Wednesday April 2, 2008

What's up Transit Miami?

miami from the air -- houses and water

Transit Miami is a great blog, it’s been around a long time and done lots of excellent work, but lately I’ve been troubled by the increasingly single-minded, almost militant, anti-car zeal coming from over there. Now look, I’m a big supporter of public transportation, so I agree with the direction that TM wants to see Miami move in. But I think that advocating change is more effective when one has a firm grip on reality, and — well, let’s take a look at a recent post, Gabriel and Ryan’s open letter to the Miami city commission.

An increase of net parking spaces – to one per unit, as the city commission proposed – will only worsen the traffic conditions along Biscayne Boulevard and the surrounding streets. The aim of the city administration and all downtown development should be to reduce automobile dependency, not enhance it, especially in one of the few areas well served by public rail transit. Any increases in available parking will only serve as a means with which our residents will continue to neglect and undermine the intended purpose of public transportation.

They go on to say that supporting both public transportation access and parking spaces is “contradictory – essentially taking one-step forward and one-step backward,” and conclude by quoting the notion that “in order for public transportation to be successful it [must] be at least equally attractive as the alternatives.”

I have to admit to being baffled by this. The way to encourage public transportation use is to make driving more unpleasant, parking more difficult? I have two suggestions here. First, that improving public transportation is a better strategy then worsening the experience of driving. Second, a realistic understanding of where Miami is, and how far and fast it can change, is beneficial when advising on public policy meant to hasten that change. Let’s consider.

When we talk about “public transportation in Miami,” we are of course referring to Miami-Dade County. The county runs the public transportation system, and the City of Miami accounts for a small fraction of the county’s population. It takes only a passing familiarity with Miami-Dade to see the difference between it and the cities with the great public transportation systems that TM so admires: most Miamians live in single-family houses with great big lawns, while the citizens of those cities live far more often in high-rises, mid-rises, townhouses, and rowhouses. In other words, the population density is higher. It’s a fact of life that the potential effectiveness of a public transportation system is proportional to density. Yes, increasing population density is a worthwhile goal. And yes, Miami 21 will move us in that direction. But these changes happen slowly, and in the meantime the simple fact is that the overwhelming majority of Miamians, whether they live in the great suburbs of Miami Gardens of one of the new towers in downtown, have a car, need a car, and use a car everyday to commute and run practically all of their errands.

But furthermore, as those errands and commutes become easier to do with public transportation, the way to nudge the nice folks is make that public transportation more pleasant. To try to get them to switch by making driving more difficult is suicide for elected officials and inhumane for public professionals. I’d think it’d also be inadvisable for bloggers who want to change public opinion.

Sure, it’s fine to look at other cities, but let’s be realistic about how much they can “illuminate … Miami’s potential.” Miami is not going to have the public transportation system of Montreal any more then it’s going to suddenly grow a mountain. And the same goes for cycling in the city — last year I challenged TM to show me how a bike-rental system like the one that works relatively well in other cities would look in Miami. Nothing came of that because it wouldn’t work here for the same population density reasons. (And trust me, I know a thing or two about cycling in Miami.)

These situations will improve, and we should certainly work towards improving them, but it helps to be realistic about the time frame we’re talking about: when this happens, it’s on the scale of generations, not years or even decades. In the meantime let’s do what we can to make public transportation — and driving — easier and more pleasant.

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  1. nonee moose    Wed Apr 2, 09:50 AM #  

    Ah yes, the “pressure-cooker” theory finds a new home.

  2. Kordor    Wed Apr 2, 09:55 AM #  

    Terrible post, Mr. Houdek. Short sighted and shows you to be part of the same group of Dade County residents that say “Reduce parking? But you NEED a car to get around!” We’ll need cars as long as people keep thinking like you, refusing to accept the growing pains of 1) building good urban buildings (with little or no parking) and 2) demanding that the County invest in transportation alternatives. If a developer wants to provide less parking and force its future tennants to find other ways to get around (and potentially vote for public servants who care aboru transit), then let them. Don’t encourage politicians who know nothing about transportation policy to FORCE a developer to build more parking.

