Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Optimistic talk, but not much action.
On Wednesday night, 180 Miamians wearing neon-colored headphones boarded a string of quiet Metromover cars. Bouncy Motown music transmitted wirelessly by a DJ parked at a nearby station filled their covered ears. They danced, smiling, singing, and shimmying as the people-mover made loops around its few miles of track. After 90 minutes, they disembarked. And the cars went quiet again.
This was Soul Train, a free “silent disco” organized by local developers with the blessing of Miami-Dade county transit officials. The event centered in the Arts and Entertainment District, a new cluster of lofts, high-rises, shops, and venues in a once-disused section of greater downtown Miami. Nir Shoshani, the district’s principal developer, saw the Metromover’s elevated tracks as great way to showcase his “urban village” to the Millennials he wants to attract as residents. And he wanted to present transit as chief among those amenities, in a city famous for its love of cars and fortress-like high-rises.
“Many people didn’t even know that the Metromover was free,” Shoshani tells CityLab. “It gets very, very little use.”
In developing the Arts and Entertainment District, Shoshani and his partner Ron Gottesman pushed the city for higher-density, mixed-use zoning in order to promote cycling, walking, and transit in the downtown area. It might sound like unusual rhetoric for the area, but with population and construction booming in Miami, especially downtown, transit—or at least, winnowing car-reliance—does seem to be having a moment. (The rising of sea levels, thanks to emissions-driven climate change, is surely also a factor.)
Take the city’s plans for a more walkable Biscayne Boulevard, or its recent ordinance aimed at reducing parking minimums. Or take the county’s recent talk of building out BRT, and the local leaders who are all but hollering for a new light-rail system to battle the region’s epic traffic. Ridership is on the up across Miami-Dade county, especially on Metrorail, its heavy-rail rapid transit system.
Optimism for a more transit-oriented future is buoyed, in part, by indications that young people aren’t driving as much as in the past, thanks to economic pains and priority shifts. “The new generation is not in love with the car,” Carlos Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County, told the Guardian last week. “They’re just as happy to get into a railcar or a bus, or be driven round by an Uber. Cars to them are a hassle whereas for us they were a luxury. It’s a different mindset and we’re seeing more and more in this community.”
That’s the belief Shoshani is tapping into with Soul Train and the new district. And he hopes Millennials will help push the needle on transit in car-choked Miami, because so far, there hasn’t been much action as far as increasing transit options. Only one major expansion (a Metrorail link to the airport) has been completed in the 14 years since county voters passed a tax-increase measure to fund new transit projects.
“Miami has been saying much of the right things lately (i.e., ‘we need to prioritize transit’),” Marta Viciedo, the co-founder of the Miami urban design consultancy Urban Impact Lab, tells CityLab in an email. “But all too often, when push comes to shove, there is enormous resistance to changing the existing car-dominant culture.” The Miami metro’s many overlapping jurisdictions, governing bodies, and transit designers pose a roadblock to decisions around transportation, she says, adding, “[We also need to] change land-use planning now, so that the density and mix that transit needs can actually be built.”
Maybe Soul Train is a good metaphor for what’s happening with Miami transit these days: Plenty of people want to dance, but there’s only so much dance floor. Here’s hoping Miami-Dade leaders can make more room: not only for Millennials eyeing lofts downtown, but also lower-income residents across the county. They stand to benefit from better transit, too.