Hidden in plain sight of thousands of people, the paved path runs all the way from Brickell to Dadeland through the grass beneath the elevated Metrorail line. It might be an unparalleled urban amenity — if only anyone used it.
Instead, 30 years after the transit system opened, the M-Path, which traverses past the University of Miami through some of Miami’s liveliest neighborhoods and suburbs, remains an obscure afterthought.
It doesn’t take a Dutch cycling expert to figure out why. But there’s one here — three, in fact, flown in by the consulate of the Netherlands this past week to help an unusual coalition of volunteers and local government officials begin to transform the path into a dazzling, 10-mile-long park and bikeway — so let’s ask him.
“There really is a lot of potential in it,” Erik Tetteroo, a consultant with Dutch Cycling Embassy — an outfit that exports Dutch bike-planning expertise — said after riding and evaluating the path for four days last week. “But right now the line is not very comfortable. It’s very bumpy in places. It’s not direct — it winds around. It has little cohesion. Most street crossings are not safe. Those are all elements that must be improved. There’s a lot to do.”
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But do it they will, and more, say a group of advocates, Miami and Miami-Dade elected officials and municipal and county planners who have coalesced around a singular idea: turning the dowdy M-Path into The Underline, an alluring, lush linear landscape for cyclists and pedestrians that would be dotted with gardens and playgrounds and linked to neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and parks.
Its backers say that, like the High Line, the wildly successful linear park on an elevated train track in Manhattan upon whose name the Underline plays, Miami’s version could be both a recreational and an economic boon, drawing thousands of people to a corridor that’s now little more than leftover space while fostering harmonious development along its edge.
By making the path “functional, beautiful and alive,” in the words of Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason, backers say, the Underline could finally fulfill its original conception, becoming the spine of a new bike and pedestrian network that would make it simple and safe for adults and kids to walk or cycle short distances to school, work and Metrorail stations, providing relief to the car-choked U.S. 1 corridor.
Since formally incorporating just a year ago, the group, now calling itself Friends of the Underline, has managed to corral eager backing from the University of Miami, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the county parks, public works and transit departments, and the cities of Miami, Coral Gables and South Miami — rapidly taking what seemed a blue-sky idea to the brink of realization.
“The Underline has captured everyone’s imagination, and it doesn’t even exist yet,” South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard said at the opening of last week’s Dutch-run ThinkBike workshop at HistoryMiami.
Last month, the Friends launched a competition for a design firm to develop a master plan for the Underline and two demonstration projects centered on Metrorail stations. The $500,000 contract for the design will be funded by the cities of Miami, South Miami and the Gables, along with the Knight Foundation, the Miami Foundation, the Health Foundation of South Florida and the Mitchell Wolfson Foundation.
Nineteen architectural teams from Miami and around the country responded, among them some big design names, said Friends founder Meg Daly. The group plans to announce the winner Feb. 2 and, after what she promises will be a “robust” process for public participation, have a plan in hand by July, Daly said.
So far, the enthusiasm has yet to translate into dollar commitments for actual construction. But public officials say they’re determined to make it happen, and Daly says she hopes to start work on the demonstration projects by next year, building up park space and reconfiguing the trail around the University or Brickell stations, possibly both.
“Right now, you’re really getting an aspirational vision,” Daly said. “But I think there is a pent-up demand for it.”
The conversion of the M-Path, which occupies the right of way of the old Florida East Coast rail line that once ran to Key West, is one of two rail-to-trail projects the county is backing.
The second, dubbed the Ludlam Trail, would install a six-mile bikeway and pedestrian path along another former FEC rail line that extends in a straight shot from Miami International Airport south to Dadeland, where it could connect to the Underline. The county and FEC, which still owns the Ludlam corridor, are working on a joint plan that would include limited development along the proposed trail after public uproar stopped an earlier company proposal for more extensive development.
The M-Path, in contrast, is already publicly owned, and the transit agency is one of its most enthusiastic cheerleaders. Transit officials say the Underline could increase Metrorail ridership and enhance the prospects of an ambitious agency plan to develop mixed-use projects on surface parking lots at some stations, including Coconut Grove and Douglas Road.
