A Beginner's Guide to Getting Around Miami

A Beginner's Guide to Getting Around Miami
Photo via Phillip Pessar's Flickr | CC2.0

Miamians like to joke that tourists hop into a cab at the airport, get dropped off in South Beach, and never leave until they repeat the process in reverse. To be fair to those tourists, getting around Miami-Dade County can be confusing and daunting. We don't make it simple for them. There's traffic congestion, it's easy to get lost, and Miami's interwoven systems of public transit can be hard to master. 

So for tourists, new arrivals, and even some residents who aren't aware of all the options, here's a simple guide to the basics of getting around Miami. 

It took me all of five minutes to deduce that cars are the go-to transportation option here. Tell me how your streets work.

Well, Miami has the largest street grid system in the Southeast. It's kind of simple, actually. 

It's a grid. It was never a perfect grid, but we tried our best.
It's a grid. It was never a perfect grid, but we tried our best.
Photo via Davecito's Flickr | CC2.0

Avenues, along with the occasional court or place, run north-south. Streets, and a few terraces, lanes, and drives, run east-west. The grid is then divided into four quarters, each designated with a directional of NE, NW, SE, or SW. 

Here's where it gets a bit tricky. The grid was started in the city of Miami before it was later extended into the rest of the county. (Well, most of the rest of the county — more about that later.) So the axes are near the center of the city, which is actually pretty far east when looking at the county as a whole.

Miami Avenue is the Y axis, with all streets west of it designated as "West" and all streets east designated as "East." Flagler Street is the X axis, with, well, you can figure it out. 

In Miami Beach, the road grids are aligned with the mainland grid but have their own numbering, and the avenues are named. Miami Beach is pretty narrow, and it's hard to get lost there unless you wind up in some fancy residential area. So don't worry about it too much as long as you take a quick glance at a map first. 

OK, but I see that U.S. 1, which apparently has three names, is one of your major roads and does not care about the rules of the street grid whatsoever. 

Oh, yes, the federal highway locally known as Biscayne Boulevard (in the north part of the county), Brickell Avenue (in Brickell), and South Dixie Highway (in the southern area) just goes by its own rules, but it runs more or less parallel to the coastline, so it's not that hard to figure out. 

I'm looking at the map — what the heck is going on in Coral Gables, Hialeah, and Cutler Bay? In fact, there are a lot of places dotted around the county where roads do not even attempt to fit into the grid. 

OK, remember how we said the grid started in the city of Miami before stretching outward? Some cities, such as Coral Gables, Hialeah, and Homestead, already had their own street plans. There are also a few areas around town where the grid is ignored based on waterways, geography, or history. 

Because you're a beginner, we advise you to check your map apps, but many of the main roads integrate into Coral Gables pretty easily and are known by their numerical names. However, Hialeah, you'll notice, is the hardest to reconcile with the grid. The size of its blocks is different. Hialeah is, in all respects, sort of advanced-difficulty Miami. If the county were a videogame, Hialeah would be the final level. Prepare wisely before going to Hialeah. 

There are also lots of places in the suburbs where the main roads align with the grid system, but the streets in between them decide to act a damn fool with no regard for perfectly planned geography. Like this:

A Beginner's Guide to Getting Around Miami (3)

Occasional things like rivers, railways, and other obstacles keep it from becoming the platonic idea of a grid system. 

What you're telling me is you have a grid system, but it's not even very useful in an "Oh, just go 20 blocks up and then 35 blocks to the left" kind of way? 

Put it this way: We tried a grid system, and this is what we came up with. Just imagine how our streets would be laid out if we didn't even try at all. That's kind of the theme in Miami-Dade transportation. There were a few good ideas here and there, and the rest was kind of hodgepodge around it. 

However, once you get familiar with it, you should be able to figure out the general route to a place based on its address alone. Consult a map for the particulars. 

Tell me about your expressways. 

Avoid them at all costs during rush hour! Unfortunately, for most commuters, they're a necessary evil. They're there. You can look them up on the map. You should get a SunPass to pay tolls

And you have Uber? 

Of course. It's not technically legal yet, but it's here and thriving. The only caveat is that Uber is not supposed to operate at the airport. 

What about parking?

The number one rule of parking properly in Miami: Read the signs. Do what the signs say, lest you get ticketed or, worse, towed. (It's an especially cruel but all-too-likely fate in Miami Beach. No, really, they love to tow in South Beach. There's literally a TV show about it.)

If there are no signs and common sense says, "I should be able to park here without a problem," and other people are parked there without a problem, congratulations! You've found a street in Miami where you can park for free! 

If there's a meter, well, pay the meter if you're parking during a time when you should pay. If there's no meter, check for signs that tell you to pay with an app. Miami and Miami Beach have moved to this type of system, and they use different apps. It's very annoying, but otherwise the apps are pretty easy to use. 

Do you have public transportation?

OK, the first thing you should do is download the app. It's free. Is it the best, most helpful app in the world? No, but it's the best we have to offer and a helpful tool for people trying to figure everything out. 

