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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.”

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  • Fred

    The Miami transport system is a disaster. I’ve seen it all in the 30 years living here in the so called “sub-urbs” . I95, the turnpike and extensions, the dedicated us1 bus lane ALL are a bunch of political scandals. The metro rail is a joke, from Kendall to Miami “nowhere”. Does not even go to the F,N airport !!!!!!!! Leads you to over town, in dark unlit areas I wouldn’t let a pit bull dog go. It might get raped.
    I’ve seen it all from the eastern airlines and American airline scandals for space and kickbacks. How many billions of dollars were given to the “palm tree” Mongols. At $2500 a piece in 2001 to line the 826 & 836, just to have them pulled up and removed. The pay toll booths on the TP extension, built on every exit, only to be obsolete due to the sun pass system.. BILLIONS of dollars wasted!!!!!!
    Let’s not forget the trirail joke…. Miami, Orlando, Tampa,
    It’s time to get rid of these polical shitheads. How the F designed the 826/836 crossing by the airport???? What a joke! Fly-overs????
    With the BILLIONS spent, Miami would have the best state of the art transit system. BUT NO!!!!! The political dicks pocketed the funds……

  • Fred

    The Miami transport system is a disaster. I’ve seen it all in the 30 years living here in the so called “sub-urbs” . I95, the turnpike and extensions, the dedicated us1 bus lane ALL are a bunch of political scandals. The metro rail is a joke, from Kendall to Miami “nowhere”. Does not even go to the F,N airport !!!!!!!! Leads you to over town, in dark unlit areas I wouldn’t let a pit bull dog go. It might get raped.
    I’ve seen it all from the eastern airlines and American airline scandals for space and kickbacks. How many billions of dollars were given to the “palm tree” Mongols. At $2500 a piece in 2001 to line the 826 & 836, just to have them pulled up and removed. The pay toll booths on the TP extension, built on every exit, only to be obsolete due to the sun pass system.. BILLIONS of dollars wasted!!!!!!
    Let’s not forget the trirail joke…. Miami, Orlando, Tampa,
    It’s time to get rid of these polical shitheads. How the F designed the 826/836 crossing by the airport???? What a joke! Fly-overs????
    With the BILLIONS spent, Miami would have the best state of the art transit system. BUT NO!!!!! The political dicks pocketed the funds……

  • Great article – but one correction on traffic usage theory: More lanes = induced demand, while giving up a lane for BRT requires drivers to find alternatives (such as the bus itself, thus offsetting the lane loss). While some may argue that public transportation offerings (such as a BRT) will reach a very low percentage of commuters, part of that reason is because existing automobile commuters have no reason to seek an alternative in the first place.

    See:
    https://www.wired.com/2014/06/wuwt-traffic-induced-demand/
    http://usa.streetsblog.org/2011/05/31/study-building-roads-to-cure-congestion-is-an-exercise-in-futility/

  • Great article – but one correction on traffic usage theory: More lanes = induced demand, while giving up a lane for BRT requires drivers to find alternatives (such as the bus itself, thus offsetting the lane loss). While some may argue that public transportation offerings (such as a BRT) will reach a very low percentage of commuters, part of that reason is because existing automobile commuters have no reason to seek an alternative in the first place.

    See:
    https://www.wired.com/2014/06/wuwt-traffic-induced-demand/
    http://usa.streetsblog.org/2011/05/31/study-building-roads-to-cure-congestion-is-an-exercise-in-futility/

  • Aaron F

    Thanks for the history! I live in Philadelphia, a city with a fantastic bicycle infrastructure that’s grown up over the past few decades, so visiting my family in Miami is a bit of a trial for me when it comes to getting around. The most frustrating thing is that the car-centrism doesn’t even seem to be perceived as a potentially solvable problem down here! I’d love to learn more about efforts to change the cultural attitudes that prevent more effective pedestrian and cyclist transportation networks from being implemented — it worked elsewhere in the country, so why not here?

    • Roshan

      Great point. The TransitCenter, a transportation innovation advocacy group based out of NYC, recently published this AWESOME report that chronicles urban transportation innovation in six cities around the U.S. — Pittsburgh included. The biggest factor that led to institutional change was civic engagement. It starts with the people, the report found. If there’s a lot of citizen advocacy, the city government follows suit. Check it out: http://transitcenter.org/peoples-history/

  • Aaron F

    Thanks for the history! I live in Philadelphia, a city with a fantastic bicycle infrastructure that’s grown up over the past few decades, so visiting my family in Miami is a bit of a trial for me when it comes to getting around. The most frustrating thing is that the car-centrism doesn’t even seem to be perceived as a potentially solvable problem down here! I’d love to learn more about efforts to change the cultural attitudes that prevent more effective pedestrian and cyclist transportation networks from being implemented — it worked elsewhere in the country, so why not here?

