Miami-Dade County

Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard: Built for speed, not safety. Residents want treacherous road redesigned

Felipe Azenha lives in the lovely old Belle Meade neighborhood by Miami’s Main Street, Biscayne Boulevard, the city spine that parallels the waterfront. But he feels like he lives alongside a NASCAR speedway.

Azenha has witnessed or seen evidence of nearly 100 crashes on the boulevard in the past nine years, including downed light poles, smashed signs, mangled crosswalk beacons, damaged bus shelters, amputated car parts, and the human toll, too — corpses lifted into ambulances, bloodied cyclists, weeping pedestrians.

Azenha walks, shops and bikes downtown to work on Biscayne Boulevard, where the posted — and frequently ignored — speed limit is 35 mph. It’s gotten so dangerous that he and his 6-year-old son were hit while they were in a crosswalk on the way to school recently. They weren’t injured, but the car did not stop.

“I’ve seen cars ram into buildings, hop medians, hit trees, and rear-end collisions are commonplace. Every day I see people running for their lives,” Azenha said. “The fundamental flaw of Biscayne Boulevard is that it is designed for speed, not safety. Cars are prioritized over human beings, and that has got to change.”

Biscayne Boulevard, which carries 30,000 vehicles per day and is the site of an average of 340 reported crashes per year, may be the prime showcase of deadly road design in Miami-Dade County, but there are many more examples of mini-highways barreling through neighborhoods crammed with cars going 45-50 mph. Take Bayshore Drive — or better yet, don’t — or Alton Road or Collins Avenue or 79th Street or 163rd Street or the Rickenbacker Causeway or Bird Road or Eighth Street or Coral Way or Kendall Drive where cars move at menacing speeds incompatible with the surroundings and put everyone at risk, including drivers.

“Numerous roads are crazy fast, crazy wide, with a crazy number of lanes that were built to reduce congestion,” said Victor Dover, an urban planner and designer at Dover, Kohl and Partners in Coral Gables. “But outside of rush-hour peak times you have all this open, bald asphalt that encourages speed. And speed is everything. Speed is the chief culprit. If you’re hit by a car going 20 mph, there’s a 5 percent chance of fatality. That chance rockets up to 50 percent at 30 mph and 80 percent at 40 mph.

“The only way to make these roads safer is to drop the design speed.”

Biscayne Boulevard at Northwest 69th Street on a Thursday afternoon. The boulevard was built for speed, not safety. Carl Juste

Dover, author of “Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns,” is a proponent of “road diets” for fat urban thoroughfares that eat precious public space. Adapting them into Complete Streets would make them safe for all users — people who want to walk to the bus stop or bike to the farmers’ market or push a baby stroller to the park or ride a scooter to the corner café or steer a wheelchair to the office. Dover won a Safe Streets Summit award last week for his transformation of Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, which utilizes landscaping, narrowed travel lanes and on-street parking spaces to force drivers to be alert and slow down. Gentler streets reduce the race car effect, animosity between motorists and pedestrians and fear among those on foot.

“Older streets were put down when Model Ts struggled to go 20 mph, and then as our cities and suburbs grew, the emphasis was on capacity and flow — moving as many cars as quickly as possible,” Dover said. “As car technology got faster, safety features were added to protect occupants in the event of error. But the vulnerable user of the road on foot or bike has no protection.”

Florida is the state where a person who is walking is most likely to be struck and killed by a motorist. Nine of the 20 deadliest U.S. cities for pedestrians are in Florida, with Orlando ranked as least safe and the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metropolis ranked No. 14 in the 2019 “Dangerous By Design” report from Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition. There were 1,549 pedestrian fatalities in South Florida between 2008 and 2017.

Walking has become hazardous to your health. The Governors Highway Safety Association estimates that 6,227 pedestrians died last year in the United States as a result of motor vehicle crashes, a scary 35 percent increase since 2010. Smart Growth America likens the trend to a public health crisis, calling it “an epidemic.”

“The alarm bells continue to sound; it’s clear we need to fortify our collective efforts to protect pedestrians and reverse the trend,” the association’s executive director, Jonathan Adkins, said of the report released Thursday.

The risk is palpable along Biscayne Boulevard, where zooming cars ruffle the hair of pedestrians on skinny sidewalks, run red lights and blow through crosswalks, leaving people stranded in the middle of the road or scrambling like they’re playing a life-or-death game of dodgeball.

Parents of Morningside Academy students were so worried about their kids crossing at the stoplight between Northeast 66th and 67th streets that the principal assigned a bus to transport them the three blocks to Legion Park for an after-school program.

“Sometimes the cars don’t stop and sometimes you press the button and have to wait 5-7 minutes for the walk signal,” said student Kaia Zaney, 11.

Her grandmother was nearly hit last week when a car ran a red light as she was about to step into the crosswalk. Residents call the lane adjacent to sidewalks the “suicide lane.”

