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Written by Adam Schachner - Special to the BT   
February 2013

Pedestrian activists launch a campaign to reclaim Miami’s crosswalks, one intersection at a time

MPix_MyView_2-13iamians rarely find common ground on most topics. Even more rare are public demonstrations of any kind. Collectively speaking, we’d much rather spend our time at the mall or the beach. Which makes what recently happened at a Brickell intersection all the more powerful.

Responding to an outcry for proper roadway conduct, on Monday, January 21, no fewer than 25 concerned locals declared the crosswalks at Brickell Avenue and SE 15th Road a “pedestrian safety walk zone.” Marchers occupied the crosswalks and demanded increased civility from motorists. They even distributed booklets on Florida’s traffic laws to drivers, many of whom, because they lack civility, simply flung the booklets back at the activists with a curse and a rude gesture.

Still, the walkers asserted their rights to safety, braved hostile stares and abuse, and celebrated the motorists who gave approving honks and thumbs-up.

The takeaway? Conscientious drivers, concerned about who might be hurt by their carelessness, do exist in Miami, but they are in the minority, spread thin through the ranks of traffic, and pressured to keep moving by honking tailgaters.

We complain that road rage and recklessness are responsible for our reputation as a car-filled catastrophe. At the same time, we dismiss the issue with grim humor, shrugging off “Miami drivers” as a local quirk with which we must cope.

Our inside joke deflates when the incident numbers show Miami’s dangerous reality. The region is a hub for hit-and-runs, crashes, and irresponsibility behind the wheel. As one safety walker’s sign stated, South Florida tallied a staggering “8080 injured or dead” in crashes involving pedestrians between 2005 and 2009, according to a study available at www.dadehealth.org.

That ranks Miami as the fourth most dangerous city in America for pedestrians. Florida, meanwhile, is number one in avoidable traffic fatalities and injuries. Few would deny our streets are a nightmare of ill-informed and uncaring drivers.

Enter the pedestrian safety walk, created by Elsa Roberts, a local activist engaged in community-building efforts, including transit and commuter advocacy. A bicycle commuter who frequents downtown, she shares concerns with walkers and riders competing with traffic. During her rides, she has realized that “drivers in Miami believe they have more of a right to the [road] than pedestrians. Even when pedestrians are obeying the law...they still don’t have access to the roads in equal measure.”

Roberts identified Brickell as a good place to demonstrate the principle of shared transit space. In choosing this intersection, she notes that a pedestrian was recently struck by a car only a block away; the driver was not ticketed or held accountable. Such occurrences, along with Brickell’s widespread fitness culture, make the area a particularly tense mix of car and foot traffic.

The Brickell march was not the first pedestrian safety walk. Roberts organized a similar demonstration this past October. That effort brought roughly half as many walkers as the Brickell action to the intersection of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and Miracle Mile in Coral Gables on a Saturday afternoon. The festive yet assertive atmosphere was the same, as marchers distributed pamphlets, cheered considerate motorists, and yelled at aggressive vehicular misfits.

Despite honking horns, curses, and even one driver’s taunt to “get a job” (because anyone not driving a car in Miami couldn’t possibly be employed?), the walkers claimed their space. The action, which even prompted a police response, proved effective and empowering. The summoned officer acknowledged the walkers’ rights and encouraged them to continue, so long as they obeyed the law.

Reviewing the Brickell safety walk, Roberts considers the event a success. She remarks that “drivers were a lot more hostile at this intersection than [in the Gables], and a lot of cars tried to turn illegally when they were supposed to yield to pedestrians.” Walkers embraced each instance energetically as a chance to educate motorists.

Florida Department of Transportation signs throughout the Brickell intersection require drivers to wait for foot traffic to pass; the signs, for the most part, appear to have had the desired effect. A major concern, however, stemmed from drivers’ tendency to overlook SE 15th Street’s “No Turn on Red” sign, a habit that played a factor in selecting this intersection. (Similarly, the intersection at Ponce and Miracle Mile also sports an oft-ignored “No Turn” sign.)

Safety walks represent a creative assault on an old problem. Our city’s rapid sprawl promoted an auto-centric development. Simply put, we were built for car culture. This generally means our drivers have assumed a sense of entitlement to the road at the expense of defenseless pedestrians and cyclists, often with fatal consequences.

Which is why Roberts is adamant about promoting shared transit space, possibly at a crosswalk near you: “The biggest thing that’s going to make drivers who are antagonistic change their mindset -- that they’re the ones who have a right to occupy that space -- is more actions like this, and more enforcement until the idea that cars supersede people goes away.”

 

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