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An in-depth look at bicycle culture in the city of Miami.
By Dina M. Weinstein
The week after, many civic meetings fill the calendar, including the Miami Open Streets Team that organizes ciclovia events; a town hall meeting organized by elected officials to decide whether to approve a toll increase on a popular roadway for cyclists; a zoning meeting that affects cyclists in Miami Beach; and a meeting of the county’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. At the same time, The Miami Bike Scene, the definitive blog on cycling in Miami, promotes a first-of-its-kind Adult Bicycle Repair Class at Youth Bike in the Little Haiti neighborhood.
“All this wasn’t going on a few years ago,” said Kathryn Moore, executive director of the South Florida Bike Coalition — the organization’s only paid staff member.
But some things haven’t changed. Florida has one of the worst ratings for bicycling safety in the US. And the findings of a Florida Department of Highway Safety annual crash report, released in June of this year, reveal that Miami-Dade County was the most fatal in the Sunshine State for cyclists in 2009 — 12 cyclists died in automobile-related accidents. The death toll has drawn criticism and support from the cycling community. Thousands came out on a ride to remember and mourn the loss of racer Christophe Le Canne who was mowed down by an intoxicated driver while cycling in Miami.
Advocates like Moore say it’s deplorable that Miami is one of the few US cities where one can booze 24 hours a day. On the other hand, some cyclists like being able to bike to bars and clubs until 5 a.m. And few cyclists come out to government zoning, planning and advisory board meetings to clamor for more protection on the roads.
“Here, there are a lot of auto-centered assumptions on the part of everybody, including planners, school teachers and shop owners,” said John Hopkins, executive director of the Green Mobility Network, which advocates for safety and infrastructure for commuters, recreational cyclists and athletes. “One big problem is selfishness or the ‘Culture of Me’. Drivers and many cyclists are heedless of who else is on the road.”
Hopkins is working towards putting cycling, and the urgent need for bicycle infrastructure, on the agenda of municipal governments and other decision-makers.
Gabrielle Redfern started Bicycle Activists for a Safe, Integrated City (BASIC) to further integrate cycling — which continues to be perceived by many as something done solely for fun and leisure — into the transportation mix.
Redfern tirelessly goes to two or three zoning, planning and advisory meetings per week that focus on her municipality of Miami Beach and the Miami-Dade County as a whole. To educate planners and elected officials, Redfern prints packets from other like-minded organizations, such as Bikes Belong and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and hands the information to decision-makers.
Her advocacy work and presence at government meetings has likely played a role in the city’s decision to create six new miles of bike lanes. It also launched DecoBike, a bike-sharing program with 100 locations in Miami Beach, this summer.
Miami Beach is now seen as one of the more bike-friendly in the county. But that’s not enough for Redfern. She feels there needs to be more biking infrastructure to make it safer for cyclists.
Despite a population of over 1.5 million, according to 2009 US census data, Miami-Dade County cyclists have only 61 miles (98 kilometers) of bicycle lanes/ paths available to them. Taking a look at a county map, it’s plain to see that those routes are spotty and disjointed.
Typical Miami cyclists are the working poor and university students who can’t afford cars; undocumented workers who can’t get licenses; commuters who bike for better health; recreational riders; and spandex-clad athletes. There is also a hipster fixed-gear and Alleycat race crowd.
Motorists clogging Miami’s streets are often bewildered tourists, impatient commuters and motorists who are unfamiliar with, or who just plain ignore, traffic laws — all of which makes for dangerous cycling conditions on roadways.
These barriers frustrate cyclists because most of the year Miami is attractive for pedaling, with its flat terrain and balmy weather. Average temperatures in January reach 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius). But cyclists here have many strikes against them, including a sprawling design, little infrastructure and aggressive drivers.
For commuting cyclist Martin Alonso, bicycling is the most attractive way to experience Miami, if you’re not alone.
“It’s the best way to travel someplace because you get to really see the city,” said Alonso as he waited for the Critical Mass group to form for a Friday night summer ride. “Still, I often don’t feel safe riding by myself. It’s better in a group.”
The City of Miami bicycling coordinator, Collin Worth, thinks cycling has picked up steam over the past few years because local leaders realize the potential for tourism. He thinks they’re starting to understand the low cost of bicycle infrastructure and the positive press good cycling cities tend to receive.
“Like all initiatives, if leaders see there is money to be made as a result of implementation, there is little argument,” Worth said. “There is a growing awareness of cyclists in the community, yet the automobile culture still has to do some maturing in order to provide a level of respect to other modes of transportation.”
The City of Miami now ties bicycle infrastructure to street infrastructure projects. So when a roadway has been earmarked for bicycle facilities, its financing is tied into the cost of the project. The city also works with the state and the county to increase the amount of bicycle infrastructure on their roadways and encourages them to provide complete streets whenever they make improvements. Worth looks for grant opportunities to provide bicycle facilities, such as a recent grant won through the US Center for Disease Control that will award $276,000 USD for bicycle racks, shared-lane pavement markings, bike route signage and way-finding signs.
Dario Gonzalez, a university researcher and Open Streets Team organizer, thinks infrastructure advances need to be coupled with efforts to bridge the knowledge gap.
“We need to add questions on the state driver’s license exam related to cyclists,” said Gonzalez.
Green Mobility Network board member and bike commuter Kaelsie Saravia says institutional changes, such as a statewide anti-texting-while-driving law, would alleviate some safety concerns — the more drivers keep their eyes on the road, the more likely they are to see a cyclist.
TransitMiami.com blogger Felipe Azenha says that kind of change can only come to pass with the right political will. He points to high road speeds as another problem. Azenha regrets that it took the death of Christophe Le Canne in January of this year to get people to speak to elected officials about their concerns.
The blog’s publisher/ editor, Tony Garcia, is a principal at the urban planning firm Street Plans Collaborative. He feels optimistic about what he sees as an increase in pro-bike advocacy, but still sees challenges ahead. He’s especially aware of the need to elect candidates that support cyclists’ needs. Of Cuban descent, Garcia acknowledges that many Miamians of Latin decent (an estimated 62 percent of the population) are against public amenities, such as biking infrastructure. On the other hand, Garcia notes that Latin countries, such as Colombia, are on the cutting edge of bicycle infrastructure.
More and more groups are organizing to help Miamians have fun on bikes. The Open Streets Team grew out of the monthly closed-street ciclovia Bike Miami Day events organized under the former City of Miami mayoral administration. The OST members now act as consultants, reaching out to the 32 Miami-Dade municipalities to help organize similar events. Every weekend, online message boards fill up with community rides.
This summer, inner city organization Youth Bike teamed up with the South Florida Bike Coalition and BikeSafe, based out of the University of Miami Hospital pediatric trauma unit, to teach bicycle safety and skills at district camps.
“The overall hope is that these kids will embrace safe bicycling as a transportation option, a form of exercise and a fun activity,” said Jamie Caulkins, BikeSafe coordinator.
Youth Bike founder and co-director, Roger Horne, pins more on it: “I hope the group will become the future cyclists and advocates for their community, which is often left out of the other advocacy organizations.”