South Florida Is Deadly for Cyclists, and It's Only Growing More Dangerous
Cycling activist Eli Stiers often meets with officials to push for improvements to Miami's cycling infrastructure. He says, "We have to create an environment where people expect to see cyclists and pedestrians here, because they still don't."
Photo by Stian Roenning
Vera Arias glides north along Federal Highway during morning rush hour, her black Republic road bike fast and light beneath her. All her senses are heightened at this intersection near the Miami-Dade/Broward County line, the worst part of her daily ride to work. Cars zoom past and honk aggressively. To her left, in her peripheral vision, she notices a burgundy minivan.
Suddenly, before she can react, it swerves in front of her, its right side crashing into her left shoulder. She flies ten feet through the air and lands headfirst. Her helmet snaps off her head.
As she's sprawled on the hot pavement of a busy Hollywood road, her heart pulses. Breath heaves in her chest. She peels her head off the ground and catches sight of her bike, bent and mangled next to her, and the contents of her backpack scattered all over the street.
But the ordeal doesn't end there. The driver of the car, an 81-year-old with white hair, leaps out of his van and hovers over her.
"You're so stupid," he shouts over and over. "Why didn't you stop?! You're an idiot!"
Any regular cyclist in Miami-Dade will tell you that hopping onto a bike here is an act of faith. Drivers use major thoroughfares as speedways and then rage at cyclists who dare to cross their path. Bike lanes end as randomly as they began. Cyclists are eternally frustrated by a lack of simple changes to keep them alive.
By all measures, Miami is one of the nation's least safe cities on two wheels. Florida as a whole has the most bicycle fatalities in the nation and has the four deadliest cities for cyclists. (Miami is fourth, after Jacksonville, Tampa, and Orlando.) Between 2010 and 2014, 47 cyclists died
"In Miami, you have to ride aggressively in order to make yourself seen," says Karim
South Florida has made improvements in recent years. Miami now boasts an expansive bike-sharing program, a smattering of green bike lanes, and signs that signal to drivers to "share the road." Yet statistically, things are actually getting worse. Across Miami-Dade, fatalities jumped a startling 260 percent between 2012 and 2014, while injuries increased 34 percent.
"There's a blossoming culture of acceptance, but cycling in Miami still has a long way to go," says attorney and cycling activist Eli Stiers, who says his own behavior has changed because of recent cyclist deaths. "I'm not going on any more lone-wolf rides, and I don't ride early-morning hours anymore. It's just not worth it."
To understand why Miami still struggles so much with bike safety, New Times interviewed a dozen survivors of car crashes, hung out with activists and ci ty planners, and dove into the statistics. There's one thing nearly everyone agrees
"Here in Miami, you just sort of know that cars are going to get mad at you and honk at you just for riding a bike," Arias says. "And getting hit by a car and then having the driver yell at you? Well, there's nothing more traumatizing than that."
April's Critical Mass brought out more than 1,000 people for a 20-mile ride. From Government Center, cyclists traveled to East Little Havana, through East Hialeah, Liberty City, Wynwood, and back downtown.
Photo by KarliEvans.com
With its year-round sunshine and pancake-flat roads, South Florida should be a paradise for cyclists. But like many Southern and Sun Belt cities, Miami's urban landscape is stuck in a time when the car was king.
Part of the problem is history. Cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York, which
The very fabric of Miami and Miami Beach stems from car culture. In the early 1900s, it was an auto pioneer, Carl Fisher, who came up with the idea of Miami Beach. Fisher had already created the Dixie Highway, a network of north-south routes from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to South Florida, so residents in his home state could motor down to the Sunshine State.
Miami developed during the height of car culture and sprawled as automobiles grew in popularity. Roads were built to move people in cars to and from the suburbs to downtown as quickly as possible. Many suburban residential Miami-Dade neighborhoods don't even have sidewalks. Even secondary streets resemble bona fide highways, with multiple wide lanes encouraging drivers to slam the gas.
The result: By the early 2000s, when many cities around the world were debuting state-of-the-art public transport and encouraging bikes, Miami wasn't even thinking about it. In 2001, Miami-Dade created a map that graded every major roadway based on traffic speeds and shoulder widths. By those standards, it found virtually every road in the county unsuitable for biking.
"The simple act of walking in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area can put your life in jeopardy," the Miami Herald wrote in 2002.
"Lack of safety has always been a part of riding here," Nahim says. "It actually may have even been better back then, because there were fewer cars."
When Stiers moved to Miami in 2005, cycling in Miami was still "like riding in no man's land." There were a lot of competitive cyclists, but very few cycled for transport or fun. "There was no infrastructure to speak of," he says.
