Transit signal priority demo ride along the South Dade Transit Way
The report card is out for Miami’s public transportation system, and if our trains, buses and trolleys were students, they would be flunking out of school.
Think trolleys are the answer to gridlock? Think again. The shuttles ferrying people around 25 municipalities in Miami-Dade County earned a grade of F. Only Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Doral and the City of Miami earned more than one star on the five-star scale.
Shouldn’t Metrorail be an efficient option for commuters in a major metropolis? (Insert bitter laughter from regular Metrorail riders here.) Metrorail got a D for deplorable: Trains are late 69 percent of the time, the rollout of new cars has been plagued by delays and breakdowns and the system that was originally meant to span 55 miles of track has only expanded 2.4 miles since it opened in 1985 — for a grand total of 24.4 miles.
You could take the bus — but why torture yourself? Metrobus received a D. Average wait time is 35 minutes, the circuitous route network is outdated, and the lack of dedicated lanes means buses are stuck in the same traffic as cars.
In its blistering Mobility Scorecard analysis, Transit Alliance Miami describes a fragmented, mismanaged system suffering from a decline in ridership, “abysmal” reliability and “nonsensical” options for pedestrians and cyclists.
“Transportation is connected to every single issue that affects life in Miami-Dade County,” said Azhar Chougle, director of Transit Alliance, a non-profit advocacy organization. The group, partly funded by the Miami Foundation, examines local transportation issues from a consumer viewpoint. “The whole point of a transit system is that it is a system, and if the parts are not integrated and feeding each other but are instead competing against each other, they all fail.
“What we have here is systemic failure.”
But Chougle said there is hope for improvement, even as worsening mobility becomes the No. 1 quality-of-life issue on the minds of frustrated and weary Miamians.
Public transportation — not new highways, such as the 836 extension — has to be the priority of local government leaders, Chougle said. Other cities are models of progress, and you see evidence of it every time you travel outside Miami.
“We’re very good at paying for roads, but Los Angeles, the car capital of the world, has recognized that problems can’t be solved by adding more lanes and more freeways,” Chougle said. “They are building their public transit system, as are Denver and Indianapolis. Houston, Seattle and Jacksonville are increasing ridership by being proactive.
“Yet our leadership lacks the faith and vision to move forward.”
Metrorail ridership is down for the third year in a row. Trains are late two-thirds of the time, according to electronic measurements by Transit Alliance. About 17 percent of scheduled trains are “ghosts,” trains that are supposed to run but don’t. Only 34 new cars meant to replace the ancient and chronically broken cars are on line (with 102 still to come), but Chougle and regular riders say many of those new cars are not actually running with regularity.
“They’ve slackened the schedules because they can’t achieve on-time performance,” Chougle said. “So, do we want to be a city with one limited rail line that doesn’t go many places? Or do we plan incremental expansion now on a corridor with demand and serve more riders?”
Metrobus ridership decreased to 58 million in 2017 from 78 million in 2013 and the county exacerbated the problem with “repeated service cuts instead of examining and addressing the core reasons,” which include poor reliability, ineffective route planning and trolleys that fragment the network, Transit Alliance said.
The county must embark on a complete redesign of its routes and improve connectivity to population and employment centers, Chougle said. The fleet, with an average age of 11.2 years and increasing breakdown frequency, needs to be upgraded more rapidly. The shelters along the South Dade Busway — still not fixed more than a year after Hurricane Irma blew off awnings, and many in disrepair long before Irma — are symbolic of the county’s negligence of the bus system.
“What we have is essentially a glorified school bus system, and that encourages people to stay in their cars and increase traffic,” Chougle said. “The most economically vibrant cities are those where people are prioritized over cars. If Miami wants to stop its brain drain, it’s got to be a livable, healthy, mobile city where you don’t waste time every day trapped in your car or, if you’re walking or biking, trying to avoid getting killed.”
Trolleys appear to provide convenient localized relief. Riders like them because they’re free. Politicians like them because they create a positive photo op. But in reality, most trolleys have limited service hours, poor route design, sporadic reliability and inefficient to no connectivity to other modes of transport. Miami Beach earned four stars because it runs seven days a week and has enough vehicles to keep wait time to 15-20 minutes.
“Trolleys worsen the extreme fragmentation of the system,” Chougle said. “Some don’t even have published maps.”
Miami is consistently rated as one of the most dangerous and inhospitable cities for people seeking the simplest form of mobility — walking or cycling. While other cities add protected bike lanes, pedestrian paths and crosswalks, little changes here. Countywide, a paltry 1.7 percent of road miles have bike lanes. Miami Beach rates highest at 11.7 percent, Coral Gables is at 4.2 percent and the city of Miami is at 2.8 percent. The Transit Alliance cites improvements at Espanola Way, Giralda Plaza, the Venetian Causeway, the Plaza at Rue Vendome, Miller Drive, the Southeast/Southwest First Street Complete Street and Coral Gables (speed limit reduction to 25 mph and the Greenway pilot project), but big problems along Biscayne Boulevard and Calle Ocho, an “untamed high-speed corridor carved through a business community.”
The city’s stagnant 10-year-old Bike Master Plan has left routes “completely unconnected,” and popular dockless bikes and scooters have been widely banned.
“The Florida Department of Transportation refuses to adapt roads to people,” Chougle said. “Their only metric of success is how many cars they can move. But it’s not the Florida Department of Cars, it’s the Department of Transportation. Why is FDOT so hostile to pedestrians and cyclists? It’s a mystery, even to politicians.”
The county adopted a version of the nationwide Vision Zero plan to eliminate pedestrian fatalities but hasn’t acted on it.
The county’s much-heralded SMART Plan is going nowhere and the Transit Alliance no longer supports it, Chougle said.
The plan repeats the mistakes of the past, relies on flawed corridor designs and “has fallen victim to prioritization of politics over practicality, an overabundance of studies, unrealistic targets,” the Transit Alliance report said.
An independent transit authority with a dedicated budget and the power to oversee and operate all transit in the county would erase the jumble of government entities that are vulnerable to changing political priorities, counterproductive decisions and budget cuts.
The Transit Alliance proposes an “immediate and agile” agenda that does not require federal funding, only smart thinking. The public is invited to get on board at the Mobility Scorecard release party at 6 p.m. Thursday at Blackbird Ordinary, 729 SW First Ave., in the Brickell area.
“Some failure is operational and some is because the system is set up to fail,” Chougle said “No unified vision exists. It’s time to stop talking about it and make a system that works.”