In South Florida it's hard to get people out of their cars and onto the pavement, much to the dismay of frustrated city planners and leaders. We love our cars, even though we hate the traffic congestion we cause by clinging to four wheels.
Now Miami has devised an ambitious plan to get residents and visitors walking around on their own two feet instead of cruising in cars downtown. It's a great idea, albeit hardly new. Miami leaders and urban planners have batted this idea around before, but the circumstances downtown were never quite conducive to meshing all the necessary elements to get people walking more.
Not so today. Downtown development has attracted 200,000 people who visit, work or live in the heart of the city. Tony new restaurants and attractions like events at the American Airlines Arena and the new Perez Art Museum Miami invite pedestrian traffic. The PortMiami tunnel will ease the heavy truck traffic when it opens next year, and the MetroMover makes traversing downtown and the Brickell Avenue corridor easy.
The new plan, called the Downtown Pedestrian Priority Zone, recognizes these positive developments, making its timing right. The Miami Commission should initially approve it on Thursday. Then, let the work begin.
The plan calls for widening sidewalks, creating tree canopies (a must during our steamy summers), slowing vehicle traffic to 25 mph and making right turns on red illegal to improve pedestrian safety. Street lighting would be enhanced and stop lights synchronized.
The boundaries for the pedestrian zone would be roughly from the Miami River north to Northeast Ninth Street and from Biscayne Bay to west of the Government Center, covering the Central Business District.
The infrastructure part of this initiative is, in a way, the easy part. The hardest part is to ensure pedestrians' safety, especially at night, and reckoning with the homeless presence that, like MetroMover, is another long-time downtown fixture.
To that end, the city is negotiating with the American Civil Liberties Union to modify a 1990s court-ordered agreement that allows homeless people to carry out certain “life-sustaining” activities like sleeping, nudity and building cooking fires in public parks without being arrested.
Miami officials say that circumstances are much different than when the agreement was struck. The homeless population has dropped by 90 percent, down from 8,000 to around 800 people. And there are now more than 70,000 permanent residents downtown who, say officials, generate 40 percent of the city's tax base and make up 50 percent of its workforce.
To improve these residents’ lives and encourage more retail business downtown, the city wants the power to force homeless individuals into shelters, of which there are several now, and make arrests again. This is delicate territory. The city's police once arrested homeless people for vagrancy and confiscated their meager property, which prompted the court-ordered settlement. Miami cannot revert to the old days as it seeks to spruce up downtown.
Arresting vagrants diverts police resources that could be better used elsewhere. A humane approach must be found that discourages the homeless from remaining on the streets, even as those streets become more pedestrian friendly for residents and visitors. No easy solutions here, but the goals are worth city leaders’ best efforts.