That began to change in 2006, after 33-year-old cycling enthusiast Omar Otaola was killed by a driver on Key Biscayne. Finally, a bike lane was added to that popular cycling route. Soon after, the Florida Legislature passed a law that requires motorists to leave a three-foot space when overtaking a bicycle.
The next year, when the Miami Bike Scene launched a website to promote cycling culture, its first post stated, "We live in one of the top bike-unfriendly cities in the U.S., this is clear to us all... Let's try to change that. Get on your bike, start riding, and stop complaining."
In 2008, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz formed the Miami Bicycle Action Committee. Cyclist Collin Worth was named the city's first bike coordinator and tasked with bringing cycling to the fore in any and all Miami roadway projects.
"Until then, when the county did projects in the city, and when the state did projects in the city, there wasn't anyone in the room saying, 'Hey, that needs to be safer for bikes and
The next year, the city finished a bicycle master plan to create "a more bicycle-friendly city" through better planning and infrastructure.
But amid all of that progress, horrific deaths continued. In January 2010, a drunk, 28-year-old musician plowed his car into cyclist Christophe LeCanne on the Rickenbacker Causeway and then drove for more than two miles with the bike lodged under his car. After LeCanne's death, the city started painting sharrows — those white bike-and-chevron symbols — on roadways to signify
Though they were touted as a good first step ("a positive and welcomed effort which was unheard of 2-3 years ago," a Miami Bike Scene blog stated at the time), many cyclists now feel the sharrows do more harm than good by giving cyclists false security on dangerous, high-speed roads. Sharrows or not, the likelihood a pedestrian will die in a crash in a 40 mph zone is 83 percent. At 20 mph, that lowers to 5 percent.
State law began to catch up to the changing culture, but only after 36-year-old Aaron Cohen died in yet another hit-and-run on the Rickenbacker in 2012. His family helped push Tallahassee to pass the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act, which toughened penalties for motorists who leave the scene of a crash.
In 2013, the Florida Department of Transportation also added nine full-time pedestrian-and-bicycle-safety specialists around the state. "FDOT realized it really needed to step up its game on this," says 29-year-old Zak Lata, an avid cyclist who leads FDOT's Miami effort. "I try to ensure bike and pedestrian safety is included in every project that comes through. I'm trying to change all our roads."
Better bike lanes have begun to appear at a trickle, especially in Miami Beach. In the City of Miami, there are now 22 miles of bike lanes and 13 in construction or design. In the past year, Miami Beach has also led the way in painting green bike lanes.
Worth also points to the Citi Bike bike-sharing program as another victory. There are now 49 stations in the City of Miami, more than 100 in Miami Beach, and about 17 between Surfside and Bal Harbour, with about 1,760 bikes in circulation. More recently, FDOT has added more bike signage, including hundreds of flashing crosswalks that activate whenever a cyclist or pedestrian wants to cross.
There's no doubt that the number of cyclists has increased across Miami. According to the 2014 "Where We Ride" analysis by the League of American Cyclists, the number of people commuting by bike in Florida increased 70 percent since 2005 — from .44 percent of the population to .7 percent. Miami is among the top 50 cities where bicycle commuting is growing fastest, with an increase of 68 percent since 1990.
Yet while roads may be better equipped for bikes than they were ten years ago, they're still not safer. In fact, they're growing more perilous.
In 2012, at least 120 cyclists were killed in traffic accidents across Florida — as many as were killed in Britain the same year ("a country with three times as many people as Florida and a lot more cyclists," the Economist pointed out). In 2011, Florida's cyclist fatalities made up more than 5 percent of all cycling deaths in the United States. In 2012, Miami-Dade was the top county in Florida for hit-and-run crashes, with nearly 13,000 incidents.
In Miami-Dade, there have been consistently more injuries, more fatalities, and more cyclist crashes each year since 2005. According to FDOT data, the total number of crashes involving cyclists in Miami-Dade nearly doubled from 2005 to 2013 — from 234 in 2005 to 458 in 2013, a 95.7 percent increase. The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reports 18 cyclist fatalities and 928 injuries in Miami-Dade in 2014. Data points to areas such as Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Little Havana, Little Haiti, Overtown, and downtown as areas with high crash counts.
Those numbers can be partly attributed to more cyclists on the road. But experts concede the data also paints a glaring safety problem.
"Obviously, we're not where we want to be," says David Henderson, the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization
Some of the most wrenching accidents still occur on the city's most heavily traveled roads, such as the high-speed connectors between Miami Beach and the mainland. All of those roadways boast the sharrows and road signs for which officials have fought. Henderson calls those projects a "victory." Yet riding on them still feels terrifying.
