Cut-through traffic has gotten so bad in one formerly tranquil pocket of Coral Gables that a pickup truck barreling through the neighborhood lost control and rammed into a house, coming to a stop with its nose nudging into the living room. A black skid mark is still visible on the yellow pillar by the front door.
It has come to this in gridlocked Miami: Drivers desperately seeking shortcuts to avoid traffic jams are frightening and angering people who just want to jog, bike, chat or walk their dogs on their own neighborhood streets.
“It’s out of control. At morning rush hour, it’s a spectacle,” said Frank Eaton, whose Italian Village neighborhood in Coral Gables is a favorite route for commuters trying to circumvent traffic on Bird Road, Granada Boulevard and Riviera Drive. “We call them runners because they run through stop signs, dodge left through roundabouts and use our streets as a speedway.
“Most of the time they’re on their phones, completely inconsiderate of pedestrians. That’s Miami.”
South Miami has the same problem. So does Miami Beach, Palmetto Bay, Pinecrest, Coconut Grove, Silver Bluff, the Upper East Side, North Miami. Any city near commuter arteries is battling the invasion of cars roaring down streets designed only for the people who live there.
“The landscape of traffic has changed because of WAZE,” said South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, referring to the navigation app that directs motorists around chokepoints and onto alternate routes. “Every suburb is going nuts — from Seattle to Miami. It’s a huge problem nationwide.”
One solution gaining popularity: traffic calming. No, it is not a meditation session behind the steering wheel — although that would be a better way to spend all that wasted time instead of cursing your predicament. Traffic calming slows vehicle speeds and controls volume with engineering measures that lead to safer streets.
Among the options city planners and engineers can select: Speed bumps, speed tables, speed cushions (aka “sleeping policemen”), roundabouts (traffic circles), realigned intersections, raised intersections, raised medians, chicanes (curved travel paths), pedestrian crossings, and trees and vegetation planted in close proximity to roadways.
“The goal is enhanced neighborhood livability,” said Mark R. Brown, who is overseeing Coral Gables’ traffic calming project that has focused on some 165 locations.
After three years of discussions and data collection, Coral Gables reached an agreement with Miami-Dade County that allows the city to tailor its traffic calming criteria to its needs. Trouble spots are evaluated with a scoring system that measures traffic volume and speed, pedestrian numbers from schools, parks and transit lines, driveway density and the number of preventable crashes.
“For example, we can’t close the streets north of Coral Way but we can make it harder to go fast,” said Wiatt Bowers, senior multi-modal project manager at Atkins engineering. “Roundabouts and speed tables have been very effective. The more you make a driver afraid of hitting something, the more he will slow down.”
Coral Gables also reduced its speed limit from 30 to 25 mph on every local residential roadway and has erected 150 new signs. Larger streets remain at 30 mph.
“We’re limited in the number of police we can have on the streets,” Brown said. “Calming will alleviate the need for the police to be out there writing tickets.”
Atkins has worked on traffic calming projects throughout the world — in London, Dubai, Montreal, and throughout the nation in Atlanta, Denver, Boulder, Las Vegas, Raleigh, and in about a dozen South Florida municipalities. The Nautilus neighborhood in Miami Beach is a “work in progress,” said Atkins Vice President and Senior Transportation Engineer Jack Schnettler.
“I remember growing up in suburban St. Louis and installing a homemade chicane when we put up sawhorses on alternate sides of the street,” Schnettler said. “We wanted to slow down drivers in a hurry and make our street less appealing to them. Now we call that tactical urbanism.”
Bowers said Miami has a long way to go to catch up to the mentality in other cities.
“There’s an understanding in certain communities to look out for pedestrians and cyclists,” Bowers said. “We’re still not Palo Alto, or even New York City. But when drivers see pedestrians and cyclists more often, then they expect to see them, and they behave differently.”
Stoddard said traffic calming measures are in demand in South Miami, which straddles perpetually clogged U.S. 1.
“I’ve got residents up in arms, including a family convinced that their kid would get hit, and he did while riding his bike,” Stoddard said. “I tried WAZE for a week and one time in Coconut Grove it directed me down Florida Avenue rather than Grand Avenue and it just felt wrong. As an anxious commuter I should not be on a narrow, placid little street where the neighbors should not be afraid to be outside.”
Stoddard said installing speed bumps or other calming measures isn’t as easy as it sounds. Municipalities have to pay about $25,000 for a traffic study first. “And when the county usually says you don’t qualify for traffic calming under their strict criteria you’ve squandered $25,000,” Stoddard said. “If it’s approved, it costs about $70,000 for construction.”
South Miami has installed speed bumps as well as No-Right-Turn-at-rush-hour signs in various places. Under its Greenways plan, the city will go on a “Road Diet,” narrowing wide streets that invite speeding and making intersections more snug. The city is painting “sharrows” — shared-lane markers — on pavement for cyclists and adding trees and vegetation close to roadways that will also induce drivers to slow down.
“We hear complaints, ‘I’ve got a pothole on my street,’ and I say cherish it!” Stoddard said. “The chucklehead in the Maserati going 40 mph will blow out a tire when he hits it. That pothole will slow everybody down on your street.”
Eaton counts at least 15 children within two blocks of his house and says they shouldn’t have to worry about playing or riding bikes in their neighborhood. Parents pushing strollers, people walking dogs and joggers who have been hit or brushed back by cars shouldn’t be stressed out, either. The problem is disrespectful rush-hour commuters, not students or parents driving to nearby Coral Gables High School.
“We’re in support of speed bumps, but we’re also in support of police presence,” he said. “All we need is two cops, one with a speed gun and one writing tickets. Do it once a week and shift to various trouble spots in the city. Demonstrate there is a penalty for flagrant disobedience.”
Is traffic calming effective or just a Band-aid? Stoddard is one of the skeptics.
“Mostly no,” he said. “Turns out people want speed tables but not in front of their house. We put in a speed hump and one family asked us to remove it because it hurt the father’s back. And the drivers just floor it in between them so the neighbors say they need more and more, because drivers are still racing through.
“We can’t have police posted at every hotspot because then they are not patrolling for burglaries.”
Lowering speed limits and enforcing them has worked for many cities.
“Nobody has a full-proof solution, except maybe Seattle where they’ve installed an entire grid of stop signs,” Stoddard said. “We’ll keep trying because the problem is only getting worse.”