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Gridlock: What can fix the Miami traffic problem?

The texting, the honking, the weaving, the confusing interchanges, the road construction, the slow-drivers and the death-wish speeders, the shouts of “come mierda!” muffled by steel, vinyl and tempered glass car windows. These are experiences with which many South Florida drivers are all too familiar when battling Miami traffic. Congestion on roads and highways is a major problem in Miami-Dade County, and given the county’s rapidly growing population, it’s a problem that isn’t going away.

The gridlock is here. The frustration is real. But what’s the cause, and how might Miami find new solutions?

A study from the city’s transit department shows avoiding congestion on US-1 south of I-95 is near impossible for commuters. The highway is congested in both directions all day, and the days when “Miami was one-way in the morning and one-way in the afternoon are gone.”

US-1, south of SW 27th Ave Traffic

What does this congestion cost commuters? A national study from Texas A&M University in 2012 showed Miami drivers can expect to lose an extra 47 hours on the road per year, and almost a thousand dollars in extra costs.

Gridlock takes a toll on the environment, too. The same Texas A&M study showed that all this traffic in Miami results in almost 1.9 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emitted when the highways are congested.

Widening US-1 and most other major roads is not really an option. Studies show that building more and bigger roads just results in more traffic. So the question becomes how to move people along those corridors. Transit advocates have begged the city and the county for years to figure out how to move away from a transportation system that caters to cars.

Tony Garcia, an urban planning consultant who ran the blog TransitMiami.com, says “the problem is not a lack of roads, it’s a lack of options.”

“We have to refocus our energy on providing more options and less so on trying to solve for congestion,” Garcia added. “It’s obvious that the roads are at capacity. Somewhere something’s going to have to give in this system.”

Garcia said driving on the 836 reminded him of the opening scene of Office Space, “sitting in traffic, inching along.”

Part of the problem is how the city is laid out. Unlike cities that were built largely before the invention of the automobile, such as New York and Boston, Miami’s growth came mostly in the latter half of the twentieth century. The development focus then was on sprawling subdivisions of single-family homes, building the American Dream. Cars were seen as the transportation mode of the future, and roads were designed for drivers instead of pedestrians and bicyclists. Connecting a county designed for cars with public transit is an unwieldy task. At the same time, some municipalities allow more and more development along already clogged roads, sometimes in ways that conflict with existing planning and zoning regulations.

“You just go to some of the planning and zoning meetings and you see all kinds of variances” for developers, County Commissioner Xavier Suarez said. “You can’t keep promoting urban sprawl.”

After years of building a sprawling wonderland of automobiles, it seems more public officials are beginning to take notice. The cities of Miami and Miami Beach are considering plans to expand their free trolley systems. Miami is trying to pave over it’s history of haphazard planning by encouraging more dense development closer to downtown, a strategy referred to by planning experts as “urban in-fill.” While this can create more congestion, it also makes for a more pedestrian friendly city. Plans for more bike lanes and a pedestrian friendly downtown (PDF) are beginning to take shape. Longer term plans for connections between midtown, downtown and Miami Beach are also starting to emerge. Miami Dade Transit is looking to add more, and larger buses to their fleet.

At the same time, MDX is extending highways further west along the Urban Development Boundary. MDX spokesman Mario Diaz would not comment on whether this would simply encourage more development — and more cars — instead he said these highway extensions on the county’s western fringes are an attempt to meet existing demand.

Suarez has sharply criticized MDX in the past, referring to the agency’s expanding debt obligations to build interchanges, tolls, and longer highways as a “debacle.” Suarez thinks it would be great if some of the money MDX collected in tolls went to pay for alternatives to the expressways.

“As long as you’re tolling people to death, at least give us some of that money for public transportation,” Suarez said. Diaz would not comment on that idea, or criticism of the number of tolls on the roads they control, instead saying the toll money MDX collects goes to support and maintain the highways. People aren’t forced to take the expressways and MDX works with their partners, like Miami Dade Transit, to improve the flow of traffic, he said. Diaz pointed to plans to let express buses drive on a soon-to-be widened left shoulder of the 836 to bypass traffic as an example of collaboration with MDT. But for the most part, urban in-fill and expanding highways reflect conflicting strategies.

Part of the problem is the lack of a coherent vision, says transit advocate Marta Viciedo.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO, is tasked with coordinating transportation infrastructure among the dozens of cities and agencies in the county. The MPO, which has a policy of only responding to questions from the media by email, wrote that the agency’s vision is laid out in its Long Range Transportation Plan, or LRTP, and guided by a “comprehensive vision to provide mobility options for Miami-Dade County residents and visitors and promote economic competitiveness by investing in the County’s transportation infrastructure while protecting the environment and maximizing the efficiency of the existing transportation system,” whatever that means.

The LRPT, “doesn’t have a vision,” Viciedo said. “It’s just a bunch of projects. There’s no real rhyme or reason,” and whatever project happens to find funding tends to get bumped to the top of the list, regardless of how it fits into an overall plan.

Viciedo chairs the Transit Action Committee, or TrAC, which is currently working on developing a more meaningful vision for Miami-Dade’s public transportation system.

The common refrain from local transit advocates is that Miami-Dade’s transit plan should be about moving people rather than cars. Until pedestrians, bicyclists and public transit riders are prioritized over cars, Miami will remain the land of the automobile — criss-crossed with endless streams of angry drivers.

Daniel Ducassi is a freelance multimedia journalist in Miami. Follow him on Twitter at @dducassi.