In April of last year, 25-year-old Eber Vasquez was hit from behind while riding at night on the narrow shoulder that doubles as a bike lane along the high-speed Julia Tuttle Causeway. The silver Buick LaCrosse that hit him had been cut off by a racing car. When the Buick hit Vasquez, the impact launched him and his bike over the rail, sending him plunging to his death in the bay.
"Car versus bicycle," Joe Sanchez, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman, said at the time. "
A rendering of the proposed Plan Z, which would reimagine the Rickenbacker as an urban park and cycling/pedestrian path.
Image courtesy of Bernard Zyscovich
On a Saturday morning in March, Ignacio Calle coasted through downtown Miami on his bike, just as he had done many mornings before the roads filled with cars. For the 53-year-old, cycling has long been his best stress relief.
Just before 8 a.m., he headed north on Biscayne Boulevard toward the Julia Tuttle Causeway, which he planned to cross to Miami Beach. At NE 15th Street, he began pedaling when a light turned green. But just as he crossed the intersection, a southbound car took a sharp left without a turn signal. Calle smashed into the Lexus, flew over the hood, and landed on the ground. He heard a pop in his chest.
The driver, 49-year-old
The story is far from unique in Miami, where many cyclists report being hit or almost hit — many multiple times. But this sort of accident often goes untold. "People get hit by cars every day," Nahim says. "I know that because they come into our store and talk about it. But you don't usually hear about it in the news unless there's a fatality."
To get behind the statistics, New Times interviewed a dozen cyclists who have survived crashes. Their stories share common trends: Drivers don't respect cyclists and fail to obey laws, while a lack of enforcement and basic infrastructure makes the problem worse. Aggressive, impatient drivers terrorize cyclists. Many have simply accepted those conditions as part of biking life in Miami.
Personal injury attorney Mark Kaire has represented dozens of cyclists over the past eight years. His firm represented both Arias and Calle in lawsuits against the motorists who hit them.
"They're getting hit because there's no space for them to ride," he says. "There's no chance to react or get out of the way, and the cyclist always loses these encounters."
Take, for example, the case of Andy Martinez, a 63-year-old who headed out for a ride in October near his house in South Miami. As he rode on SW 67th Avenue, a maintenance truck pulled out from a stop sign, hitting him squarely from behind. Martinez landed in the middle of the street on his knees and elbows. But the scariest part was ending up underneath a truck, he says. "Waking up under that beast was terrifying — holy smokes," Martinez remembers. "I rolled over and just tried to get out." The driver of the truck told Martinez she didn't see him from behind a tree that was obstructing her view of the road.
The next month, 21-year-old Marvin Jackson, a Walgreens cashier who lives in North Miami Beach, biked near the American Airlines Arena on a Friday evening, headed to Critical Mass, the monthly 20-mile group ride. Wearing a helmet and lights, he was cycling southbound on NE Second Avenue when a Dodge Charger heading west on NE Seventh Street slammed into him. Jackson suffered a herniated disc in his lower back.
"Most drivers simply don't understand the rules regarding bike lanes and aren't looking out for bicycles,"
Tourists and visitors trying to navigate Miami's congested, chaotic roads are another regular hazard.
In November 2014, 40-year-old software engineer Luke Amoresano opted to bike his daily commute from Bayside to midtown Miami. After work, he headed north along Biscayne Boulevard on the sidewalk, because Biscayne doesn't have a bike lane. (Florida law allows cyclists to use sidewalks as long as they have a bell.) At 17th Street, in front of the Hilton, a Ford Focus rental car heading south turned left into the driveway, smashing into Amoresano and sending him crashing onto his head and face. The worst part: He wasn't wearing a helmet. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, which would ultimately cost $21,000 in medical bills. He still doesn't remember the incident clearly.
The worst problem of all, many cyclists say, are the number of Miami drivers who are intentionally aggressive toward bicyclists. "I have been hit three times in minor accidents," architect Bernard Zyscovich says. "But once out in the Redland, a couple guys in a pickup truck came toward me just to try to scare me."
Nahim says drivers have even thrown things at him in the streets while he rides. "They yell at you to get out of the way," he says.
That's certainly what Arias, the cyclist hit on Federal Highway and thrown ten feet off her bike, experienced. As the driver —
She refused an ambulance and asked a co-worker to pick her up. A few hours later, the pain began to kick in. At Broward Health Medical Center, she learned a shoulder ligament was torn.
