Cyclists Court Death Daily

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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.


Critical Mass

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.

There was one exception. The Seventies oil crisis spurred a renewed nationwide interest in biking, and Miami caught it. The county designated its first significant bike path, dubbed Bike Route 1. In some places a path, in others simply a sidewalk marked by signs, the route ran all the way from Greynolds Park in North Miami practically to Homestead — something like 50 miles right along the bay, an unthinkable length by current Miami standards. Then, over the course of 30 years, it fell into ruin.

There isn't much left of Bike Route 1; portions along the waterfront were eaten up by development, and the signage was quietly removed. But one stretch remains more or less intact, and Eric Tullberg has made it his business to know every inch of it.

Tullberg is a pleasant, nerdy man in his sixties. He rides fully clothed, in jeans and a starched blue short-sleeve button-down whose front pockets are stuffed with pens, notebooks, a tape measure, and a camera. A retired mechanical engineer, Tullberg was in the Army Special Forces in Vietnam, "designing booby traps and teaching how to avoid booby traps." He retired nine years ago in Palmetto Bay, where he discovered bicycling.

Tullberg realized no one was maintaining the area's once-glorious — and still popular — bike route along Old Cutler Road. The path has gone without repair for so long that portions of it are nearly unridable. Roots from banyan trees that line the road have burst through the pavement and created gaping ridges. The path narrows so much at one point that one day, even at his ponderous speed, Tullberg barely avoided plowing down a little girl riding ahead of her father.

Fixing the path has proven more difficult than Tullberg ever imagined. He obsessively records data from the trail. Every time he sees something new — the width of a particular gate opening, the angle of the entrance between a sidewalk and the street, a patch of vegetation that has grown into the path — he stops pedaling and takes out his notebook, tape measure, and camera to document the information.

But recording the state of the path hasn't done much to fix it.

Tullberg got himself appointed to the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), a board of community members whose job is to consider bikes and pedestrians in every county project and advise the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) on how best to accommodate them.

The members, mostly middle-age professionals, are a quirky bunch of civic do-gooders, and they are genuine — sometimes even passionate — in their desire to bring better biking to Miami. But after some 200 meetings over the course of 22 years, BPAC has little to show for all of its efforts. Its handful of victories — getting bicycles on Metrorail, better accommodations on the Rickenbacker Causeway, a few lanes here and there — is like a sprinkle of powdered sugar on a pile of manure.

A county map produced in 2001 grades every major Miami-Dade roadway based on traffic speeds and shoulder widths. Streets that receive an A for bikeability are drawn in black; those that get a D or worse are in red. The map is blanketed in red. From the largest six-lane monstrosities running like swollen rivers through the county, to the crowded, narrow streets of downtown, virtually every roadway is deemed unsuitable for biking. Of the 1.3 percent labeled A streets, the closest one to downtown is more than six miles west, a small forgotten residential byway that dead-ends at the Palmetto Expressway.

In Miami-Dade's 2001 Bicycle Facilities Plan, 12 projects are deemed "Priority I" — read: "remotely possible." In the seven years since the plan was drafted, only two of those 12 have been implemented: the first half of the Venetian Causeway and the second half of the Venetian Causeway.

"It's a question of commitment," concedes BPAC Chairman Theodore Silver, who presides over meetings with the dry, mechanical patience of a man crossing a vast desert. "And it's difficult to get governments to commit to a minority that's not very popular." BPAC's monthly minutes read like the drafting of surrender papers. During a presentation on an upcoming resurfacing of Flagler Street, the group asked a Florida Department of Transportation engineer if a three-foot-wide bike lane might be installed along the massive three-lane one-way road. The answer, which lasted more than an hour, was: probably not.

"It's just pushing the rock uphill," admits Silver.

While most of the county's bike planning exists in a cryogenic freeze, Miami Beach's has begun to thaw. The city went from having a single four-block bike lane in 2004 to boasting five bike lanes, four of them within the past year — by Miami-Dade standards, a revolution. The lanes are largely the result of the efforts of local busybody, neighborhood activist, and BPAC member Gabrielle Redfern, who is running for Miami Beach City Commission in the fall of 2009.

A true Miami Beach patriot, she rides the requisite beach cruiser, a bright olive green Trek painted with little flowers and equipped with a pretty reed basket. "I'm a middle-age Jewish lady who's running for commissioner," she explains, pedaling in the slow, comfortable way that people on the Beach do. "I have to ride a respectable bike."

Five years ago, during her first, unsuccessful bid for a commission seat, Redfern raised a stink when Miami Beach was designated a Bicycle-Friendly City by the League of American Bicyclists. The city had won only a bronze medal, but even so, Redfern's suspicions were immediately aroused: At the time, Miami Beach didn't have a single bike lane.

