Juan Pablo Garnham is the Urban Affairs reporter for The Texas Tribune. Previously, he was the editor of CityLab Latino, senior producer of the podcast In the Thick and he has also worked for El Diario and NY1 Noticias, in New York. In his home country of Chile, he worked as a reporter for Qué Pasa magazine and El Mercurio newspaper.
Instead, a pair of local street planners propose redesigning the street below.
It’s been three weeks since a pedestrian bridge that had been billed as ”an engineering feat” collapsed over a busy Southwest Eighth Street in a Miami suburb, killing six motorists. So far, there are still more questions than answers about the cause of the incident near the Sweetwater campus of Florida International University. But beyond the technical reasons why the structure failed, there’s a deeper issue: Was a 174-foot bridge that spanned eight lanes of traffic ever the best solution in the first place?
That’s what one local urban planning studio is asking. Last week, street planners Victor Dover and Kenneth García of the Miami firm Dover, Kohl & Partners published a proposal for redesigning the area. The pair criticized not only the “accelerated bridge construction” technique used in the FIU-Sweetwater UniversityCity Bridge, but the fundamental design of the street it once spanned:
It’s clear that among official priorities, traffic flow eclipsed public safety long ago on Eighth Street. The corridor metastasized into a monster highway with eight, nine, ten lanes and no meaningful provision for walking, biking or transit, or even trees, despite its gigantic 130-foot right-of-way. We are correctly focused right now on the six victims killed under the bridge collapse. But in the last 4 years, more than 2,200 crashes occurred along this part of the corridor, and at least 12 other people died in those collisions.
Indeed, less than a year ago, an FIU student died trying to cross from the university campus into the Sweetwater area.
“The biggest thing is making Eighth Street a street that creates a bigger balance between biking, walking, transit and cars,” García told CityLab. “Right now the street only accommodates cars and pays lip service to the other modes. The truth is that now nobody wants to choose those modes, because it is really uncomfortable and really a crappy experience.”
To address that, Dover and García propose a major facelift of the street to make it both safer and more appealing to residents and students. The current eight-lane roadway would be reduced to five lanes for cars, with the middle portion reserved for some form of public transportation; protected bike lanes and shady lines of trees run alongside the street’s edges. Instead of one pedestrian bridge across a bleak expanse of traffic, the new boulevard offers multiple crossings for walkers at street level.
Given Florida’s dire pedestrian safety stats and the state’s love for asphalt, this scheme isn’t likely to be pursued further. “We produced it just like as educational artifact,” said Dover. “If the idea takes off, we would love to help, but we did this because we see this problem recurring all over the region and all over the country.”
Local authorities haven’t yet made public if the pedestrian bridge is going to be rebuilt on the site. (CityLab contacted the city of Sweetwater, the Florida Department of Transportation, and the university, and will update if we receive responses). But Dover and Garcia—like many planners—are not fans of this particular form of infrastructure. “[T]he effect of such bridges is to permanently surrender the at-grade pedestrian experience,” Dover writes in his proposal:
Climbing up to bridges is usually inconvenient for pedestrians, not to mention going out of their way to get to the bridge from the intersections where they’d rather cross, scarce as those are. As transportation planner Jim Charlier once quipped, “The real benefit of pedestrian bridges is to provide shade for the pedestrians that still insist on crossing below them, at ground level.”
But no matter what happens, Dover believes that there are reasons to be hopeful about the future. As Miami and its suburbs swell in population, support for better public transit is growing, too; Miami-Dade County is currently studying six rapid-transit corridors—the SMART Plan—for the region in an effort to reign in traffic congestion. “Our agencies in Miami-Dade are starting to talk about things like complete streets,” Dover said, “and the director of Miami-Dade transportation said that wants to make a ‘car optional city.’ Those are words we haven’t heard before.”
For the urban planners, the alternative—more traffic—will eventually prove unworkable. “We will have another 1.2 or 1.5 million people living in Miami Dade county in the coming 40 or 45 years,” Dover said. “That’s a 50 percent increase over our population. That tells me that we need a lot more people choosing biking or walking a lot more often. That’s how we solve this problem.”