In the end, Dosescu paid for months of Arias' rehab, transportation costs, and other medical expenses. "I've never been one to say, 'I'm going to sue this
Two years later, Arias is still wary of navigating Miami's roads on two wheels. In fact, she doesn't cycle much anymore, instead working behind-the-scenes as a safety activist by hosting workshops. She also sells art she makes out of bike parts.
Similarly, Calle, a single father, says his 14-year-old won't let him go back out on the road. Martinez says his ordeal took years off his life. Amoresano says he'll never get back on a bike in Miami.
"I love fitness, and I've lived and biked all over the world," Amoresano says, "but Miami is not a good place for cycling. We have the worst drivers — no one uses signa ls, and no one respects bikes."
"Would a protected bike lane have cured all of those problems?"
The Underline will be a ten-mile linear park and urban trail below Miami's Metrorail.
Image courtesy of Meg Daly
Eli Stiers appears calm as he navigates his hip black hybrid bike through downtown Miami. At midday, the air is hot and sticky, but he's dressed for the ride: His baby-blue dress shirt, which looks like it's straight out of a department store, is actually sweat-wicking, from a clothing line for urban, professional riders. The 37-year-old lawyer works in an office on West Flagler Street, but whenever he's not there or in court, he bikes to meetings.
"Why would I want to sit in traffic if I don't have to?" he says.
Stiers is alert as he dodges distracted drivers and obstructions. On SW First Avenue, right off the
Stiers cautiously inches into the roadway. He makes it about halfway across when a City of Miami Police car flies through the intersection, cutting him off. Stiers throws his hand up in frustration. "Come on, man," he hollers at the cop.
Such disregard for traffic signals underscores the way cyclists are still ignored here. Though Stiers and other activists say Miami is improving, the changes feel minuscule in a city starting from zero. While some push for big-vision, expensive projects, others say a piecemeal approach, made up of smaller wins, is also slowly helping to "flip" the way bikes and pedestrians are prioritized.
"We have to create an environment where people expect to see bikes and pedestrians
Because the state and county ultimately control the roadways, Stiers says, activism works best when it targets people at those agencies. That's why he constantly meets with commissioners and other public officials.
And the outreach — and outrage — is beginning to work. For instance, in 2014, the chair of the Miami-Dade County Finance Committee, Esteban Bovo, angered cycling advocates when he said that car culture is "in the DNA of Miami" and unlikely to change in his lifetime. Activists, including Stiers, urged him to think differently. Now
So are leaders such as Palmetto Bay Mayor Eugene Flinn, South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. In February, Gimenez led Bike305's "Bike-to-Work Day" ride.
"The culture is definitely changing," says Alice Bravo, director of the county's Department of Transportation and Public Works. "There has been a block out there of people who don't know bicycles are supposed to be on the roadways, but the conversation is changing."
One major project altering the conversation is the Underline, which would transform the underutilized land beneath Miami's Metrorail line from the Miami River to the Dadeland South Station into a bike-friendly greenway. Meg Daly,
"You have to get a buy-in from absolutely everyone," she says, "because these projects take a village."
But substantive change is difficult. Very little of the heralded 2009 Master Plan has been implemented. Even minor projects seem to take forever to get passed and implemented.
Take bike lanes, for instance. Last year, real-estate blog Curbed Miami wrote that a map of bike lanes across Miami "looks like it was drawn with a pen that had already run out of ink but occasionally left a scratch mark." When a bike lane ends, riders are often shot onto
And even where there are bike lanes and accompanying signs, drivers often don't respect them. That's especially dangerous on a road where the speed limit is above 35 mph and where many drivers get away with speeding. On wide, high-traffic roads such as the Julia Tuttle Causeway, drivers often hit 70 mph.
"There's really no reason why someone riding their bike in the bike lane should be in harm's way," Zyscovich says. "The fact that it still happens shows the system is not working."
Bravo says the county usually adds lanes only to ongoing projects rather than designing them as standalone additions. That's mostly because transportation projects require such a long lead time — sometimes up to ten years.
Many riders say that's simply not acceptable and that officials should take a more dramatic approach. According to Henderson, the county plans to use more colored asphalt in the future to delineate bike lanes. But as cyclists can attest, even painting a lane doesn't go far enough when a car is speeding.
"You really need a barrier," Arias says. "A green lane just isn't gonna do it."
Stiers says he still doesn't understand why the county and state haven't made greater efforts to implement barriers. "The thing about pedestrian and bike infrastructure — it's paint and poles," Stiers says. "This isn't a $500 million 826/836 interchange. This is about cheap things to save lives. They've just got to do it."
Yet many agencies are still built around the idea of prioritizing cars. Worth says demands to leave huge parking areas on the sides of roads often hamper bike lanes.
