How public transit (dis)connects us from social justice
By Meghan Burk, Yulia Strokova
"Get Out From Your Car!" pleaded Brightline’s yellow banners that heavily promoted its expansion to the North three years ago. "Why Drive? Ride Metrorail," is stamped on Miami-Dade's Metroline that crosses an entrance to I-95. These would be inspiring messages for emerging tech hubs and its smart citizens who want to reach their destination quickly, safely and with fewer carbon emissions. But it seems it’s not about Miami.
Miami is a car-centric city. While 80% of residents rely on a car, leading to Miami “having the 12th worst traffic congestion in the country” and costing the region around $4 billion a year, the remaining 20% are still struggling to get to work, or school, and back home.
Getting around the city without a car is a big challenge. Metrorail, which is stated to be faster, more reliable transit, serves only a fraction of the city. There’s no connection to Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, Homestead, FIU campuses on Tamiami Trail in West Miami-Dade or Biscayne Bay in the North or even as far as Fort Lauderdale or the Florida Keys.
In some remote areas, Metrobus is the only available transit option. Although Metrobus operates more than 95 routes -- and where the metrorail doesn’t -- buses continue to break down in the middle of routes, arrive nearly an hour later than scheduled, and sometimes never arrive at all.
Bus amenities for comfortable and safe waiting are also a privilege for some areas.
“The bus stop is your entrance into our transit system, and many of the bus stops in Miami are not much more than a stick in the ground with, most of the time, no sidewalk connection,” Kevin Amézaga describes his experience, getting from West Miami-Dade to Downtown.
In 2019, he founded the Miami Riders Alliance, a “grassroots advocacy group fighting for better public transportation and safer, more equitable streets for all road users.”
Kevin calls Miami “one of the most segregated cities in the country.”
“Even though there are prevalent roads being built straight through the Black communities in the city, there is still a lack of bus routes available in the area, limiting these individuals’ opportunity to use public transit.”
On top of that, a lot of bus stops don't have shelters, or even shade. "Miami is very hot. And when it's not very hot, it's probably very damp and rainy out there. In some cases, it is done in an attempt to prevent Miami’s homeless population from using these bus stops as shelters," explains Kevin. "Without a roof to guard them against Miami’s relentless heat, simple amenities for comfortable waiting, residents are unlikely to wait for the notoriously unreliable transit systems."
Waiting for metrorail expansion is hollow hope. There are no in-progress plans to expand the lines for comfort trips, except the Brightline expansion to the North. Instead, Miami’s officials are developing the Bus Rapid Transit project. It is stated to be a fast and reliable (plus more affordable) way to reach your destination, with its own dedicated right of way, its own boarding stations, more vehicles, and more frequent service.
“When we invest in the system and make it more useful and reliable for more people, people will start taking it more,” says Derrick Holmes, campaign coordinator of Transit Alliance Miami. “We've started by creating these dedicated bus lanes. So people in traffic could see a bus fly past them in the morning every day. These are the things that will entice people to take transit, that these are things that could increase ridership and justify investing more in the system and its natural expansion. This is an approach that's going to take a while that we have to kind of build up.”
Public transit is also the most efficient green transportation option.
Last year, Miami-Dade County’s Department of Transportation and Public Works approved the purchase of a minimum of 33 zero-emissions, battery-electric buses. In addition, Miami-Dade County Public Schools has also made the decision to convert its fleet from diesel buses into an electric fleet.
Every zero-emission bus can eliminate 1,690 tons of carbon dioxide over its 12-year lifespan. This is equivalent to taking 27 cars off the road.
Although green efforts are in progress, officials’ true goals are still vague. Take cars off the streets by offering efficient and convenient public transportation, or build more highways and double down on cars?
The Miami Herald recently published that “the proposed extension of 836/Dolphin Expressway into West Kendall would have a projected price tag of $1 billion and hurt Everglades restoration, wildlife habitat and Miami-Dade’s water supply.”
"Electric buses aren’t going to solve emissions; the best way to reduce emissions is to get people out of their cars, which won’t happen unless the transit system is improved," Kevin states. “Transit is the solution for much of the problems we are facing, and we can no longer afford not investing in it.”
Public transportation increases access to opportunity – to higher-paying jobs, safer and more affordable neighborhoods, and education. Coupled with denser, more walkable, and affordable neighborhoods, transit would reduce the biggest cost-burdens for working families. Our high cost of living is crippling our local economy. Transitioning to transit can save a household about $9,000 per year.
The overall local economy would benefit significantly over the long-term from the cost savings and productivity gains of reducing commute times as well as the lower cost of transit.
In this car-dominated city it’s still not a priority. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is discussing futuristic plans with Elon Musk on how to take cars off some traditional roads and put them into a $30M high-speed tunnel in Miami’s urban core. Mayor Suarez envisions the project would stretch from the city's Brickell financial district to as far north as Little Haiti, with multiple stops in between. He explained that motorists would drive onto a fixed subterranean platform, which would then transport drivers and their vehicles through the tunnel at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour.
Mayor Suarez noted the carrying capacity of Boring’s system could be as high as 60,000 per hour — higher than Metrorail's 50,000 people a day.
But today, there is no option. Take a bus, or get back in a car.