Local traffic plan during Art Week actually worked

Renovation of the Venetian Causeway prompted officials to devise practical transit options to keep traffic moving.
Renovation of the Venetian Causeway prompted officials to devise practical transit options to keep traffic moving. cjuste@miamiherald.com

What happens when tens or even hundreds of thousands of out-of-towners descend upon a city for an event like Art Basel in Miami Beach? For politicians and tourism leaders, it’s a big boost for the local economy. For local residents, it’s a horrendous amount of traffic.

Both were very much the case during last week’s Miami Art Week, which brought tony visitors and tons of traffic to the streets. While the week is long finished, one transit experiment to help alleviate traffic and increase transit options that took place during the week went off to a promising start and bodes well for future transit solutions in the city.

As a way to counter the traffic woes this year after the closure of the Venetian Causeway promised to lead to a traffic apocalypse, an alliance among the city of Miami, the city of Miami Beach, Miami-Dade County Transit and private interests connected several transit options and provided them to visitors for free. The end result was something as rare as a unicorn: an efficient, effective, and fully-fleshed transit solution that used existing infrastructure to provide an essential service during an especially traffic-ridden time.

The most notable highlight of the Miami-Dade Art Express is that it may have been the single largest expansion of free public transportation in Miami since the Metromover became free. While it seems counter-intuitive to expand free public transportation during a week that attracts the world’s mega-wealthy, let’s not forget the thousands of normal, every-day Joes who were the primary audience for this temporary transit option. At a time when everyday locals are feeling the crunch of rising costs of living, this was a welcome option for those who wanted to get in on the Art Basel festivities without blowing their money on parking or Uber.

Although I wasn’t able to catch the shuttle myself due to a frenzied schedule, an informal survey of friends and friends of friends who took the shuttle showed gushing praise over the system. The buses arrived promptly and were never overcrowded, while the new transit routes for the shuttle were easy to navigate and understand, all comments you rarely hear associated with bus service in the county.

Surprisingly, the service offered a faster ride than a car, as buses were allowed to use the street shoulder and skip the congestion on the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle Causeways, the two most congested arteries connecting the mainland to the beach. While not every bus utilized the shoulder, from those I surveyed, those that did sped along at a pace that would make on lookers jealous (I saw one speed by next to me while I was stuck in traffic heading to the mainland on the MacArthur).

Moreover, this may have been the first time ever that the free trolley systems between Miami Beach and mainland Miami were linked seamlessly. After seeing how organically these two trolley systems melded together, it’s anyone’s guess why this hasn’t been done sooner and what’s keeping it from being done.

Based on observations from those who used the service, attendance on the bus was sparser than many had expected. The lack of bus shelters along several of the stops also meant that many were left either waiting in the rain for a trolley or forced to take another option. And while many news outlets promoted the shuttle in the weeks before Art Basel, it would have been helpful to announced the shuttle earlier in the year to allow the word to spread further. Some I spoke with didn’t know the Miami-Dade Art Express was an available option.

With that said, it’s encouraging to see city and county government looking at new transit solutions, both big and small, permanent and temporary. There’s no doubt that many will be hoping for the return of the shuttle during next year’s Miami Art Week, but government officials should also look into similar solutions for major events such as the Boat Show, Auto Show or South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Moreover, let’s hope that these efforts galvanize leaders into seeking longer-term solutions for expanding transit options in the county.