"You have to make streets complete for all users," Worth says. "I challenge DOT — it's in your mandate to include bike lanes. It's not in your mandate to include on-street parking. Why are you still prioritizing that?"
Though it may take a while for improvements to trickle out to greater Miami-Dade, they may be quicker to show in downtown.
The county recently eliminated the requirement that cyclists carry a permit to take a bicycle onto Metrorail. And Worth and his colleagues have been working on two new initiatives for downtown Miami: a 25 mph speed limit across the board and a no-right-on-red rule.
Other projects in the pipeline, such as Moishe Mana's $13 million
Stiers says the sort of increased urbanization happening now in Miami may actually force the change people have been waiting
In Brickell, Stiers rides through heavy traffic and seemingly endless construction. Although there's no bike lane, he moves quickly and safely through the most congested areas.
"We already rule the road here," Stiers says, "because cars aren't going anywhere."
At dusk, the giant herd of cyclists moves as one. From Government Center, they ride down the middle of West Flagler Street, over the Miami River bridge, and toward Little Havana. Bass thumps from speakers towed behind one bike. Balloons and costumes adorn other riders. The bikes take up almost the full width of the street through Allapattah, Brownsville, East Hialeah, and Liberty City. Kids and adults from every corner of Miami ride side by side, laughing and hollering. Cars yield and stop. Onlookers step out of their homes and cars, cheer, and shoot videos.
For a brief instant, bikes rule the road.
The monthly Miami Critical Mass ride has grown exponentially since its humble beginnings in
"For once, you don't have to ride in fear," said 38-year-old David Hunsberger, who rides his bike to work in Kendall, at April's Critical Mass. "Normally, I have to be so cautious, almost as if people are trying to kill me."
Slowly, it's becoming common to see people on two wheels in Miami. Thank a climate-conscious generation that values public transit over cars and doesn't have the time or patience to sit in traffic. Everywhere you look, the Magic City's bike culture is growing, from group rides to Ciclovías, a new event that shuts down part of Miami Beach to allow cycling and pedestrians to take over.
But is South Florida really prepared to respond to the demand? Compared to cities like New York, Seattle, Austin, and Los Angeles, Miami is eons behind. Just two weeks ago, yet another Miami cyclist was killed in the early morning while riding in the Redland. Annabelle Interian had been cycling with her husband, Miami-Dade Police Lt. Jorge
"We're a community that has a hard time addressing what people of millennial and next generations are gonna be interested in," Zyscovich says. "We have to begin as a community to create a city that will be exciting to our kids and future grandkids... a place that's anything they want it to become."
The city's next step, activists say, will come by thinking bigger. And several more ambitious ideas are already in the works.
"In Miami-Dade, we have to have
The Underline is one such plan. Its larger vision is a ten-mile urban greenway and arts space that would connect to other transit systems and bike projects, including the Miami River Greenway and the Ludlam Trail. Daly envisions the Underline as the "spine" for a future network of 250 miles of bike trails throughout Miami-Dade.
The project has a star designer — James Corner Field Operations, which codesigned New York's famed High Line — and it recently won the Knight Cities Challenge, a competition that seeks new ideas from innovators, which came with a $250,000 prize. But despite all of that, the project has so far raised only $7 million of its $80 million price tag.
There are even more ambitious — and perhaps far-fetched — plans for Miami's cyclists.
Last month, architect Zyscovich unveiled an eye-popping second version of his "Plan Z," which would remake the Rickenbacker Causeway for cyclists and pedestrians. He proposes new lanes solely for bikes and an intricate system of bridges keeping cars and riders separate. It would also add a 20-acre park alongside the Rickenbacker.
"There would be a grade separation," Zyscovich says, "so bikes and cars don't inhabit the same space, ever."
Like Daly, Zyscovich says it's the "bold vision that really inspires." He compares the challenge of making Miami friendly for cyclists to other "far-out" ideas he has taken on over the years. Zyscovich was the designer behind the master plan for midtown Miami. He also got involved in South Beach when it was "derelict and disinvested."
"Things can happen if you set out a big enough vision for them," he assures. "We spend billions and billions on roadways all the time in this city and county."
Zyscovich knows his plan won't happen for years, if ever. In the meantime, he pushes more prosaic measures on the Rickenbacker, such as adding green paint and reflectors to "do what we can to make it safer."
It's clear that, like never before, there's energy and momentum around cycling in Miami. But what remains to be seen is whether Miami will ever shake the idea of centering its entire existence on the automobile.
"I really hope ten years from now we look back and think of this as the time Miami really focused on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure to create a 21st-century city," Daly says. "I feel the thinking, the envisioning, and the focus. So now, how do we get there?
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