Neighborhood Transformation
Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
Traffic: the Scourge of S. Florida

By Neal Peirce
Web-posted: 4:43 p.m. Dec. 9, 2000

It's the monster that ate Miami, devoured Broward County, and set its sights on Palm Beach. It devours peace, time, mobility, orderly lives. It's traffic -- ruthless, rampaging traffic, the scourge of South Florida.

A decade from now the lesson might be clear: Unlike a storm, this deluge didn't come suddenly. It built slowly, relentlessly, year after year, accumulating effects as paralyzing as a hurricane.

South Florida already claims third place in the dubious race for the most congested region in America. The Texas Transportation Institute, ground zero for tracking U.S. transportation changes, reports that extreme congestion in Miami-Dade County jumped from 10 percent in 1996 to 35 percent in 1997. In Broward, the freeway congestion percentages nearly doubled from 13 to 25 percent. The unthinkable is now a necessary thought: Traffic will get worse. A lot worse.

The forecast for growth from the University of Florida projects 1.8 million more souls born here or moving in search of the South Florida good life by 2020.

Anyone can do the math in this nightmare of numbers, says population-transportation expert Alan Hoffman of the San Diego-based Mission Group. By today's living standards, every additional 1 million people in a region means a minimum of 685,000 more vehicles.

Just to park those cars would require paving over 37 square miles of land -- the equivalent of extending a continuous sheet of concrete back from the beach, nearly a mile inland, from Miami all the way to Boca Raton.

And what happens when all the new cars head out on the highway? If only one of six new cars owned by the next 1 million people ventures onto a freeway during peak commute times, the regionwide impact of the added freeway space needed will be staggering. By Hoffman's estimate, 1,300 more lane miles would be needed. That's roughly the total number of freeway lane-miles that already exist in all of Broward County today.

So have a dinner party and ask your guests where they would put all those necessary new lane miles if they were the Florida Department of Transportation. One strategy would be to add the new pavement to the region's main road -- the stretch of Interstate 95 between downtown Miami and West Palm Beach. Nice idea, but there would be enough miles to add eight northbound and eight southbound lanes to I-95. Who would ever want to drive on that monster? Another strategy: Scatter the new road over Florida's Turnpike, the Sawgrass Expressway, the Palmetto Expressway, I-595.

Before your guests do that though, ask them if they would be prepared for the years of cantankerous battles with people enraged by the idea of new concrete canyons in their communities. If growth reached the 2 million mark, you would have to take all the figures above and double them. Bottom line: There is no plausible scenario under which South Florida can cope with coming growth by simply laying more concrete for roads. How did we get into this mess?

The simple answer? Bold visions, timid follow-up. Jose Abreu, the FDOT Secretary for District 6, remembers the Miami-Dade part of the story well, recalling how the voters made a dramatic choice back in the 1970s to create a rail network instead of eight expressways. Trouble is, said Abreu, "We built only the first stage of the rail network and quit. We (our governments) didn't finish what we started." Now, Abreu said, "Even if we built everything in the 20-year regional transportation plan, the commuting times are going to triple."

Abreu's FDOT colleague for District 6 (Broward-Palm Beach), Secretary Rick Chesser, rolled his eyes when asked about the causes of congestion. Chesser points to the gated communities to the west, and all the winding little roads where "there's only one way in and one way out and all dependent on the car."

Florida's celebrated growth management laws haven't helped much either. A major feature calls for "concurrency," or the obligation to provide the necessary infrastructure at the same time as new developments are built. Jeff Koons, chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization in Palm Beach County, bemoans, "We managed to define concurrency as building all the roads needed to get to new places."

Meanwhile, no one seemed to anticipate the swelling tide of freight traffic by truck. Chesser says that freight traffic out of South Florida -- which by the numbers is a huge success and a leading indicator of future trade potential -- has doubled in the past five years. And here's the kicker: Yet another doubling is on the way.

Designer congestion

The search for culprits also brings citizens straight back to their home communities and the land-use policies of their own local governments. Too often, all localities have done is chase development decisions with pavement. Instead of being proactive, thinking how the homes and schools, roadways and commercial areas for new citizens could be planned as a coherent whole, they have just rolled over to accommodate the latest proposals to build "out there" where land's cheaper and permits more easily arranged.

What the developers have asked for is a stream of subdivisions with limited entry points. They sold new homeowners on the idea they can deliver exclusivity and safety. How? Through road patterns filled with circles and cul-de-sacs, each vehicle spilling out onto one or two collector roads. Nothing is within walking distance of anything else. It's a recipe some call "designer congestion."

Architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk give a strong example in their new book, Suburban Nation, written with Jeff Speck. They note how Charleston, S.C., with a classic gridded street system, manages to handle a load of 5.5 million visitors a year within a 2500-acre zone with nearly no perceptible congestion. Nearby Hilton Head, at 10 times the size, hosts only 1.5 million people a year yet has perennially congested roads. Why? Hilton Head pushes all the traffic on to only one or two collector roads, just like the standard suburban model of the 20th century. Good examples

Let's look forward. If the principal roadways of South Florida are going to be slowed to molasses speed, what choices do citizens have? "South Florida and transit? Like scotch and ginger ale you can mix them, but it's not a great taste." That's what Joel Volinski, the University of South Florida transportation expert, said. "When you've designed a whole system around cars, you can't blame transit for not having more riders." Robert Black of South Miami told us he thinks "the train is great, as far as it goes. But the bus" he adds, "that's another story. They're antique, crowded and the schedule almost meaningless." Mary Cahadia of Southwest Miami Dade County sums up the sentiment from a lot of readers: "Taking the rail doesn't save me enough time to be worth the bother of standing on the platform in the heat, wind, or rain, fully dressed for business, and then I feel like I need to go home and take a shower again, and that is nothing compared to what it does to your hair..."