“The flashing yellow lights on the mid-block crosswalks are not effective because they give the illusion of safety, but drivers think it’s optional and they don’t stop,” said Mikhael Levy, who lives near Legion Park. “Maybe if they were going 25 or 30 mph, they would stop but they’re going too fast to brake in time.”

Speed limit signs along Biscayne Boulevard, which barrels through Miami neighborhoods. Carl Juste

Plus, five of the 10 crosswalk signals from Northeast 36th Street to 87th Street are broken, some for as long as two years, Azenha said. For months, he’s been writing weekly emails to state Department of Transportation and county Transportation and Public Works officials asking about repairs and improvements. Department chief Alice Bravo finally responded two weeks ago, saying it could take three to six months to obtain parts or install replacements.

“I think 30 days is reasonable,” said Azenha, co-founder of Gridics, a zoning and planning technology company. “We know these signals are getting hit and malfunctioning all the time, so why not have some in storage? Or revamp the boulevard to prevent crashes rather than spending money to replace broken things that get broken again and again. We have to take these problems seriously if we want to build a real livable city.”

About 50 Upper East Side residents took a walk along the boulevard with Florida Department of Transportation representatives on Feb. 23. Azenha had requested the tour for months. Residents asked for wider sidewalks free of carelessly placed impediments. Traffic lanes narrowed from 12 to 8 feet. On-street parallel parking. Trees. Dedicated bus lanes. Bike lanes. Lowering the speed limit to 30 mph or less. Crosswalks at every intersection, especially where there are long gaps without any, such as between 54th and 61st streets. There’s only one crosswalk signal between 38th and 50th streets, but it was hit by a car and doesn’t work.

Police enforcement would help make a difference. Most people couldn’t remember the last time they got a speeding ticket inside city limits.

“We showed FDOT the hostile and uncomfortable conditions we deal with every day,” said Steve Sauls, who is president of his condo association at 62nd Street and a board member of the MiMo Biscayne Association.

While the county is responsible for signs and signals along Biscayne Boulevard, FDOT is responsible for the roadway. Residents want FDOT to develop a master plan for the corridor with neighborhood input and consideration of future growth.

“What’s long overdue is a better relationship between FDOT and communities,” said state Sen. Jason Pizzo, who attended the walk and has made unclogging the lines of communication with FDOT one of his goals. “The relationship has been adversarial. The can gets kicked down the road with each successive administration. I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to see more progressive, innovative planning.”

State transportation policies and blueprints, long stuck in the age of the automobile, are being retooled as the Federal Highway Administration eliminates outdated car-friendly regulations and new engineering manuals incorporate Complete Streets features and mobility solutions.

“We put all our eggs in state department of transportation baskets,” said Anthony Foxx, former U.S. secretary of transportation, who spoke at the Safe Streets Summit in Miami. “State policy is very highway-centric, a continuation of 1952 policy. In the 21st century, we’re going to have to conduct some serious battles with the old way of thinking and get local transportation planners more involved.”

Safe streets don’t mean congested streets, Dover explained, because as speed rises, capacity does not rise at the same rate.

“You tighten the street geometry and find that the optimal number is usually 27 mph,” Dover said. “Mayhem discourages pedestrians, and that’s a problem for economic development, public health, property values and public transit.

“I would put the person in charge of road design in charge of boosting transit ridership, too. It’s all connected. You want a whole lot of those people stuck in cars in front of you to choose transit.”

Traffic moves along Biscayne Boulevard at Northwest 72nd Street. Residents want the boulevard redesigned to slow down traffic and accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit users. Carl Juste

Dover cited examples of successful “road diets.”

“Sunset Drive in South Miami used to be five lanes and now it’s three lanes and the area was reawakened,” he said. “Lancaster Boulevard in Southern California used to be like our U.S. 1, but it’s got a central plaza now and Carmageddon did not result. Kensington High Street in London shifted to a calmer, kinder design but it still accommodates taxis and double decker buses.”

As Biscayne Boulevard continues its renaissance, Azenha will keep pushing FDOT and the county to make it more inviting and less intimidating.

“We’ve got a vibrant, diverse, historic area with magnificent assets, lots of yuppies, hipsters, longtime residents and families — and a street that kills running right through the middle of it,” he said. “We need to design it so my son and I can ride our bikes, people can walk to the store and drivers can avoid wrecking their cars.

“Don’t use the word ‘accidents.’ These are preventable crashes caused by an unsafe street.”

Linda Robertson has written about a variety of compelling subjects during an award-winning career. As a sports columnist she covered 13 Olympics, Final Fours, World Cups, Wimbledon, Heat and Hurricanes, Super Bowls, Soul Bowls, Cuban defectors, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Lance Armstrong, Tonya Harding. She golfed with Donald Trump, fished with Jimmy Johnson, learned a magic trick from Muhammad Ali and partnered with Venus Williams to defeat Serena. She now chronicles our love-hate relationship with Miami, where she grew up.