    • Roshan

      Great point. The TransitCenter, a transportation innovation advocacy group based out of NYC, recently published this AWESOME report that chronicles urban transportation innovation in six cities around the U.S. — Pittsburgh included. The biggest factor that led to institutional change was civic engagement. It starts with the people, the report found. If there’s a lot of citizen advocacy, the city government follows suit. Check it out: http://transitcenter.org/peoples-history/

  • Portland started as a car-centric city and then they spent billions of dollars adding public transport options. The result is that few use them (see link). Commuting via car went down from 90% to 80%, and of course they managed to increase traffic congestion enormously. Why not use the space used by public transport for more car lanes, then? You might accomplish the same decreases in congestion for a lot less money, and have many more satisfied commuters. I really hate the fact that planners seem to want to force people into clearly less desirable transport options. Planners should support what the people want, not what planners think they should want. Big difference. http://blog.oregonlive.com/commuting/2012/10/metro_study_84_percent_of_port.html

    • Roshan

      Interesting point, and it’s a conversation that can go back and forth. In Portland, wasn’t it also the case that the recession led to cuts and fare hikes that made public transit kind of a crummy alternative, and left a bad taste in citizens’ mouths for the years to come? http://www.oregonlive.com/commuting/index.ssf/2014/03/americans_are_using_mass_trans.html

      Also check out this breakdown from WIRED explaining how building more roads actually causes more traffic: http://www.wired.com/2014/06/wuwt-traffic-induced-demand/

      • What happens is that when you build horrendously expensive rail systems, they wind up forcing increased fares thanks to high construction and operating costs, and then overall use of public transport decreases. This has actually happened in many places.

        The fellow who ran Los Angeles Metro noted that the money designated to build Metro Rail was used to lower the bus fare to $0.50 from $0.75 while Metro Rail plans were being prepared. Ridership increased dramatically. When Metro Rail was built and fares went back up, ridership plunged. Public transport is overwhelmingly used by the poor, who have enormous elasticity of demand – that is, lower prices mean a lot more use and higher prices mean far less. So the best strategy for public transport is not to build fancy systems but to decrease fares and improve service on the bread and butter bus routes. Intriguingly enough, this has almost never been tried. The Metro situation was due to a legal settlement between the Bus Riders’ Union and Metro. For better public transport, Los Angeles should have continued that settlement and never build Metro.

        Building roads in a heavily supply constrained system will cause more traffic, because demand will rise to fit supply. But that means more passengers are being served, which is good, just as more public transport ridership demonstrates more vitality even when it means public transport becomes unpleasant to ride thanks to crowding.

        Eventually, if we keep on building roads, demand and supply will balance and we will see uncongested roads. How do I know this? Take Richeyville, PA, where I lived for a while. Population density there is low and shrinking. If I built a 10-lane highway through Richeyville there will be no more traffic than there is now.

        Unfortunately I don’t think there is enough room for roads in Miami for this to happen. Miami was designed for roughly 1/10th its present population and with real estate values being what they are, we can’t exactly buy more land for roads. So I don’t see a good solution for Miami’s problems; I just recognize that more public transport isn’t it.

  • Portland started as a car-centric city and then they spent billions of dollars adding public transport options. The result is that few use them (see link). Commuting via car went down from 90% to 80%, and of course they managed to increase traffic congestion enormously. Why not use the space used by public transport for more car lanes, then? You might accomplish the same decreases in congestion for a lot less money, and have many more satisfied commuters. I really hate the fact that planners seem to want to force people into clearly less desirable transport options. Planners should support what the people want, not what planners think they should want. Big difference. http://blog.oregonlive.com/commuting/2012/10/metro_study_84_percent_of_port.html

    • Roshan

      Interesting point, and it’s a conversation that can go back and forth. In Portland, wasn’t it also the case that the recession led to cuts and fare hikes that made public transit kind of a crummy alternative, and left a bad taste in citizens’ mouths for the years to come? http://www.oregonlive.com/commuting/index.ssf/2014/03/americans_are_using_mass_trans.html

      Also check out this breakdown from WIRED explaining how building more roads actually causes more traffic: http://www.wired.com/2014/06/wuwt-traffic-induced-demand/

      • What happens is that when you build horrendously expensive rail systems, they wind up forcing increased fares thanks to high construction and operating costs, and then overall use of public transport decreases. This has actually happened in many places.

        The fellow who ran Los Angeles Metro noted that the money designated to build Metro Rail was used to lower the bus fare to $0.50 from $0.75 while Metro Rail plans were being prepared. Ridership increased dramatically. When Metro Rail was built and fares went back up, ridership plunged. Public transport is overwhelmingly used by the poor, who have enormous elasticity of demand – that is, lower prices mean a lot more use and higher prices mean far less. So the best strategy for public transport is not to build fancy systems but to decrease fares and improve service on the bread and butter bus routes. Intriguingly enough, this has almost never been tried. The Metro situation was due to a legal settlement between the Bus Riders’ Union and Metro. For better public transport, Los Angeles should have continued that settlement and never build Metro.

        Building roads in a heavily supply constrained system will cause more traffic, because demand will rise to fit supply. But that means more passengers are being served, which is good, just as more public transport ridership demonstrates more vitality even when it means public transport becomes unpleasant to ride thanks to crowding.

        Eventually, if we keep on building roads, demand and supply will balance and we will see uncongested roads. How do I know this? Take Richeyville, PA, where I lived for a while. Population density there is low and shrinking. If I built a 10-lane highway through Richeyville there will be no more traffic than there is now.

        Unfortunately I don’t think there is enough room for roads in Miami for this to happen. Miami was designed for roughly 1/10th its present population and with real estate values being what they are, we can’t exactly buy more land for roads. So I don’t see a good solution for Miami’s problems; I just recognize that more public transport isn’t it.