Nearly no one seems prepared to trust elected officials to do the right thing. Lidia Moore of Miami claims last year's Miami-Dade vote on transit made everyone think the money "would be squandered ... with zero impact on improving the daily commute and the never ending congestion on the roads." But as Dan Cary, director of community development for West Palm Beach, reminded us, "For every problem we have, there's a solution out there that's already been tested."

Last winter we visited a Curitiba, Brazil, a city that has a raft of answers South Florida should consider. The core idea: Move people rather than cars. Even though Curitiba's population's almost tripled to 2.4 million, traffic loads are less than they were in the early '70s.

Then, with the population ballooning, traffic engineers were proposing all sorts of new roadways, and Curitiba was in peril of becoming a jammed, unlivable metropolis.

Subways were being proposed, but with price tags of up to $90 million a kilometer. The substitute: a dramatically more affordable "surface subway," buses on exclusive transitways, radiating out from center city, at a dramatically less expensive $200,000 a kilometer.

Today that system has expanded to 56 kilometers of two-way lanes serviced by extra-long "articulated" buses -- hinged in two spots to snake around corners. With 270-passenger capacity, they pre-empt traffic lights and run on two-minute intervals. For passenger convenience, planners came up with a weather-protected glass "tube stations" or shelters, raised several feet off the ground with an attendant to take fares all along the lines.

The creators of the system also rezoned the city to allow very high office and residential buildings on the blocks right beside the five primary bus-transit trunk lines. That move guaranteed ridership and focused growth on a radial pattern, rather than focusing too much in the downtown alone, or allowing U.S.-style haphazard development. Medium density (four to six stories) is allowed three to four blocks out from Curitiba's spines. Beyond that, only low-rise residential and small business. What if you don't live close to a "spine"? Curitiba has a solution for that too: a complex network of green and yellow buses that link neighborhoods to transitways.

Finally, there are silver "speedies" -- buses that connect other high concentration areas. The speedies are fast, notes Kenneth Kruckemeyer, an Massachusetts Institute of Technology transportation expert, because with three-quarters of commuters on buses, the streets are relatively unclogged. Beyond Curitiba, there are other examples to study. Here are a few:

Ottawa -- Canada's capital city has some 700,000 citizens in its city proper and within its historic greenbelt. But sprawling development has scattered new settlement over the countryside. What sets Ottawa apart is the far-sighted decision of its Regional Council to serve both constituencies well. That means preserving a compact center. But also to hook long-distance commuters into a sophisticated regional transit system.

Transit is the mode of choice for three-fourths of all the peak-hour trips headed downtown, most of them originating in low-density suburbs. More than a third of all trips headed anywhere during the rush hours use transit. Significant numbers of people use transit to get to suburban shopping malls. High rises are showing up along the Transitway.

How did this happen? First, instead of chasing the holy grail of rail, Ottawans began with an all-bus approach, building a set of exclusive busways. In Ottawa, buses behave like cars. They are easy to find and board in the neighborhoods. Quickly they shift to a fixed road designed for buses exclusively. Result: Trips at least as rapid as the car. In-town, the buses take passengers to real places, such as major employment centers, rather than dropping them off in some isolated station next to a highway. Munich -- Transit is an attractive choice for everyday use because there is a durable public commitment to a strong city center and to maintaining corridors with a high density mixture of commerce, offices and residences.

The typical resident rides transit regularly yet also has a car on which he or she spends nine times as much money. The moral: You don't love your car any less because you aren't forced to use it every day to get every place you go. An extensive system of trains underground in the urban center, rolling out at grade levels beyond the city constitute the core of a system in which buses and trams do the small circulator work and connect to trains.

One fare fits all. And, in a climate not nearly as hospitable to bicycling as South Florida's, Munich's 600 kilometers of protected paths make it an intensely bike-friendly place.

Atlanta -- Critics say it has been devouring more countryside than any metropolis in world history. But last year, gruesome traffic tie-ups and alarmingly poor air quality led the business community to propose, the governor to back and the legislature to vote a radical U-turn from roads only.

The new Greater Atlanta Regional Transportation Authority has unprecedented power to build new transit lines and halt sprawling development. Charlotte -- Led by political conservatives and a business community worried about declining quality of life from traffic, Mecklenburg County voters in 1998 voted a special sales tax to finance a mixture of commuter rail on regular tracks, exclusive busways and light rail where densities can support its higher capital cost.

Dallas -- A mere decade ago, suggesting light rail as a Texas-sized choice for Dallas would have guaranteed letters to newspaper editors belittling your basic intelligence. (We know. We suggested it in a 1991 report and could almost hear the laughter.) Yet, by decade's end the first line was built and ridership rose beyond anyone's expectations. Car-happy Texans are clamoring for the next line to be built.