Neighborhood Transformation

Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
Make U.S. 1 a Boulevard with Soul

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


Maligned and exploited, grand old U.S. 1 experienced a demeaning last half of the 20th Century. Its fate, as our acerbic writer friend James Kunstler noted, was "a chaos of gigantic, lurid plastic signs, golden arches, red-and-white striped revolving chicken buckets, cinder-block carpet warehouses, discount marts, asphalt deserts and a horizon slashed by utility poles."

OK, we can hear some say that U.S. 1 actually looks pretty good as it runs through North Palm Beach. Or, to the south, along parts of Biscayne Boulevard in Miami.

Granted. Still, mile after mile of South Florida's stretch of America's first federal highway is an aging eyesore. But this is an eyesore that could become an eye-catching grand boulevard linking the entire chain of coastal cities of South Florida.

We recognize that its revival in a vacuum would be insufficient. There's also a need to try for passenger service on the Florida East Coast Railway. To dual-track Tri-Rail. To institute such innovations as bus lanes on Interstate 95, the expressways and I-75. And to aim for coordinated region-wide planning for U.S. 441/State Route 7, which serves the older suburbs.

But a smarter land use also has to figure high in any future equation.

A reborn U.S. 1 could stimulate a rich array of choices for nearby living and working, creating real market conditions to build more townhouses, condos and apartments. This corridor could be the prime address for Internet Coast companies, the longest restaurant row in the country, the proving ground for a common-sense public transit network. From Coconut Grove to Hollywood to Lake Park, U.S. 1 would then spell a return to civilized traffic flow and innovative, customer-oriented transit. And a lifestyle opportunity.

Just picture U.S. 1 as a busy place, as grand as Miami's Brickell Avenue but with sidewalks full of people, entertainment and great food. A place you would want to be, minutes from work. A boulevard with soul. Now we didn't inhale so much seabreeze as to think this transformation will happen without some sort of official push. For starters, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) would have to change the official function of U.S. 1 from a regional through-highway to a connector or collector road for relatively local traffic.

By that we mean a road for trips of one to 10 miles, 20 miles maximum.

Already, U.S. 1 is no longer anyone's first choice for longer distances.

We realize revamping this grand old dowager may seem fanciful, a bit utopian. But some local officials are getting impatient, too. Bill Moss, a new member of the Palm Beach County Metropolitan Planning Organization (the MPO allocates federal transportation dollars), writes that it's high time to see U.S. 1 as "a connector of neighborhoods and business districts, instead of a fast highway from Florida to Maine." He's frustrated to keep hearing "we cannot impede the traffic flow."

And at the north end of Palm Beach County, two path-breaking public meetings took place in mid-1999 led by the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council and planners at Dover, Kohl, and Partners of Miami. One hundred people participated in two charrettes, combining residents and officials from the chain of seven cities from Tequesta to Riviera Beach.

They noted how often property values had been sacrificed so the road could serve rush-hour traffic and how many businesses had turned their backs on the highway. They noted how the road seems jammed sometimes and nearly empty others. How it had lost vital connections to communities it passes through.

Most of all, they agreed that U.S. 1 had become a zone totally oriented to automobiles and trucks. These "charretteers" declared that a U.S. 1 fitting to our times must serve more than motorists, it must also welcome pedestrians, cyclists, merchants, offices and civic institutions. South Florida's U.S. 1, once the southern end of a country road from Miami to Maine, is now intensely urban. So why not, they said, go back to real sidewalks and buildings right next to them? And zoning that lets people live over the shops? Landscaping and signage that befit what was once a great boulevard?

In the 1920s, as the Treasure Coast plan noted, developers creating locations beside and near U.S. 1 made sure they built beautiful places, believing that was the key to lure visitors and growth. Today's challenge is radically different, not to be a tourist magnet but rather how to create a livable, quality region for South Florida's people. And if more people are headed toward the region, what better time to remake South Florida's historic main road to be the magnet for intense and attractive development, a signature road drawing new population and activity to its orbit?

Transit that works

There's no way that U.S. 1 can be a new Main Street linking South Florida from Treasure Coast to South Dade without the active engagement of the state. First, FDOT needs to reclassify it as a predominately local access road, not a thoroughfare for moving traffic as rapidly as possible. High-speed traffic is the job of I-95 and other such arterials.

Next, FDOT engineers need to work with the cities and towns along the highway to fix unnecessary bottlenecks in nearby street systems to relieve U.S. 1 traffic even more.

Understandably, residents don't want fast through-traffic in their neighborhoods. But traffic-calming measures can be implemented. The more diffused local traffic is, the better. Then, central to the whole plan, a new U.S. 1 needs to have exclusive transit lanes for buses, low-pollution, state-of-the-art vehicles that won't be stuck behind local traffic; buses able to deliver passengers over short- to medium-distances with comfort and true efficiency.

Here's a layout appropriate for big sections of U.S. 1 as it passes through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties:

Generous sidewalks ... More people space! Think Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale, or Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. Parking lanes. They help buffer the sidewalk as well as provide short-term spaces serving shops and businesses. Parking also can succeed behind buildings or in convenient garages where you park once and turn into a pedestrian.

The wildly successful Lincoln Road pedestrian mall in South Beach is a prime example. People happily will walk all over the place if the atmosphere is worth it and there are multiple attractions.

One full traffic lane for north, another for southbound vehicles. OK, we can hear you gasping. Just one regular traffic lane; won't that make for incredible back-ups? There is a danger of that, but only in certain stretches where one could look for parallel streets to relieve some traffic.

Remember: U.S. 1 should not be a major thoroughfare, just a long local road. Autos would be welcomed, but at speeds rarely more than 40 mph. For a safety valve, install curb cuts at intersections for left turns; congestion relief is instant. Often it is turning activity of drivers, especially turning left, that clogs lanes.

Research shows that in many situations, one lane each way moves the traffic as well as two if there are protected turning lanes.

Exclusive transit lanes, north- and southbound. Here's the dividend for less traffic lanes. One possibility, put the transit lanes between the driving lanes and the parking spaces, with a cut into the parking zone for stops.

Regular traffic would use the transit lane only for right turns. Exclusive lanes mean buses could keep moving at speeds competitive to private cars. Could FDOT be persuaded to support changes? We find sympathy within the department in regard to the traffic nightmare that South Florida is hurtling toward. And some inclination to play an out-of-the-box role, though officials, especially for the record, are extremely reluctant to do anything that appears to reduce driving capacity.

But FDOT shouldn't be alone. Imagine a region-wide coalition to press new ideas, perhaps a collaboration of the area's two regional planning councils, with help from the new Regional Transportation Organization, and leaders of municipalities in the corridor.

If neighborhood-friendly transit vehicles can sweep the neighborhoods east and west of U.S. 1 and head west to Tri-Rail stations, or turn directly on to U.S. 1 going north and south, then massive numbers of people can make it through an average day without the need to drive and park a car. With traffic worsening daily, it could be a welcome choice.

Then, wherever density indicates, bus systems need to penetrate neighborhoods in the western parts of the counties. Can people be persuaded to ride buses? Not slow, diesel-spewing, unreliable buses, not if they have any choice at all. But can bus systems be clear, efficient, even electrically powered? Yes, there are examples of quality systems around the world. These days, any public transit system should have totally automated schedule and minutes-to-next-arrival signs at every stop. Stops should be comfortable and landscaped. All that costs money. But the costs are modest compared to the damage traffic is inflicting and the dangers of thinking that more roads will cure it.