  3. Gabe    Wed Apr 2, 10:50 AM #  

    I love this post. I couldn’t agree more. I would love to use public transit, but the reality in Miami is that it is not going to be functionally effective for the masses for a long time (10 – 20 years). What are we supposed to do in the mean time?

    As a developer, why would you want to eliminate parking? As it stands, wouldn’t that make your building less appealing? Why would anyone live somewhere that they can’t park, especially in a city where a car is a necessity?

  4. adam    Wed Apr 2, 10:59 AM #  

    I think the issue is that every parking space which is built into a building reduces density, ensures one less person will be using the train regularly, encourages widening of roads to support those cars, which in turn removes money from transit options. While it helps to be pleasant, if transit is ever going to win the support it needs to become politically palatable we will need to stop making concessions for automobiles.

  5. alesh    Wed Apr 2, 12:03 PM #  


    There is a libertarian issue going on here on which I sort of agree with you and possibly even TM. If the developer really wants to have units in their building without an associated parking space, I don’t think the government should be forcing them to. I didn’t separate this out because I couldn’t find any specifics on that particular legislative item, and I assume it’s more complicated then that. Also, I was directing my comments more at the overall philosophy I’ve been seeing out of TM then that specific post. You know, the “anything good done for cars is bad for the city.”

    And yes, you NEED a car to get around. With the exception of Miami Beach, I don’t know of ANYONE who functions in this city without a car. Change comes when we make change happen, not when we pretend things ain’t as they is.


    Explain to me how “every parking space which is built into a building reduces density.” I would love it if downtown were filled up with carless urbanites, but I think it’s a pipe dream for the foreseeable future.

    As for “if transit is ever going to win the support it needs to become politically palatable we will need to stop making concessions for automobiles,” I just completely disagree. What the heck is a “concession to automobiles,” anyway?

  6. Adam    Wed Apr 2, 02:45 PM #  

    Density is the number of people living in a certain area. Adding parking to a building reduces density by replacing a potential living space with a parking space. I would also love it if downtown were filled up with carless urbanites. I’m not suggesting that current buildings be built with no parking spots, but it seems feasible for the city to zone somewhat less than one per unit, if they pledge to do the same for all new construction in the downtown area—so competition remains—and to put their money where their mouth is in terms of getting transit running.

    A change in zoning to require more parking spaces to be built into new buildings is a concession to automobiles, because it will in turn slow busses in traffic, require roads to be widened, trees to be cut and pedestrians ignored (see north biscayne). Why should it be that the unsustainable personal automobile culture has the default right to exist in downtown miami. It hasn’t always been so predominant as it is toda There will need to be solutions for the meanwhile, before the rail situation is fixed, car sharing programs, useful bike paths, zoning for pedestrian access, more useful buses are all things that would help, but are ignored because nobody wants to pay taxes on it while it is still so easy to just drive right up and park.

  7. alesh    Wed Apr 2, 03:32 PM #  


    “Adding parking to a building reduces density by replacing a potential living space with a parking space.”

    No, it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. Take 10 Museum Park. Add a floor of parking. Has the density decreased? Nope, all you’ve done is added parking.

    I submit that for the foreseeable future, developers will have a very difficult time selling units without parking. It’s hard enough on the Beach, and we have ample street parking which is relatively safe and protected with a resident parking program.

    Anyway, I see your point about the concessions to cars. I don’t see adequate parking as a concession to anything but HUMANS, and I think that roads can be built in a way that accommodates cars, bicycles, and pedestrians very well, the travesty which is our renovated Biscayne notwithstanding (but really, someone should be hung for that).

    The reason that everyone living in downtown needs a car isn’t anything that can be fixed in downtown, though. It’s got nothing to do with better rail access, etc. It has to do with the REST of the county, where those people need to go once in awhile. Until a substantial portion of the city/county is fixed, the overwhelming majority of people will feel the need to own a car, and making their life more difficult will, at best, keep them from moving there. And the buildings will stand even emptier then they will now (and they WILL be empty).