The Underline was Daly’s brainstorm. The marketing executive fell off a bike and broke both elbows. Since she couldn’t drive, she was taking Metrorail and walking to therapy sessions in the Grove. Until then, she hadn’t really taken notice of the M-Path, which follows a corridor 100 feet wide, some of it landscaped but much of it bare-bones.
“It sort of dawned on me — this is a lot of land. And I started having this crazy idea,” Daly said. “I mentioned it to some people, and they thought it wasn’t such a crazy idea. Now it’s this sort of steamroller.”
Daly pitched the idea to Miami-Dade parks planning chief Maria Nardi, who has developed a far-reaching plan to connect every corner of the county through bike and pedestrian greenways. Nardi loved it and brought in her boss, parks director Jack Kardys. As other senior administrators joined in, Daly lined up support from elected officials in Miami, the Gables and South Miami and from UM president Donna Shalala.
Last year, UM’s architecture school devoted a studio course to the Underline under Professor Rocco Ceo, who assigned teams of students to develop ideas for 10 one-mile segments of the route as a way to begin demonstrating how the pathway might be dramatically reconceived. The presentation, in which students sketched out features ranging from playgrounds and soccer fields to observation decks, a sculpture gallery and a sunken garden, was attended by top municipal, county and Florida Department of Transportation officials. It seemed to further the Underline’s momentum.
At last week’s ThinkBike workshop, the Dutch experts huddled with local planners and volunteers to look for ways to improve and better connect the pathway, in particular the segments around the closely spaced South Miami, University and Douglas Road stations to the south and the Brickell station to the north, to adjacent neighborhoods.
The experts said clear and direct routes are better for cycling, so one fast way to increase use is to straighten out the pathway, which meanders in and out of the Metrorail colums, blocking views of the route ahead and often forcing awkward turns, especially at street crossings. The bike path, which comes to an end at the edge of several stations, should be continuous. For safety, people on foot should get a separate path.
Another way to lure people, they said: Provide lots of covered, secure parking for bikes at stations. In the Netherlands, bike garages at train stations accommodate thousands of bikes at a fraction of the cost of garages for cars.
And athough the county and FDOT are currently making safety improvements to some of the busiest, and most perilous, M-Path street crossings, the Dutch experts said improved designs that ensure cars slow or stop for cyclists and pedestrians could make them even safer.
At major streets like Le Jeune Road and Ponce de Leon Boulevard, the workshop produced plans for slightly bumped-up crossings with flashing lights to make autos slow and stop, and even bike-friendly bridges spanning some of the most problematic intersections.
The ThinkBike scheme for Douglas Road suggests the undertaking’s ambitions. It would tie into and enhance a planned Coral Gables bikeway network, connecting the station to Miracle Mile and nearby Coral Gables High School through marked routes on secondary streets with low traffic volumes.
Tetteroo and his colleagues say the M-Path has one big built-in advantage: It physically separates cyclists from cars, key to ensuring their safety and promoting widespread, everyday use by casual riders. The development of separated bikeways in Dutch cities, the product of a public outcry following a rash of cyclist fatalities in the 1970s, contribute to a cycling environment so safe that few people wear a helmet, they said.
“That’s what the Underline does,” said Sue Kawalerski, a Miami cycling advocate involved in the workshop. “It gives cyclists a safe venue. It actually gives families a safe place to ride.”
And for skeptics who say Miami could never match the Dutch cycling culture, the experts said it didn’t just happen in their homeland. Cars dominated the Netherlands’ urban streets in the 1970s, until governments embarked on extensive, painstaking planning to reverse the auto-centric trend. Today more than a third of Dutch commuters go to work on a bike, including, sometimes, the prime minister, they said.
“We struggled a lot over the last 40 years through trial and error,” said Dutch consultant Tonny Bosch, who joked: “We are now world champions in cycling safety.”
Local officials concede it will be no simple task to persuade more Miamians to get out of their cars and hop on a bike to run an errand or catch a train along the Underline. Not only will it have to be safe and convenient, but — this being Miami — it must be “sexy,” too, Daly said.
That’s precisely the goal, said Miami-Dade Deputy Mayor Alina Hudak — “a spectacular alternative to driving your car.”
But Bosch, Tetteroo and their third partner, Sjors van Duren, said the Underline’s proximity to U.S. 1 might in time provide the best argument in its favor: the competitive advantage that will become clear when crawling auto commuters glance over to see happy cyclists gliding by them through gardens of green.