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Before the sun rises over Miami — before the highways swell with traffic and the streets begin to hum with the sound of a million motors turning at once — the first bicycles appear. From the east — the beaches, Key Biscayne — come the racers. Clad head to toe in thousands of dollars' worth of Lycra, they glide along in tight, silent packs, their wheels producing a collective whirring like a hive of wasps set loose. From the west come the construction workers, mounted on cheap, heavy mountain bikes, outfitted with hard hats and packed lunches.
For this brief moment every day, Miami is full of cyclists, rich and poor alike. As the sun peeks over the horizon, and I-95 begins dumping cars into downtown, the bicycles vanish; the city gives itself over to the cars.
At first glance, there is nary a place on God's green Earth better suited to biking than Miami. It's utterly flat, with weather that lets a cyclist pedal year-round without donning so much as a scarf in January. Its streets are wide and, for the most part, arranged in a tidy, easily navigable grid.
But to ride in Miami is to be among the few and the hunted. Florida ranks among the highest in bicycle fatalities in the nation — second only to California — and in 2006, eight cyclists were killed on Miami roads; nearly 400 were injured. Such statistics are nebulous, though; many bicycle accidents go unreported. Even a crash that results in death might not be recorded as a bike fatality if the victim dies at the hospital.
It's true Miami Beach installed four lanes in the past year. And Key Biscayne hosts the county's most popular bike lane — largely owing to the horrific death of 33-year-old Omar Otaola, who in February 2006 was killed by a motorist when he swerved to avoid a curb where the bike lane precipitously ended. But the rest of the county's bike lanes appear on the map as distant, lonely squiggles, beginning suddenly at one intersection and vanishing just as quickly a few blocks later.
Meanwhile, as Miami totters in place, more cities are looking to bicycles as an answer to everything from traffic congestion and air quality to fitness and green transportation. Paris recently unveiled the most ambitious bike-sharing plan in history, making more than 10,000 bikes available to borrow citywide for anyone with a credit card. American towns like Portland, Denver, San Francisco, and, closer to home, Gainesville, have transformed themselves in a few short years into some of the most bike-friendly places on the planet. New York, already boasting some 200 miles of bike lanes, plans to double that number in the next two years; Chicago proposes that by 2015, every one of its three million residents will live within half a mile of a bike lane.
Despite Miami Mayor Manny Diaz's grandiose calls for the greening of Miami, the city possesses not a single finished bike lane; the only one under construction, on South Miami Avenue, is less than a mile long. And the county's plan, adopted in 2001, states no specific targets whatsoever.
"We're so far behind and in the dark with bikes it's absurd," says Chris Marshall, who owns the Broken Spoke bicycle shop at 10451 NW Seventh Ave. Marshall spent years campaigning for bike lanes and "greenways" to connect the beaches to the mainland, before finally throwing in the towel. "I'd say we're stuck in the Sixties, but it's worse than the Sixties," Marshall says bitterly. "In the Sixties you could still get around by bike."
Miami's best hope is that, despite everything, it's actually full of bikers, and for the first time in a long time, they're fighting back. In the past year, five new groups dedicated themselves to improving biking here. A recent op-ed in the Miami Herald by young urban planner Mike Lydon captured both the exasperation and hope: "Miami is choosing not to compete," wrote Lydon, who commutes by bike across the Venetian Causeway to his office in Little Havana almost every day. "Yet the city of Miami could become a great bicycling city."
When Lydon moved to the area last spring, everyone told him he was crazy to bike to work, that riding in Miami was suicide. "But I determined this is the way I want to live," he insists. "And I'm not going to be pushed around because the infrastructure's not there."
Once upon a time, bicycles ruled the streets of Miami. "The dominant mode of transportation — besides your feet — was bicycles," affirms local historian Paul George, of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. In 1975, while working on his dissertation about criminal justice in 1890s Miami, George stumbled upon a city ordinance from early in the last century that prohibited, among other social evils such as bathing nude in public, "riding a bicycle without having thereon a bell, gong, or whistle with which to warn pedestrians or driver of [horse-powered] vehicles at street crossings."
Then came cars, and Miami, like most new cities, was built around them. Gas was cheap, the auto lobby was powerful, and the town hadn't achieved the population density that forced larger East Coast cities to take mass transit seriously.