All the cool cities of the world have adopted bicycle culture. In Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London and Berlin biking is a major mode of transportation. In Portland, Denver, Austin and New York people ride bikes to commute to work, run errands and meet friends while saving money, staying fit and preserving the environment.
So, where does Miami rank in this sweeping shift to pedal power? Behind the times, of course. Even recently bankrupt Detroit is miles ahead of Miami. Visit small, out-of-the-way cities and you’ll find bike paths and rail trails that make Miami look like Podunk. Go to Denmark and you’ll be astounded to see the variety of cargo bikes on which cyclists haul kids, friends, pets, groceries, furniture — moving smoothly along streets designed with sophisticated traffic signaling systems. Yes, it is easier and safer to bike around Manhattan than anywhere in our metropolis.
“Cycling is part of the global phenomenon that is causing a wholly disruptive time in transportation,” said William Riggs, a professor at the University of San Francisco’s School of Management and expert on urban transit. “The disruption from bikes, electric bikes and electric scooters initially brings a degree of pain but also promise, and the backlash is followed by acceptance that these are great options for getting people out of their cars.”
Bike sharing was to be the next big thing here, as it is in another 1,600 cities around the world, where there are 18 million self-serve bikes for rent. But some companies are pulling out of Miami because it is too problematic.
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China-based company ofo decided to cease rentals of its dockless bikes to focus on more profitable markets. One of its missing yellow bikes was tracked to the bottom of Biscayne Bay, stripped of its parts.
“They had a problem with disappearing bikes that ended up in Key West or Tampa or this one — they followed the GPS and found the frame dumped in the bay,” said Francis Vega, owner of the Two Wheel Picker Bicycle Shop in Kendall. “We can’t be progressive like other cities because we’re still a banana republic.”
Miami-Dade County’s pathetic lack of bike infrastructure proved to be an obstacle for companies such as Spin, which is ending its orange bike operation here to focus exclusively on electric scooters.
Miami is a notoriously dangerous place for cyclists, averaging 7.9 bike fatalities per 10,000 commuters per year, among the worst rates in the nation. In the annual rankings of bike-friendly U.S. cities by People For Bikes, Miami finished No. 48, behind the top five of Fort Collins, Colo., Wausau, Wis., Boulder, Colo., Portland, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz., and behind other large cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Denver, San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix. The ratings are based on five primary factors: ridership volume, safety, network connectivity, reach of accessibility throughout the community and the speed at which infrastructure improvements are being made. Miami ranked particularly low on ridership and safety.
“In an age of increased urbanization, strained public health and continued addiction to the automobile, modern mobility solutions are needed more than ever,” declares Copenhagenize Design, a Danish company that helps cities establish bike transportation. “We see the bicycle as being the most powerful tool in our urban toolboxes to start the transformation and modernization of our cities.”
Miami is nowhere to be found on the 2017 Copenhagenize Index of bike-friendly cities, which ranked Copenhagen No. 1, Utrecht No. 2 and Amsterdam No. 3. Montreal, at No. 20, was North America’s sole representative on the list. Copenhagenize is now working with Detroit, Toronto, Long Beach, Calif., and Strasbourg, France, and would have an absolute field day if hired to fix Miami.
Coral Gables is ideally suited to be as bike-navigable as Palo Alto or Boulder, but the city’s long-debated bike plan has stalled due to some residents’ and business owners’ complaints and NIMBY attitudes about bike lanes.
Hostility on Miami’s mean streets from bike-hating and incompetent drivers has been another impediment to the blossoming of bike culture (I knew a cyclist who used to carry a can of neon-green spray paint in his water bottle cage to squirt on cars that tried to run him off the road).
Is there any hope that Miami, which has an inferiority complex about qualifying as a “global city,” can catch up to the rest of the cycling world?
Bike sharing, which has led the micro mobility revolution, could be the key to progress in gridlocked South Florida. We really need it to work because our leaders remain in a perpetual muddle about how to upgrade our horridly inadequate mass transit system — system being a very generous description.
The influx of bike-sharing companies increased awareness and accessibility and prompted more people to try cycling, Vega said.
“I’ve seen rental bikes on streets where I’ve never seen bikes before,” Vega said. “Cycling in Kendall has exploded in the past few years. Bike sharing provides inexpensive ease of use. We just need the infrastructure. We have a county government that will spend millions on a new highway we don’t need instead of developing bikeways.
“The dockless companies should have done a better job of marketing and reducing confusion. My mom had the typical reaction of seeing a random bike on the side of the road and saying, ‘Oh, somebody left a bike out and it’s going to get stolen.’”
The good news is that Lime — which made Key Biscayne the first U.S. city to launch its dock-free service last June — is staying and expanding its fleet. The green and yellow bikes, which can be located and activated by riders using the Lime app, are in unincorporated Miami-Dade, Miami Shores, North Miami, North Bay Village and various university campuses, will replace Spin bikes in Miami Lakes and Miami Springs and are expected soon in South Miami. Lime also deploys electric-assist bikes and is part of a pilot program to reinstate electric scooters in downtown Miami, Brickell and Coconut Grove.
“We want to make Miami less congested,” said Jed Fluxman, Lime’s general manager for Florida. “While Miami does not have the same level of infrastructure as say, Portland or Washington, D.C., we want to partner with the city to share our data so planners can use it to allocate money for improvements.”
Lime has found that 39 percent of its riders travel to or from work, school or appointments and 40 percent start or stop at public transit stations, which helps bridge the “first and last mile” barrier to mass transit use.
“There’s going to be a learning curve and a behavior transition but Miami wants to get it right,” said Fluxman, who noted the popularity of scooters among professionals working downtown and on Brickell Avenue.
Coral Gables, partnering with Spin, will be the first city in Florida to allow scooters to legally operate within its borders, counting on strict guidelines to prevent the disruption that initially hit the city of Miami and the wild “scootergeddon” that initially hit San Francisco, when 1,900 complaints were registered in a six-week period about nuisance scooters.
Uber and Lyft intend to expand their brands into the bike and scooter marketplace. Companies are rolling out more e-bikes and e-scooters as they become cheaper to manufacture because consumers like the minimal effort required to ride them.
CitiBikes, which pioneered bike-sharing in Miami Beach in 2011, offers the docking station option, which many cities prefer in order to avoid the scattershot presence of stray dockless bikes.
For far too long, South Florida has failed to evolve into a bike-friendly place. We’re a backward embarrassment compared to other cities, including chaotic Rio de Janeiro and freezing cold Minneapolis. It’s time to commit to the transportation transformation.
“If I was talking to Miami’s leaders I’d say embrace exciting opportunities to make transit better now,” Riggs said. “Part of the onus is on cities to invest in building safe spaces if they want autonomous mobility options to work. The best cities make transit a policy priority, and it’s about serving all communities, not just the white guys in the black stretch pants.”