With dozens of fatal accidents, Miami-Dade is Florida's deadliest county for bikers

Luis Meza wasn't supposed to ride that two-lane road that night. The Peruvian security guard and his teenage son spent Luis's time off work doing circles around the crowded apartment complexes of his working-class neighborhood in Coral Gables.

On their brand-new bicycles, just three weeks old, they made for an odd couple — Luis, a heavyset, 59-year-old dad with a gleaming pate, and Bryan, a skinny runt with an unruly mop of ink-black hair and a gap-toothed smile.

But the evening of June 10, Luis and his son took an unfamiliar route along the elegant villas on Alhambra Circle. Luis didn't have lights or a helmet, and on that narrow road, where pricey coupes rush by and car accidents are as commonplace as the poinciana trees, he might as well have been invisible.

As Luis crossed Alhambra, a 2008 Volkswagen driven by a 51-year-old with three past traffic violations struck him, mangling his bike but sparing the boy.

Bryan saw it all, and at 8:47, he left a voicemail message for his mother, Delfina, just a mile away at the apartment they had rented since he was born. "He didn't know if it was serious, but he said there'd been an accident," she recalls. "He was lying; he didn't want me to get worried."

Ten minutes later, Luis was declared dead. Cause: blunt force head injury.

As she retells the story from their cluttered, two-bedroom apartment, Delfina replays the voicemail message, now a month old, which she has refused to erase.

"Everyone has a destiny," she says. "This was his."

For anyone in Miami-Dade who can't afford a car, that destiny is written on the pavement. Streets here are high-speed, hyperkinetic runways that for decades have been among the deadliest in the state. And the county once again won that notorious distinction.

According to a report released last week by the Florida Department of Highway Safety, 12 cyclists were killed in 2009, up from seven the year before, and 454 were injured. In addition, motorists killed 65 pedestrians.

Activists, victims' families, and even government officials blame a public transportation system that fails to adequately serve poor communities, as well as a skeletal network of bike lanes that pales next to that of bike-friendly cities such as Portland, Oregon.

"Nobody takes projects for cyclists and pedestrians seriously, so the money is just eaten up in overhead and used for staff budget shortages," says Bruce Epperson, a former planner at the Metropolitan Planning Organization and a civil rights attorney. "It's been that way for 20 years. The money is simply pissed away."

While Christophe Le Canne's January slaying at the hands of drunken motorist Carlos Bertonatti grabbed international headlines, most of the cyclists who die can't afford Lycra outfits or crash helmets and don't take time to attend Critical Mass rides. They are what is commonly referred to as "captive cyclists," low-income earners without a car or license, immigrants, and young people who depend on their bicycle or public transportation to get around.

Like Luis Meza's, their deaths end up in news briefs or commemorated by faded roadside monuments or ghost bikes. But their untold stories paint a grim snapshot of just how dangerous cycling in this county can be.

Since June 2009, at least six working-poor immigrants have been killed or critically injured. There might be others, but these accidents are notoriously underreported, says Kathryn Moore, director of the South Florida Bike Coalition.

• In November, Yasmany Sosa Alfonso, a South Dade man, was returning home from work when a driver fatally struck him and fled the scene. It was the second hit-and-run in the area in five days.

• In February, Marlon Vallejo and Adelmo Lima, two undocumented Latinos in their 20s, were struck in Allapattah by a man driving a stolen van who fled the scene. They were taken to the hospital and required intensive care.

• In June, Gilberto Perez, a 46-year-old Hialeah migrant, worker died after he was struck by a reckless taxi driver in Hialeah.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to reach the victims' families. Police reports normally don't contain phone numbers or addresses, and the information that is available through other public records is often out of date. All the cases above remain open, with law enforcement officers unable to follow up on their investigations.

These cyclists also often ride unprotected, says John Hopkins of Green Mobility Network, one of the county's oldest cycling advocacy groups.

"If you ride in South Dade or West Miami, the number of people riding without lights is just scary," Hopkins says. "All those construction workers that are coming downtown — they are wearing hardhats but not helmets. The restaurant workers don't have lights. They don't know how to ride."

Epperson, who first studied captive cyclists in 1995, says low-income riders still lack the resources, know-how, or time to learn about bicycle safety and can't afford protective gear.

And for those who live in the county's poorest communities, public transportation is often not an alternative because it is built around Metrorail, which doesn't reach their neighborhoods. But the larger problem is infrastructure, which in Miami-Dade is more like scaffolding.

There are only 61 miles of bike lanes in the whole county, half of them added slowly over the past five years, according to the Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization. According to the city's bicycle master plan, another 16 miles will be built by 2015. By comparison, the city of Portland, with a fifth of Miami-Dade's population, boasts more than 100 miles of bike lanes.

"I've never seen a city so naked," says Gabrielle Redfern of BASIC, a local cycling activist group. "More people are on the roads, and the friction between cyclists and car drivers is growing every day."

Two days before Luis Meza's death, Rodolfo Rojo would have graduated from Doctors Charter School in Miami Shores. The 17-year-old cyclist, who could usually be spotted wearing a ratty beanie and helmet with his floppy black curls occasionally poking through, had bright prospects. He had just been accepted to Columbia and Cornell.

As he was heading out on Halloween, riding close to the curb on a narrow stretch of North Biscayne Boulevard with no bike lane, a speeding driver fatally struck him. Instead of a diploma, he got a ghost bike at an intersection with a Hess station and Secrets, a strip joint advertising "Girls! Girls! Girls!"

"He was doing what he should have been doing," his mother, Claudia Fernandez, says. "He was wearing a helmet, lights. But that doesn't matter because the city wasn't prepared for him. If I'd known how dangerous it was, maybe I wouldn't have bought him the bike."

City and county officials defend their efforts to improve roads for bikers. In the past two years, they've paid for road safety ads and organized monthly community rides. David Henderson, the county's bicycle coordinator, points out he teaches classes once or twice a year — in English — on road safety.

But even Colin Worth, the city's bicycle coordinator, says there's still a long way to go. He pins the blame on the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). "Their focus is on those large highway projects," he says. "From my perspective, I have to beg and scream to get anything from them. It's an uphill battle."

FDOT spokesman Brian Rick admits there's room for improving the county's roads, but often "the constraints of space and cost preclude the consideration" of bicycle lanes.

Meanwhile, Delfina Meza must leave the apartment she can no longer pay alone. "I replay the events of that day over and over, and I keep thinking maybe there's something else I could have done," she says, whispering, hoping her boy won't hear her talking about his father. "But it's no use thinking about that now."

Disconnected from Miami's bike activists, Luis Meza never got a ghost bike of his own. In its place, Delfina and her son decorated one of the trees near the accident with plastic stars and a bouquet of flowers, where amid the neighborhood's manicured lawns, it now sits withered and forgotten.

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Erik Maza