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Initiative wants to make Little Havana more pedestrian friendly

If you think the streets are dangerous at rush hour, consider having to share the narrow sidewalks of Little Havana.

“The bicycles, oh, they just zoom by and don’t stop,” says Gladys Barreiro, a resident of the Vista Alegre senior housing complex on iconic Calle Ocho. “You have to get out of their way fast.”

“They think they own the sidewalk,” adds her friend, Olga Mustalier. “I walk looking over my shoulder all the time.”

Barreiro, Mustalier and fellow Vista Alegre resident Zoila Zeppenfeldt, all 79 years old, took visitors on a walking tour of their Little Havana neighborhood recently, strolling west from Southwest 22nd Avenue. They pointed out over-large trees, corners that flooded in the rain, homeless men sleeping behind ixora bushes, tripping hazards in uneven sidewalks, and a red light that gives them barely enough time to cross the intersection.

And of course, the speeding bikers. Always the bikes.

The three women, part of a larger group of concerned elderly residents, participated in a study that will soon offer recommendations to make their neighborhood a safer place for them to walk to the bank, the grocery store and their doctors’ offices. The Miami-Dade Safe Routes to Age in Place is a partnership between the Health Foundation of South Florida, Urban Health Partnerships and the Cuban American National Council. It’s based on the Safe Routes to School program, which focused on encouraging children to walk to school.

“We started thinking how we could build on the success of the school program and create something for the growing older population,” said Patrice Gillespie, urban planner and policy program consultant for Urban Health Partnerships. “We wanted to give older people the opportunity for independence, of being able to walk without fear to where they needed to go.”

Little Havana was selected because it is a densely populated area, has a high number of older folks without access to cars and has experienced a lot of pedestrian crashes and fatalities. In fact, in the period between 2005 and 2011, there were 382 pedestrian crashes and 28 pedestrian fatalities, half of which involved older adults.

“Cities got built with a much younger generation in mind,” said Martha Pelaez, director of the Miami-Dade Healthy Aging Initiative for the Health Foundation. “But once people can no longer drive, it’s very hard to get around and sometimes it’s also not safe.”

Safe Routes to Age in Place is part of a growing movement to make neighborhoods more pedestrian friendly. This has become particularly pressing as the population ages, so efforts to transform neighborhoods have been launched across the country. In March the Broward County Commission voted to adopt the Complete Street Guidelines, a program designed to create a cohesive transportation system that would incorporate public transit as well as pedestrians and bicyclists. And AARP has been working with the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute to help communities make it easier for residents to not rely on cars.

“We want to make streets usable for everyone,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president. “This doesn’t affect just older Americans. This is for everyone.”

In Miami, grants from the Pfizer Foundation and Grantmakers in Action made it possible for Urban Health Partnerships and its partners to launch the research portion of the Safe Routes program, which included a “walk audit” of the targeted area. The goal? To identify the biggest obstacles to walking in Little Havana.

Those concerns were then shared with community and government leaders in a forum in March. Now the partners are putting together an action plan to address the issues and hope to have a published resource that can be used by other communities by summer. Among the likely suggestions: extending the length of some stoplights, making clear demarcations on sidewalks, improving signs on one-way roads, removing tripping hazards, creating defined bicycle paths and enforcing traffic laws.

But LeaMond of AARP says suggestions from the community and local organizers are just the beginning. Elected officials, both on the municipal and state level, must show their support by funding improvements.

Representatives from the Florida Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over Southwest Eighth Street, attended the March Safe Routes forum. A spokesman said the department is committed to reviewing each of the concerns presented by the residents.

Residents of Vista Alegre hope that such measures don’t become mired in bureaucratic red tape.

“We want action to be taken soon,” Zoila Zeppenfeldt. “We don’t have time to waste.”