For young professionals in Miami, it’s a hard road to travel around town

As downtown continues to fill with high-rises and young professionals, some are skeptical that the public transportation system meets the needs of the next generation.

07/20/2014 12:51 PM

07/21/2014 9:11 AM

As Rudy Tomarchio, 28, peers from the window of his 11th-floor Brickell apartment at the high-rises and construction cranes poking up from the horizon, he says there’s one thing missing from his view: a decent public transportation system.

Though Tomarchio’s commute to work consists of a couple of blocks’ walk to the Metromover station and then just one stop on the train, when he ventures beyond his Brickell neighborhood, he says he has trouble navigating Miami’s sprawling transportation system.

“It boggles my mind that they expect this to be a world-class city but there’s no modern public transit,” Tomarchio said.

His concerns are shared by some other young professionals who say the taxi system can be unreliable and expensive, the bus system is confusing and inconvenient, Metrorail closes at midnight and Miami lacks sufficient walkable and bikeable routes.

In a 2009 American Community Survey report issued by the U.S. Census, the Miami metropolitan area ranked 18 out of the top 50 metropolitan areas in the United States in the percentage of people who use public transit to commute to work, though it is the eighth largest metropolitan statistical area in the 2010 Census. In a similar American Community Survey report about walking and biking from 2008 to 2012, of the top 50 cities, Miami ranked 16th in the percentage of people who walked to work and 25th in the percentage of people who biked.

Transportation officials say that the charges levied against the transportation system are often a question of perception. People dislike riding buses and would prefer methods of transportation such as trolleys, said Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff. Miami, he added, has vastly improved in recent years as a bikeable city.

“Try it,” urged Ysela Llort, the director of Miami-Dade Transit.

Demand is likely to rise. The population of downtown Miami is continuing to grow, increasing 68 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to Miami’s Downtown Development Authority, an independent public agency of the city of Miami. And the residents are young. More than 50 percent of the downtown population is now between 20 and 44 years old.

According to the American Community Survey, those between 16 and 29 years old — many of whom have delayed getting driver’s licenses — are much more likely than any other age group to walk or bike to work.

Metrorail already transports people like Tomarchio around downtown, as far south as Dadeland and as far north and west as the Palmetto station located next to the Palmetto Expressway to the west of Okeechobee Road.

For Mariana Rego, 29, who lives near the Dadeland South Metrorail station without a car, this means a comfortable trip downtown in about a half hour. But if she wants to travel anywhere except the Metrorail route, she often has to ask for a ride or borrow her brother’s car.

Buses also run throughout the city, Car2go is a car share option and, in 2012, Miami launched a trolley system downtown.

Options are increasing, city officials said. By fall, Sarnoff said, he plans to present a proposal for a fixed-rail trolley along the north-south corridor that would provide access to areas like the Design District and Wynwood. And Tri-Rail, the existing train service linking Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, has proposed creating another commuter rail farther east along the more populated Florida East Coast Railway corridor between downtown Miami and Jupiter.

The Bay Link, a light-rail line that would span the MacArthur Causeway and is supported by Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, may someday allow Tomarchio and his friends to travel from downtown Miami — though the project currently lacks funding.

DecoBikes, a bike sharing program in Coconut Grove, Brickell, Downtown, Midtown, and Wynwood, will soon provide yet another option for daytime travel.

But probably the biggest roadblock to better public transportation is money, said Javier Betancourt, deputy director of Miami’s DDA.

Transportation systems are expensive. Miami-Dade Transit, for example, just completed a $506 million extension of Metrorail to Miami International Airport and is now exploring other, less costly transportation alternatives, said Karla Damian, the public information officer for MDT.

“It’s a matter of resources,” Betancourt said. “As expensive as it is to build these systems, it’s just as expensive to operate and maintain them.”

But for those living in Miami now — and others who have moved away — the current system is flawed.

One problem is that Metrorail stations often aren‘t near the places people want to go — a problem made worse in the rainy season. Shawn Daly, a 28-year-old Miami native now living in New York City, said he sometimes had to walk 20 minutes in Miami after reaching the Metrorail stop closest to his destination.

Even walking seemingly small distances is generally not accepted as safe or practical in Miami, he said. When Daly, whose mother is the founder of Friends of the GreenLink, a walking and biking project, told his Miami friends that he would walk about 10 minutes from his home in Coral Gables to the Metrorail stop, he said they looked at him like he was “nuts.”

Another problem is a lack of late night transportation options. The trolley that runs from Midtown Miami to the Brickell Metrorail station stops running at 11 p.m. and Metrorail closes at midnight, foreclosing low-cost options for those who don’t want to drink and drive.

The problem is compounded by Uber and Lyft, driving services that allow residents to find drivers using their smart phones, being deemed illegal. Miami has decided to treat the businesses as unlicensed taxi services. But to Tomarchio, the current taxis seem too expensive and unreliable.

“We don’t trust taxi drivers,” Tomarchio said. “We live here, we give them full directions and they still get lost.”

Eli Skipp, 25, a Miami native who now lives in Los Angeles and works as an artist in the online payments industry, said the public transit system in Miami is “a lot worse” than her current city — which she notes is notorious for poor transportation. Skipp said she took public transit to high school in Miami. The trip from her home near the University of Miami to the school in the Design District took her an hour and 40 minutes every day. When she got a car, the trip was pared down to 20 minutes.

Sergio Rego, 26 — Mariana’s brother, who used to live in Miami but moved to Chicago in August 2010 for a finance job — said he enjoys living without a car there. If he considered moving back to Miami, Rego said, an improved public transit system would be an important factor.

In the meantime, Daly said: “Miami is bleeding talent.”

But Betancourt, of Miami’s DDA, says a resident of downtown Miami can live comfortably without a car. As more young professionals move into the city, he says, there is an increasing trend towards a no-car lifestyle. Transit options are bound to improve, he adds.

Betancourt, who drives to work every day from his home southwest of downtown, said he drives to work most days because he needs a car to travel to meetings outside of the downtown area. He added that his inability to use public transit is one of the reasons he cares about improving it.

That’s not to say no one is using public transportation in Miami. Metrorail transports about 73,000 people a day — substantially more than when it opened 30 years ago and served approximately 20,000 people a day but still far less than the 200,000 daily riders initially projected.

MDT says there is not enough demand to keep Miami’s Metrorail open past midnight. Other cities are going in the opposite direction, extending hours of their public transit systems. Boston’s T will be open until 3 a.m on weekends this year, the Washington Metro closes at 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights and the New York City subway system is open 24 hours a day.

Betancourt says many of these complaints could be solved by making downtown a place where more people live, work and play. The DDA has put together a master plan for downtown Miami in 2025. Right now, the group is focused on re-doing the central downtown corridors of Flagler Street, South Miami Avenue and Biscayne Boulevard to accommodate more pedestrian traffic.

There are also grassroots efforts to improve walking and biking in Miami. Meg Daly, 53, from Coral Gables, is the founder of Friends of the GreenLink, a project attempting to transform the space beneath Metrorail into a biker- and walker-friendly passageway.

Daly said she often receives calls from young professionals who want to be a part of the GreenLink project.

“That’s the future,” Daly said.

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