    Look, I come from Prague, which has about as good a public transportation system as you could want. Know what? Lots and lots of people own cars. They have the option of only using the car when they need it, but they still need (and HAVE) places to park.

    Yes, we as a species need to make some serious changes, especially pertaining to our carbon emissions. But trying to make it happen by making car ownership difficult or impossible is head-in-sand mentality.

  8. adam    Wed Apr 2, 05:29 PM #  

    Well, I am not 100% sure about the zoning laws for skyscrapers in downtown Miami, but there is a reason why builders don’t simply add on another floor (be it non-linear cost increases with height, zoning laws, or a combination of both). Either way, the amount of vertical space is not indefinite as you are implying. Builders are constrained within a certain height, and that means that if they are bound to add parking, or allowed to add as much as they want, they will replace living spaces with parking spaces, and it will diminish density.

    I have not been to Prague, but I imagine if it is like most european cities, many people have cars, but that the buildings and city aren’t designed with the car as their focal point, around which everything else is secondary. I come from chicago, where we have a pretty good transit system, but nothing insane. Most people have cars, but many many people don’t. I lived for ten years quite comfortably without one, and many of my friends still have none or use a car sharing program for weekend trips, furniture shopping, etc. Sure, you don’t drive to the suburbs every night, but really, why would you? It could be the same here, but Miami needs a better rail system, better bike paths, and more design that is focused on walking, rather than driving. North Biscayne could have been really great, except that it is a bunch of stores and boutiques set up along a highway that brings suburban broward dwellers to their downtown jobs and back.

    Our quality of life is an afterthought to squeezing out a little bit longer for out unsustainable (on many levels) lifestyles—condos are priced high downtown which forces people out of the county because of this, use transit money to build giant arteries on what should be pleasant pedestrian roads, use zoning laws to require parking to keep condo prices high. Sometimes there needs to be a little sacrifice to improve our living down the road. This is why I cringe when I hear both political parties calling for reduced gas prices.

    High gas prices are a a good lesson in moderation, living closer to work, etc. and people really should be compaining about them so much. I only wish that the profits were going to a transit tax rather than oil company ceo’s pockets.

  9. CLJ    Wed Apr 2, 08:50 PM #  

    It is entirely possible to live and work and shop in Miami – at least many areas of it – without owning a car.

    My car was stolen in November. I’ve only just replaced it in the last few weeks because I’m now working in Fort Lauderdale, and I often need to be there past midnight. If it weren’t for that, I’d save my money and the bother.

    But the rest of the time? I walk a block to the bus, ride up to Tri-Rail, shuttle to the office, reverse to get home. I take the Coral Gables trolley to the MetroRail, go down two stops to Whole Foods, or to see a move at Sunset Place. OR I can go down to the Mall.

    Sometimes, I ride my bike down to Sunset Place, instead. When I’ve had to go to the courthouse, it’s a thousand times easier to take MetroRail downtown; no worries about the overpriced and cramped parking lots.

    Granted, you can’t do this all over the county. There ARE places that are flung too far to the west. It’s called sprawl.

    I do agree that badgering the commission about approving parking spaces is STUPID. But I do believe that we need to stop spending money on expanding roads; we don’t need more roads, we need less cars on them. That’s what those parking spaces are for; to park your car while you hop on the bus, Gus.