According to the league's director, Bill Nester, the city's application — submitted by its former director of environmental resources, Bruce Henderson — boasted of 11 miles of bike lanes. Miami Beach has since been removed from the organization's Bicycle-Friendly roster. The city hasn't reapplied.

Having debunked the imaginary bike lanes, Redfern set about getting some real ones. Her first victory was moderate: Two years ago, she successfully lobbied the commission to put a lane on 42nd Street. It was four blocks long and, until the beginning of last year, the only bike lane in Miami Beach.

Then suddenly last year the lanes began falling into place. She helped persuade the public works department to stripe the Venetian Causeway. She and a handful of bike enthusiasts formed a new group, Bicycle Activists for a Safe and Integrated City (BASIC), which successfully fought last March for the lane on 16th Street, just south of Lincoln Road. Most recently, a bike lane was added along Prairie Avenue, stretching from 28th Street north to 42nd Street. But it's a measured success: Redfern is pushing for the city to extend the lane south to Dade Boulevard. Some residents are opposed, Redfern concedes, but New Times was unable to find any. "That'd be great," said Prairie resident Reese Williams. "I'm for it," offered 15-year-old Tyler a few doors down. "I ride everywhere."

Redfern's next goal is the most ambitious yet: Alton Road. But, as usual, she's finding opposition, even within her own group, the Alliance for Reliable Transportation (ART). "They say it's not safe to ride on Alton Road. But it's not safe because there are no bike lanes. Bicycles will never be transportation vehicles until people feel safe to use them."

As we cruise down Meridian Avenue, a driver revs his car engine and pulls in front of us. The passenger's head juts out the window. "You don't bike in the middle of the fucking road, bitch!" he yells, and the car tears off.

"Well," says Redfern, pedaling calmly, "at least we made him slow down."

In major cities around the world, on the last Friday of every month, cyclists gather in hundreds, sometimes thousands, and ride en masse, unapologetically taking over the streets for the Critical Mass ride.

The event began 15 years ago in San Francisco, when a few dozen bicyclists gathered and rode through the streets together to show how unfriendly local roadways were to bikes. Within a few months, their numbers grew to several hundred; by 1997, the group mobilized 5,000 bikers — enough people to effectively freeze traffic. The group has spread around the world. Nearly every metropolis in the United States has one, each with its own flavor.

On a recent Friday evening, a dozen bikers show up at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center to participate in Miami's own fledgling branch. Tonight's group consists of a few bike messengers; a handful of chain-draped, black-clad punks; and a couple of high school students who received e-mails about the ride. There is a sense of newness, energy, and also a bit of confusion: It's one thing for 1,000 people to take over a street; it's quite another for 12 people to do it.

The ride is further complicated by the fact that half the group wants to ride to Coconut Grove's Kennedy Park, where several bikers are waiting, possibly with beer. The other half wants to ride across the Venetian Causeway to the Beach, where somebody someone knows is hosting an art show — which also might have booze.

Chad Cunha frowns. Bursting with enthusiasm for everything bike-related, the 22-year-old is one of the few young bicyclists who turned the Friday-evening rides into a regular feature in Miami. "When I first started biking around," he says, "I would chase people down in the street if I saw them riding a bike and be like, 'Hey, do you live around here? Do you ride your bike a lot?' And the list just grew and grew."

The ride is still an experiment in what happens when disorganized people try to organize something, but so far it's a shaky success. "Well," Cunha says to the group after a few fruitless phone calls to the lost contingent in the Grove, "how about we just bike around downtown awhile?" Everyone assents and they head off. The Heat is playing, and Biscayne Boulevard is a gridlocked sea of glowing red brake lights. Rising to the challenge, the tiny troop winds in and out of traffic, blocking together to take over the right lane when traffic moves, stretching out and whizzing between cars when it stops.

In the past year, several new bike groups have emerged — including not one but two Critical Mass rides. Tonight's is an offshoot of another ride, started by Emerge Miami, an activist group that gathers every second Saturday and draws about 50 cyclists to each outing. Adam Schachner, one of the organizers, concedes the ride might not resemble Critical Mass events elsewhere — "There's no copyright on the name," he points out — but says it has succeeded in bringing together a wide range of people interested in making a change. The ride has changed him as well: A Kendall native, he says that before last year, he had never thought of bikes as serious transportation. "It's funny, because I remember being that jerk honking at people who were on the street, saying, 'What are you doing? Get on the sidewalk!'"

