BT. “The TPO is supporting efforts to build transit-oriented developments at transit hubs, as well as the bicycle, pedestrian, and other facilities needed to make the last mile connection.”

Bicyclists, however, argue that bike racks on buses or bicycle space on trains isn’t enough. The road infrastructure needs to be improved.

As a bike activist and a county employee, Sue Kawalerski is pushing back against the notion that unprotected bike lanes and sharrows (car lanes that are supposed to be shared with bikes) are sufficient for bicycling.

“A four-inch white line on a road next to high-speed, high-volume traffic? Not only do people not feel safe [biking in them], they’re not going to use it,” she says. “A white line is not going to stop [drivers] from drifting their cars into a bike lane and smashing into someone.”

CoverStory_12Bicycling on sidewalks can be just as dangerous. “At intersections, cars [often] don’t see bicyclists riding on sidewalks,” Kawalerski says. There are also absentminded pedestrians to contend with, she adds. “We have to share our sidewalks with pedestrians, wheelchairs, and skateboarders, and they’re bi-directional,” she explains. “I certainly would never ride on a sidewalk unless I absolutely had to because there’s too much going on, on that piece of pavement.”

(Although some cities ban bike riding on certain sidewalks, it isn’t illegal to bike on a sidewalk under state statute. Florida bike regulations do require that bicyclists yield to pedestrians.)

What Kawalerski does campaign for are “protected” bike lanes that are physically or visually separate from vehicular traffic. The bright green bike lanes with reflector lights along Crandon Boulevard as it passes through Crandon Park, completed last fall, are examples of such visual lanes, she says.

Creating truly protected bike lanes, though, requires more than just a coat of paint.

In the case of Copenhagen, city planners significantly narrowed vehicular roads and widened bike and pedestrian lanes. The installation of “cycle tracks,” which took place in the 1970s, made it far easier to bicycle than to drive. As a result, 70 percent of Copenhagen’s residents ride bikes regularly, according to Mikael Colville-Andersen, CEO of the Copenhagenize Design Company, a planning firm that consults for cities around the world on how to be more bike-friendly.

By encouraging bicycles instead of cars, Copenhagen officials have not only kept their residents relatively healthy via regular exercise, they also saved money on infrastructure maintenance. Michael Seth Wexler, an urban designer at CDD, points out that cars erode asphalt 16,000 times faster than bicycles.

Transit planners here in Miami aren’t ready to take the anti-car route yet. Still, they are experimenting with removing traffic lanes for bike lanes.

CoverStory_13Elizabeth Rockwell of the Transportation Planning Organization says the county’s Transportation and Public Works Department is converting a traffic lane on SW/SE 1st Street in the City of Miami into a “separated” bike lane. FDOT is also looking at implementing Danish design principals to improve bicycle access at Florida International University’s main campus in southwest Miami-Dade.

And up in northeast Miami-Dade, the City of North Miami Beach is working on linking its protected bike paths, enabling residents to ride a bike throughout the 5.3-square mile municipality, says Mayor George Vallejo.

But Alain Bitton, president of the Virginia Key Bicycle Club and a Brickell resident, doubts that Miami’s streets will ever be a safe place to bike. Although he regularly rides on rugged mountain-bike trails with his wife, Bitton rarely bikes on the street. He’s seen too many irresponsible drivers and bicyclists in Miami.

His wife, on the other hand, does sometimes take her bicycle out on the street. “Every time she leaves on the road bike, I just stay at home and wait for the phone call,” Bitton says. “I just think it’s extremely dangerous.”

 

Here are links to some of our area’s many bicycle interests: Plan Z for Miami: planzmiami.com; Everglades Bicycle Club: www.evergladesbc.com; Bike 305: www.miamidade.gov/bike305; Magic City Bicycle Collective: magiccitybicyclecollective.com; Miami Bicycle and Pro Shop: www.a1ssb.com; Miami Bike Scene: www.miamibikescene.com; The Underline: www.theunderline.org; Virginia Key Bicycle Club: vkbctrails.com

 

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