Miami’s Future Should Be Transit and Walking, But the Mayor’s Focused on Robot Cars

A re-election campaign ad last year for Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez promised "more rail lines." Now, he seems more enamored with self-driving cars. Image: Carlos Gimenez/YouTube
A re-election campaign ad last year for Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez promised "more rail lines." Now, he seems more enamored with self-driving cars. Image: Carlos Gimenez/YouTube

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is in charge of executing an ambitious transit expansion plan  — but lately, in a spectacular example of missing the point, he’s been talking up autonomous cars as the ultimate transportation solution.

During a meeting earlier this month about a possible southward Metrorail expansion, part of the countywide SMART plan, “Gimenez reportedly floated the idea of using high-tech buses as a transition to a transportation revolution: the arrival of autonomous cars and their ability to revolutionize highway travel,” local officials told the Miami Herald.

The Herald interviewed Gimenez last week:

He went on to suggest autonomous vehicles might make costly transit systems obsolete. “New technology is coming,” he said. “And that new technology may have tremendous consequences. Automated cars, but also automated buses.”

This isn’t the first time Gimenez has fixated on self-driving cars.

In 2015, after seeing a segment about autonomous cars on local TV news, the mayor made an unsolicited call to the station to share his interest in the topic. “That technology is going to get here way before anybody thinks it’s going to get here,” he told WPLG. “It is one of those technologies that really changes everything.”

The next year, Gimenez announced a “pilot program in which several autonomous vehicles would be used to transport people around Miami” by late 2016, according to a press release from IBM touting a fleet of 12-passenger autonomous electric vehicles.

“We must do more to improve transit and mobility in our community and the deployment of autonomous vehicles is a big step in the right direction,” Gimenez said in the press release.

But those self-driving vehicles have yet to materialize on Miami-Dade’s streets because of “delays in the technology and the manufacturing of the vehicles,” according to mayoral spokesperson Michael Hernandez.

Could it be that self-driving cars aren’t coming that soon?

“Although Mayor Gimenez is enthusiastic about the autonomous vehicle technology, he understands that the tech isn’t smart enough to be put into real-world use at this time,” Hernandez said. “When the autonomous technology is better refined, it is an option Miami-Dade will certainly be in favor of testing.”

The mayor’s focus on whiz-bang technology misses the point, says Marta Viciedo, co-founder of the Urban Impact Lab, a Miami-based civic engagement consultancy. Instead of looking ahead to an uncertain technology that won’t solve the spatial efficiency problem of cars in cities, Giminez should embrace the proven policies under his nose.

The SMART plan identifies the right corridors to beef up transit, Viciedo said, but new transit won’t succeed unless it’s accompanied by dense, walkable, and affordable neighborhoods — something that’s all too rare in sprawling Miami-Dade.

“We have not done a good job historically of tying transit to land use,” Viciedo said. “We build transit, and take it to areas without the density to support transit, and then people don’t want to ride it. We’re setting it up for failure.”

While county transportation officials she’s spoken with understand the need for Miami-Dade to connect the dots between land use and transportation, Viciedo said, the mayor’s focus on autonomous cars indicate that he might not get it.

“I am not convinced that there’s a fundamental full understanding,” she said.

Andrew Frey, a developer who serves on the board of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, said he’s glad the mayor is thinking ahead about driverless cars, but that there’s an immediate need to invest in transit and walkable neighborhoods. “The mayor’s right to… keep us thinking about the role that cars will play, whether they’re driven by a person or a robot, but at the same time, we’ve made commitments, we’ve set aside funds, we’ve committed to a plan, and now we need to execute on it,” he said. “I don’t think it makes any sense to commit to investment in transit unless you’re willing to go with a transit-oriented pattern of development, and that includes high density and eliminating parking requirements.”

“It’s not just about transit. It’s about how you build a city. It’s about how you build a whole system,” Viciedo said.

49 thoughts on Miami’s Future Should Be Transit and Walking, But the Mayor’s Focused on Robot Cars

  1. The Mayor is just being realistic. Miami is a low-density, mostly suburban metro with relatively few concentrations of *either* residential or job density – and a very high local water table, making underground construction exceedingly expensive. Homes and jobs are spread all over the urban area. Transit is ill-suited to the existing development and geography of the City, which is one reason why we have an *existing* transit mode share of commuters of only 4%.

