Miami’s a car’s city. We’re just living in it.

If I told you to go from Coral Gables to Downtown, how would you get there?

Maybe you briefly, very briefly, consider your options. Walking? It’s way too hot and probably too far. Biking? It doesn’t exactly scream safe. How about public transit? It feels unfamiliar, unreliable, and complicated.

But it’s more likely that you’ll skip all those steps and go straight for your car keys or a ride share. Contrast that with places like New York, Boston, or Chicago, where walking, biking, and public transit are way more desired options than revving up your engine. One of the questions we hear most often when talking about transit with you readers is “Why aren’t we that way?” 

A Ford motor Company advertisement showcasing "The American Dream."That’s because those cities were designed to move people, while Miami was designed to move cars. The modern day improvements we make to ease our current gridlock have to overcome that foundation.

“The history of Miami being so car-centric was a convergence of forces in a specific period of time,” said Marta Viciedo, co-founder of the Urban Impact Lab, a civic innovation firm.  “When Miami came of age and started to grow a little, it happened to be the height of the auto industry and the love affair of cars everywhere in this country.”

The early cities

When you think about places with street life and robust public transit, they’re usually in cities that are much older than Miami, according to Malik Benjamin, the director of program innovation at the Florida International University CARTA School of Architecture.

New York and Boston’s first settlers arrived in the mid-1600s and Chicago was incorporated in the late 1830s, long before cars even existed. These cities formed when people had to get themselves around on their own two feet, perhaps animal-drawn carts, and a handful of trolleys.

Meanwhile, until Henry Flagler’s railroad reached Miami in 1896, the whole area was kind of a boonie swampland.

By the 1900s there were more than three million people living in New York, about half-million in Boston, and about a million living in Chicago. Miami? Just a little over 1,000.

But with Flagler’s railroad, settlers and tourists began pouring in, canals were dug out, the swampland drained, and the land developed. People trickled in over the decades. In the 1920s Miami experienced its first big population boom.

As populations swelled in Coral Gables, Downtown Miami, and Miami Beach, city planners struggled with how to connect these three bustling areas and move people between them. The solution was a streetcar system that ran on rails, attached to overhead cables. It began with a downtown route and eventually connected to Coral Gables and even Miami Beach.

But in 1926, the “Great Miami” hurricane blew through and abruptly burst Miami’s development bubble. Then, in another, later storm the overhead streetcar cables were destroyed and more developments, transit or otherwise, came to a halt. The Great Depression followed, driving more population decline. Development took a back seat well into the 1940s.

Miami’s coming of age

Miami really came of age after World War II, due to two huge population booms — veterans moved to Miami in the late 1940s, followed by an influx of Cuban refugees in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1960, the population was nearing 1 million.

More people meant city planners had to once again figure out how to move people around the county. But this time there were cars, now common enough to be affordable for families to own them.

Following the war, all across America, people shifted away from city life as suburbs became all the rage. The federal government helped that change along on with two moves: the National Housing Act of 1934 and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. In Miami, the streetcar thing never really picked up again and an idea for a countywide bus system was shelved because it was too expensive at the time.

The National Housing Act subsidized mortgages in the suburbs, encouraging folks to spread far from city centers. The Federal Aid Highway Act bankrolled the construction of the Interstate Highway System to link regions and cities across the nation, leading to today’s roads like I-95 and I-395.

“It’s really that simple … [they] enabled and encouraged people to leave the city and go to the suburbs and provided them with roads and access to do it,” explained Benjamin.

So there you have it: Miami’s population boom in the 1950s + two massive federal subsidies that encourage suburban sprawl + affordability of automobiles → building a car-centric city.

It’s a car’s city, we’re just living in it

Those making the first moves out from the city center and to the suburbs were veterans and their families, according Dr. Paul George, resident historian at HistoryMiami. It became the American Dream to have a home, and white middle-class families, who could afford it with the help of the subsidies moved farther away from the city center.

Meanwhile, in the inner city, the building of highways decimated black communities like the thriving Overtown — a purposeful nationwide trend of using federal funding to build through communities considered slums, intentionally displacing black communities. By the 1980s, the urban core of cities across the country were struggling with drugs, crime, and poverty.

Downtown Miami completely lost its residential population. The court system, department stores, and and other stores were still there, but “by 6 p.m. whites were out. The car and suburbia are major reasons for that,” George said.

For the next 35 to 40 years suburban sprawl was the trend. Only recently, thanks to two big building booms in the city center in the last 15 years, has there been a focus on cultivating city life once again. Problem is that now our auto-centric infrastructure is struggling to support the population swell.

And as more people want the city life, that’s kind of hard for a few reasons: the roads are designed for cars, the freeways have ripped apart urban areas and made it way faster to be in a car above them then in a bus or train within them, and the lack of an enforced urban boundary line has allowed the city to sprawl and sprawl and sprawl, preventing density.

Miami has plenty of mass transit options: the Metrorail, the Metromover, the Metrobus, and the city trolleys. But they’re not always the most efficient option.

Metrorail stations aren’t in areas of high density, so they’re not as useful, according to Viciedo. Low ridership makes it hard to justify big spending to make them more convenient. With city trolleys, because each trolley system is run by a different municipality, there’s no central place to track them, making it’s hard to navigate for the average rider. And in the the case of the Metrobus, well that just gets caught in traffic like cars do because we don’t have a dedicated lane for Bus Rapid Transit, Benjamin pointed out. A BRT lane (or a bike lane or wider sidewalks for that matter) would mean one less lane for traffic, and more auto congestion.

“There’s a lot of dialogue about making transportation a priority, but there’s still discomfort on making it difficult for single occupancy vehicles,” Viciedo said.

And for these alternate systems to work smoothly, transportation policies have to stop accommodating to cars, she stressed.

“The harder it is to use a car, the more likely you are to use other forms of transportation. If we continue to build towards cars, we’re just going to get more cars. That’s what happens.”