  10. joel    Wed Apr 2, 09:07 PM #  

    i caught joe sanchez today on the radio talking about wanting to make miami the greenest city in the world…
    the world??
    how extensively has he traveled?
    i lived in madrid for 2 years, and we shared 2 minivans between 20-30 of us… i’m beating a dead horse here, but buses that ran every 5-10 minutes (you could set your watch by them), trains and an extensive underground rail system made it quick, cheap and easy to get where i wanted to go. people still had cars (they were everywhere), but seeing the traffic jams they dealt with every day, i was glad for my own sanity to avoid having to try and navigate that jungle.
    for it to really work, there needs to be quicker, easier, cheaper and more reliable transportation to places where people need to go, like the airport, port, amtrak station, etc… and on top of that, amtrak needs to make train travel a more viable option. i go back and forth to tampa about 3-4 times a year, and amtrak has proved just as quick as driving and cheaper than a tank of gas to do so. but with only one train a day, your option is limited to leaving at 830 in the morning.
    make us want to leave our cars behind. prove to us that rail and bus and bike are cheaper and quicker than cars and we will fall in line.

  11. Biscayne Bystander    Wed Apr 2, 09:18 PM #  

    Seems like a chicken or egg scenario. Where the model cities already heavily populated when they rolled out transportation efforts, or were the city planners so forward thinking that they accounted for it before the population crunch?

    1st thing on the agenda for city bureaucrats should be to connect the fucking Metrorail already!

    2nd should be to extend the metro mover up Biscayne Blvd and across to Miami Beach.

  12. Incertus    Wed Apr 2, 11:27 PM #  

    Where the model cities already heavily populated when they rolled out transportation efforts, or were the city planners so forward thinking that they accounted for it before the population crunch?

    In the only city I’ve lived in that had a good transit system (San Francisco), the public transportation system evolved with the city. Part of the reason it happened that way was no doubt due to the limited space available for building, so the city went up instead of out, and so it was more pedestrian friendly from the beginning.

    And that’s really the problem here. South Florida is, for the most part, not pedestrian friendly. That’s what you have to do to make public transportation successful, in my view—make it so that you don’t need a car to get around. And frankly, limiting parking in certain parts of the city is an effective way of doing that.

    I owned a car in San Francisco, but I didn’t use it to go downtown or to the Mission or to most neighborhoods because parking was not only a pain in the ass, it was expensive most of the time. I used the car when I went down the peninsula, or to the North or Wast Bay areas, but I took the BART or the MUNI in the city, and the CalTrain when I commuted to Stanford for class once a week. But I could just as easily have used the car share program or rented one if I needed to go anywhere the train didn’t. I shopped in my neighborhood, I ate out in my neighborhood unless I was going somewhere special, I took the bus to special events in the city, and I loved it.

    And if I could get away with not owning a car in Fort Lauderdale, I’d do it in a second.

  13. Gus Goya    Wed Apr 2, 11:38 PM #  


    I don’t want to speak for the guys at TM, but I will say that the reason why people act strongly in that way is because they have empirical evidence that those who disagree simply ignore.

    Much like people who think Obama is Muslim, Iraq perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, or that evolution and creationism are equally valid theories, the supporters of the empirically-supported data are not listened to.

    How does this apply to Miami and transit? Simple. Chris Bradford came up with a weighted density calculation. Notably, Portland, OR, with a nationally exemplary transit system is less dense than Miami. By a lot. See for yourself.

    They had to work to get there (including the removal of highways through the city!) and they did it with a Republican governor.

    It isn’t about not having a car. It is about creating viable pedestrian spaces. Parking clearly diminishes that viability (which is why we have a term for this – intermodal conflict).

  14. Gabriel J. Lopez-Bernal    Thu Apr 3, 12:53 AM #  

    Critical Miami Misses the Point…

    And we thought you were on the right page…Guess Not…

  15. jose    Thu Apr 3, 06:08 AM #  

    If the developers thought that they could get away with building less parking, watch a forceful push for transit come about.

  16. nonee moose    Thu Apr 3, 08:35 AM #  

    I just want to meet the enlightened one who will plunk half a million on a dwntwn condo and say “Yipee! Now I can get rid of the old Beemer!” 21st century materialists don’t think like that. They are also passive aggressive about perceived infringements on personal liberties.

