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Why Are Miami's Roadways the Worst?

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Ask any motorist in Miami, and he or she will likely tell you the experience sucks. The streets are congested, the highways are backed up, and don't even mention the P-word (parking).  

But the roadways are even worse for another category of humans: pedestrians. Miami has the third-highest pedestrian fatality rate in the nation. So why are the city's streets so dangerous, and what can we do about it?

Seleta Reynolds is a Los Angeles-based traffic specialist who has helped make streets safer in many cities, including San Francisco and her hometown. 

Reynolds traveled to Miami to lead a forum this morning, part of the Miami Foundation's Civic Leadership Agenda — an effort to mobilize resources and address community issues through policy change and public affairs. Basically, she's here to discuss how residents can make local roadways less terrifying.

Though she's relatively new to Miami, she has some general ideas about the source of the problems.

"Having done safety work in a lot of cities as a consultant and a city staffer, I would wager that the
streets are designed around the peak 15 minutes of congestion," she explains. "That means [during] the other 23 hours of the day, the street is probably a little wider than it needs to be, has more lanes than it needs, and people can drive faster. Speed is the number one predictor of whether or not a crash is going to be fatal."

In Los Angeles, the city has seen a 50 percent increase in driver deaths this year, and that's all about speeding, she says. And speeding is a consequence of road design. 

"The street design gives you cues as a driver about how to behave. It tells you whether or not you're in a neighborhood so you should slow down, or on a freeway or arterial where you can feel free to drive fast." Sending the wrong cues to drivers is what leads to speeding problems, she says. 

But won't slowing down make traffic worse? How do you balance Miami's nightmarish gridlock with increased safety? Well, Reynolds says, investing in safety can actually help improve congestion in the long run. Think about this: "Anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of roadway capacity is unavailable in evenings because of crashes," she says. "If you look at the the afternoon traffic map in L.A., you can see it's littered with crashes, which means the system is never at its full capacity."

If safety were to improve, crashes would decrease, and maybe I-95 wouldn't be a bumper-to-bumper mess every afternoon.

Reynolds acknowledges that safety improvements can cause the flow of traffic to slow. But "a little bit of additional congestion during peak periods is a relatively small price to pay if the design of the street helps save somebody's life," she adds.

Miami is actually ahead of the game in some capacities, Reynolds mentions. Several years ago, work was done to concentrate on pediatric pedestrian injuries — meaning, to reduce the number of children hit while walking. 

"They combined a sophisticated analysis of crashes with engineering and enforcement," Reynolds says of Miami's leaders. "They cut pediatric injuries in half in one year. I refer to that all the time when I talk about the models of how we want to do this."

Reynolds says there are lots of little ways to build on that progress — changing street usage based on different times of the day, for example. During peak afternoon congestion, street parking can be restricted so that drivers (and buses) can use the additional lane. "There are things you can do to expand the capacity of the street and allow it to grow and shrink like an accordion over time."

And given that drivers making left turns are the leading cause of pedestrian crashes and fatalities, left-turn traffic signals can work wonders. "If you put in a left-turn arrow at a signal, left-turning drivers and people walking are separate," Reynolds says.

These seem like simple solutions, proving that the process of improving safety doesn't have to be arduous. "It doesn't have to be a huge battle," Reynolds says. "It can be a combination of little wins and simple interventions."

As far as locals' incessant moaning about Miami traffic, however, Reynolds has her own perspective. She does come from L.A., after all. "No matter where you live in the U.S., traffic is the worst thing ever in your town."

Point taken.

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