The most extensive public transit system we have here is Metrobus. Fare starts at $2.25, or you can buy a bundled Easy Card. Get more information about it here

The transit website also has a pretty good trip planner that can help you navigate your route. That feature is also available on the app. 

The big drawback with the bus is, well, good Gloria Estefan, those things are almost never on time. A few select routes are tracked by GPS in real time (which you can view online or on the app) but, unfortunately, most are not. 

To be honest, I don't expect much out of any big city's bus system, but do you have a rail?

Oh, do we have a rail? Of course we have a rail! We literally have one rail. Metrorail. 

A Beginner's Guide to Getting Around Miami (2)

Metrorail cuts through the county in an almost backward "C" (assuming the person writing that letter was a kindergartner with a sprained wrist). The basic idea is that commuters either take a bus or drive their car (there are garages or surface parking at many suburban stops) to the rail station and then take the rail into the urban core for work. 

Recently, the county added a second route known as the Orange Line. A segment juts out from the mainline and heads toward the airport. But with a few exceptions, Metrorail is pretty commuter-focused. However, because the rail is elevated, it does make an interesting trip for sightseers who want to experience the real Miami-Dade. 

Fares are the same as the bus, and transfers between bus and rail cost 60 cents. Both systems accept Easy Card, which you can buy at all Metrorail stations. 

OK, but there's also this little rail thing in downtown, right? 

Correct. Metromover, for what it is, is pretty great. It's free and automated, and cars arrive in a relatively timely fashion. (You can check the app for arrival times; however, in our experience sometimes, it greatly overestimates arrival times.) The general idea is there's one main loop that circulates through downtown Miami. Then there are two lines that jut off in both the north and south directions. One line heads north into Omni, the other into Brickell. Then there's an inner loop that runs through downtown in the opposite direction of the other two loops. 

The main problem with Metromover is that it doesn't travel anywhere close to the now-emerging hotspot neighborhoods such as Wynwood, midtown, Edgewater, and the Design District. In hindsight, that would be handier for more people than connecting all the way into Brickell, but oh well. 

Wait, is there an easy public transportation option that can get me from the mainland to Miami Beach?
Oh, you sweet, naive child, you. No. No, there is not. You'd think there would be. Common sense would dictate that would be something we would have figured out by now or at least provided more transportation options for. There's discussion about some sort of light-rail system, but your only option now is the bus. 

What about walking and biking?

Miami has only recently come to the realization that some people actually bike and walk on the regular, and we're working on it. Sure, there are some designated bike lanes and pockets of areas that were designed to be pedestrian-friendly, but otherwise, the best advice we can give is to be alert. Drivers certainly aren't. 

We've gone over the bike laws in Miami previously here

We'd also advise all bikers and pedestrians to be best prepared for getting around with a backpack containing the following: a bottle of water, deodorant, an umbrella and/or poncho, a sweat rag, a change of shirt, and a phone to call 911 if needed. 

What are these heavy-duty blue-and-silver bikes and racks I see around? 

A Beginner's Guide to Getting Around Miami (5)
Photo Courtesy of City Bike

That's Citi Bike (formerly DecoBike), a bike-share system like we're some fancy European city or something, and the system started in Miami Beach and has now extended into parts of the city of Miami. You can buy a pass (it gives you unlimited rides for up to 30 minutes) or pay by the ride. 

Can you bike back and forth between the mainland and the beach? 

Well, the Venetian Causeway provided a relatively leisurely connection route between the two, but that's closed for maintenance until spring 2016. You can bike over the other causeways, but be safe. 

And those blue-and-white Smart cars, are they just really popular here? I thought everyone here was supposed to drive Ferraris. 

Oh, that's Car2Go. It's kind of like the car equivalent of Citi Bike. It's available only in Miami proper, but beginning in October, it will cross over into Miami Beach as well. Just sign up for the program and hop into one. You'll be charged by the minute. 

And what about those trolly-looking things? 

Certain cities (and we have 34 of them) in Miami-Dade have trolley systems, and they're free! Yes, free!

The city of Miami's is relatively new but has rapidly expanded in the past couple of years. There's a separate app for it, and the arrival times of the trollies are actually tracked by GPS, making it a pretty reliable system. You can also check the trollies' positions online

Miami Beach has a similar small free trolley system that the city is looking to expand. Also of note is the South Beach Local bus route, which costs just 25 cents and runs up and down the Beach. 

Coral Gables also has its own trolley route that connects to Metrorail. Miami Gardens and Doral offer trolley services as well. Homestead offers free trolleys to Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park during certain months of the year. 

Is there anything else I should know? 

Um, if you're new here, well, just be cautious. Be cautious about everything you do and plan. It takes some adjusting to get used to, but eventually you'll get the hang of it. It may not be the easiest transit system to figure out, but there are plenty of options to get you from point A to point B. 

Oh, wait, what's Tri-Rail

Oh, that's not geared toward travel within the county, though that's technically possible. It's meant more for travel among Miami-Dade, Broward (where you'll find Fort Lauderdale), and Palm Beach counties. 

And if you ever do take Tri-Rail into Broward and Palm Beach and then try to navigate around using their respective transit systems, you'll soon realize Miami's isn't actually that bad by comparison.


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