Antonio Morales sits on his bike, staring vacantly in the early-morning light. He gazes past the South Miami Avenue Bridge at the enormous unfinished condo tower, alive with dozens of workers. He holds his hard hat against his chest and idly spins one of the pedals with his foot. Morales, like the others, rose at 5 a.m. and rode his bike downtown from his home in Little Havana. Unlike the men he's watching, he has yet to find work today.

"It's been a bad month," he says quietly. "They turned off the electricity in my house. Estan malas las cosas. Things are bad."

Morales is one of Miami's class of invisible bikers — laborers, the elderly, the working poor, immigrants who come from countries where two wheels are still the dominant mode of transportation. The city's bike activists tend to be affluent and middle-class, easy to peg as any other latte-fueled crusaders. But head across the tracks — anywhere west of Biscayne Boulevard — and it's obvious the people to whom bikes matter most aren't Miami's upper crust at all.

Morales, in his sixties, is short and thick, with jet-black hair that is just beginning to gray. He came here from Nicaragua 20 years ago and has worked construction ever since. He has never owned a car — "It costs three or four thousand dollars for a good one, plus there's gas," he says dismissively — but perks right up at the mention of his bike. "I use it for everything, everything!" he says, proudly pounding his palm on the crossbar. "Come on, let's ride together!"

At the next construction site, Morales points at a small mountain of bicycles past the gate before parking his against the fence and wandering inside. He emerges a few minutes later, shaking his head. The same thing happens at the next site, and the next. By 9 a.m., Morales figures he has been to every work site downtown.

He quietly sticks his hard hat into his backpack and pulls out a baseball cap — a silent sign of defeat. He suggests breakfast and leads the way through downtown and back to the bridge. Riding the sidewalk the entire way, he threads precariously between obstacles, human and otherwise. When I hop the curb onto the street to avoid hitting a slew of pedestrians, he looks startled.

"Careful!" he says, inching his way forward in tiny, almost stationary maneuvers. "It's dangerous in the street!"

Neighborhoods like Little Havana, Allapattah, Overtown, and Liberty City abound with bikes, and as Morales heads west on Flagler, he passes scores of them — elderly men and women pedaling heavy-framed adult tricycles loaded with groceries, lumber, fishing equipment.

Ricardo Ochoa, who owns the Cuba Bike Shop at 2930 NW Seventh Ave., arrived two decades ago from Colombia. He worked for most of that time as an accountant before taking over the shop five years ago. Working with bikes, he says, showed him a different America.

"You know, this business makes me upset, because fixing bikes, I see the poverty, man," he says, absently tinkering with the brakes on a rusty BMX. "I see these people from Overtown with these bikes. I can't believe the extent of the poverty. Here, to be a poor person, you need a car, a cellular [phone], all these things. In other countries, if you're poor, you're just poor, that's it."

Bogotá, the capital of his birth country, has implemented a highly integrated citywide bicycle system. Every Sunday 70 miles of the city's streets are closed to automobiles for the benefit of bicyclists and pedestrians.

Ochoa's theory is that cars have isolated Americans from each other, especially in Miami. "Here people drive all the time, and it makes them lonely," he says. "It's like a cloud of loneliness hanging over the city."

In the parking lot behind the Walgreen's at Flager Street and NW 12th Avenue in Little Havana, Pedro Gonzalez stands, his bike beside him, arms elbow-deep in a Dumpster. He turns from his work as if receiving a visitor in his office. "How can I help you?" the tiny, wizened man says pleasantly, his rubber-gloved hands still clutching a reeking bag of garbage.

Next to him is a children's mountain bike, ridiculously small, even for him. From the handlebars hangs a basket as big as his torso, containing maybe 12 aluminum cans. Gonzalez, 79 years old, collects and recycles them to get by. He isn't homeless, but he too has fallen on hard times. His wife recently had a stroke (a "brain stroke," he explains), so he mostly stays home caring for her. The cans don't bring much, but every bit helps: "One and one is two," he points out, waving the can in the air. "And two is more than zero."

He finishes and hops onto the bike to head home. It's a slow ride. Gonzalez weaves wobbly from sidewalk to street — the wrong way — to sidewalk again. When SW First Street ceases to be one-way, putting Gonzalez face-to-face with oncoming traffic, he is unperturbed. At the Flagler Street Bridge, he disdains the narrow sidewalk, approaching the blind point at the crest. "I'm not afraid of anything," he declares, lifting a hand from the grip and pounding it on his small, white-shirted chest. "If I die tomorrow, that's fine. Death will come when it will come."

Just over the top, he stops for a breather, looking unconcernedly for any cars that might be about to hit us. "This is a very good exercise," he says enthusiastically. "A very good thing, the bicycle." Then he bids a polite goodbye, coasts casually across six lanes of traffic, and, foot by foot, disappears.

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