  17. Reid Pace    Thu Apr 3, 09:34 AM #  

    Critical Miami- TransitMiami was referring to a very specific piece of legislation that was presented before the City Commission regarding a single building. It is important to put your response in that context, or you do, in fact, miss the point. The blog refers to the City, as well, NOT county, because the proposed mass transit that is being considered for the are of downtown/Museum Park would be entirely confined to City limits and is being lobbied for by the City of Miami Manager’s Tranportation team. While this has to go through the MPO – the County’s Metropolitan Planning Authority – and while it is planned with county bus lines in mind, your argument is really one of apples and oranges. If you want more information, contact the City Clerk or Planning Office- or just ask TransitMiami directly.

  18. alex    Thu Apr 3, 09:49 AM #  

    You are both right. We won’t get anywhere without advocates making the push like TMs and at the same time it’s realistically impossible to make drastic changes like no parking. A balance will be struck. It is a chicken or the eggs scenario, except that the chicken and the egg are both growing at the same time.

  19. Moon    Thu Apr 3, 12:31 PM #  

    I think the city/county distinction that Alesh makes is very important.
    Cars are going to be more important for people who don’t want to live or spend large portions of their time in highrise, townhouse, row living in big cities.

    I live in South Miami, in a single family house (with a little lawn). I purposely don’t live in a very densely populated ‘city’ area.
    My parents live near Westchester and when they moved there 40 years ago, 97 Avenue was the westernmost boundary of anything ‘civilized.’
    I’m supposed to be having breakfast at my parent’s house on Sunday morning at 10am.

    I went to the 511 South Florida Regional transit planner to find out that it would take me 44 minutes, with 2 transfers, and cost $2.50 to take the bus.
    Then I went to Mapquest to find that my 7.08 mile drive would take 13 minutes driving.
    Assuming gas/car expenses at 40 cents/mile, for $3, I’m gonna drive. The extra 50 cents/dollar round trip certainly doesn’t deter me, especially knowing that it’s going to take me half an hour longer each way. (not including the walk to/from the bus stops)

    Now, if my parents lived in a high-rise along Biscayne, with limited parking, I would have absolutely no problem walking over to the Metrorail and taking that to go visit.

    I think the car/no car debate is really dependant on whether you’re talking city/urban area or suburban/wide lawn areas. Unfortunately Miami-Dade county has both.

  20. Julian    Thu Apr 3, 12:57 PM #  

    That was an un necassary post on Critical Miamis post. Ive never read Transit Miami but do know those guys study this stuff, why would someone as clueless as you to the subject do that, even myself with no education on urbanity know Transit Miami made more sense than your “grip on reality” post.

  21. adam    Thu Apr 3, 07:52 PM #  

    There’s no need for name calling or hostility here. Both sides have valid points. Owning a car is seen to be essential, especially considering miami’s crappy transit options, and not having parking spaces will decrease the value of a condo downtown. Building more parking spaces increases traffic congestion and decreases the quality of living for everyone but the car owner while sucking money and gumption from future transit projects. It’s not as black and white as everyone is making it seem.

  22. anonymous    Sat Apr 5, 09:50 AM #  

    I don’t have a car. I get around in Miami just fine. In fact, often times it is EASIER to get around the city without a car.

  23. Henry Gomez    Mon Apr 7, 01:02 AM #  


    I think you are correct. There’s a certain element of “you must submit” to the rhetoric about public transport. But you can’t undo 50 years of suburban sprawl overnight. The fact that the the urban core is making a comeback is good news. But there’s a simple fact that condos and apartments that have parking allocated to them are going to command more on the market. Even in cities like NY where it’s very expensive to have a car, a lot of people like to have at least one (even if it’s garaged all day long).

  24. adam    Mon Apr 7, 11:55 AM #  

    can you imagine what would happen if they added a parking space to every manhattan dwelling?! what a nightmare.

  25. Henry Gomez    Sat Apr 12, 10:26 PM #  

    Adam, That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about developers of new buildings being limited by law as to how much parking they can build.

  26. adam    Sun Apr 13, 10:34 AM #  

    Actually I believe we are talking about developers of new buildings being required to build a parking space for every dwelling.