Can this reinvented downtown Miami street solve traffic gridlock?

Here’s the recipe for what may well be the Miami urban street of the very near future, and one possible solution to traffic gridlock:

Take a three-lane street downtown, cut it down to just one lane for cars, and then put a green bike lane on one side of the street and a red-painted bus-only lane on the other. Now drop the posted speed limit to 25 mph and add bold stripes at pedestrian crossings.

Voila! It’s an instant “complete street” — that is, a street that safely caters to all users, not just those in cars. And that’s what Miami-Dade, Miami and the Downtown Development Authority just did to a half-mile-long stretch of urban asphalt running from Biscayne Boulevard to Southwest Second Avenue.

It may sound counterintuitive, but planners say a street designed this way can improve movement and safety in dense urban neighborhoods by providing people appealing alternatives to cars for getting around, by slowing down motorized traffic, and by clearly demarcating areas for different modes of transportation. If it works, even motorists would benefit from a smoother, more-predictable flow of traffic, they say.

Photo Aug 17, 11 00 59 AM

Getting ready for a test ride of the new bike lane in downtown Miami atop their Citibikes on Thursday are (forefront, left to right) Miami commissioners Ken Russell and Willy Gort, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava.

Miami Downtown Development Authority

But will it work?

Sussing that out is the goal of the year-long demonstration project on Southwest/Southeast First Street in downtown Miami, which officially launched this week.

It’s just the first test of street-design guidelines laid out in a county plan, approved by the Miami-Dade Commission last year, to reduce local pedestrian and bicycle accident rates that are among the highest in the country, and to encourage more people to cycle, walk or use transit for everyday transportation.

“This is a total change in psychology for traffic downtown,” said Miami Commissioner and DDA Chairman Ken Russell, whose district includes downtown Miami. “This is one of the biggest problems we have, and this is an unconventional solution.

“People might think we’re crazy taking away traffic lanes for cars. But the idea is to give more options to people. It’s just going to get people using different modes of transportation on on our streets.”

Unconventional for Miami, perhaps. But streets in pedestrian- and bike-friendly European cities are already designed like this. And so increasingly are streets in American cities from Boston and New York to Chicago and San Francisco, which are steadily being retrofitted from designs dating to the 1950s and 1960s that overwhelmingly favored cars — and that critics say have produced gridlock and hazardous conditions for all.

The $500,000 downtown Miami project entailed reducing automobile lanes on the one-way eastbound street, which planners say does not carry a heavy traffic load, from three to one. The blueprint preserves on-street parking.

The exclusive bus lane, though a new concept in Miami, has been used in other cities to prioritize and speed up transit, making it more attractive.

The bike lane is painted green and separated from motorized traffic by a wide, striped buffer zone to improve safety. Research has shown that separating bike lanes from motorized traffic is key to getting more people feeling comfortable enough to ride on busy city streets, and cities that have instituted them have seen big jumps in cycling for everyday uses.

Earlier this year, Miami Beach was the first city in Miami-Dade to begin installing bike lanes protected from traffic by plastic poles, on Alton Road, and plans to add more shortly elsewhere in the city. Other designs the Beach plans to install include bike lanes nestled between sidewalk and parked cars, which act as a protective barrier.

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