    If we had unlimited dollars and no concern about operating costs, you could service the community with transit. But we don’t. So it’s far more responsible, and reasonable. to focus on improving the mode that the overwhelming majority of constituents use, and making that mode accessible to the small proportion of the community that doesn’t have access to it – the passenger car.

  2. I guess Miami will have to just deal with increased rates of congestion to no avail.

    Cities change. The Miami of 2017 won’t be the Miami of 2117. We need to oriented highly populated urban centers for increased walkability, bicycling and mass transportation usage where possible. It’s the only way to improve mobility in an equitable and sustainable way.

    There is definitely room for mass transportation improvement in Miami.

    And fully autonomous cars are a dream right now. For example, manufactures won’t be mandated to standardize collision avoidance in new vehicles until the early 2020s. The average automobile is owned for approximately 10 years. So we are looking at around 13 years before we even get cars that stop themselves from smashing into another object when driven by a human. It’s unrealistic to think that fully autonomous cars will be widespread within the next 20 years at least.

  3. > The Miami of 2017 won’t be the Miami of 2117.

    The sad reality is Miami 2117 will be at least 20% underwater, will be fighting to keep the rest dry, and property will be essentially uninsurable. This is NOT a good place for increased density because any infrastructure you build is unlikely to last more than 100 years.

  4. I agree totally here. Between the fact much of Miami will be underwater eventually, plus the need for air conditioning most of the year, to me it makes more sense to just let nature reclaim it. In fact, with global warming we should probably start abandoning the southern US. As it is now you need A/C most of the year. In 50 or 100 years it’ll probably be uninhabitable even with A/C. Add in the sprawl, and you have a very energy intensive form of living. Time to just cut our losses and leave.

    It might be much the same even with our coastal cities further north. It all depends upon how much sea level rises.

  5. Unless I missed something I feel this is giving short shrift to the fact that he included autonomous buses. Not having to pay people to drive the buses is going to do a TON to let agencies run more expansive and more frequent bus service. I can’t agree that it’s missing the point to think that self-driving buses are going to solve a lot of problems.

  6. For the high-rise parts of Miami, you can literally raise everything by 1 story, and build a city above the rising ocean.

  7. Miami is actually incredibly high density, and is the fastest-densifying major city in the country this year as well.

  8. And while the mayor waits for autonomous cars to be common, traffic will steadily worsen.

  9. This is why we need more density on the coastal ridge and other higher areas around transit stations. You can’t increase density in a nice way without good transit, and you can’t get solid transit if subsidize cars into everything you’re building.

  10. Joe… let’s talk about planning 200 years out. We are expecting 1-2m sea level rise in the next 100 years, probably 3-4 the next 100 years (although we really just don’t know). I don’t think we need to be abandoing things at 30m (100ft) elevation just yet.

  11. Maybe… depending on whether the high-rise buildings can safely accommodate their ground floor to be permanently submerged in corrosive salt water. Sure, Venice did it… with STONE buildings. That’s not the same as a steel-frame skyscraper.

    Even if the buildings can be safely submerged, you’ll still need to talk about getting around in boats — not walking, buses, rail or cars.

  12. Joe, the A/C thing is not as big a deal as you make out, because:

    1. Temperature differentials maintained by A/C systems are typically MUCH smaller than those maintained by heating systems.

    2. A/C systems (heat pumps) move more heat than the energy they consume; contrast to typical oil/gas burners.

    3. A/C power demand correlates well with peak solar production, allowing A/C systems to be run by cheap solar panels without much reliance on (currently) expensive energy storage or grid power.

    On the other hand, heating a home can have a huge carbon footprint. One February in a typical 3-BR home in CT, I burned 250 gallons of heating oil (Diesel fuel). Had I used that to drive a car (say, VW Golf) at 40mpg, I could have driven 10,000 miles. So… the carbon footprint of just ONE MONTH of that house was equal to 8 MONTHS of driving a typical car.

    That home was built in the 1930’s. What about a more modern home. I have a modern, well-built home in Boston that typically costs $150/mo to heat in the winter — and only $50/mo to cool in the summer. Obviously, the A/C uses MUCH LESS energy than the heating.

    Because of the high heating costs, northern cities tend to have high carbon footprint, in spite of high transit use in the Northeast USA.

  13. > It might be much the same even with our coastal cities further north.

    The energy savings from less heating could easily be greater than additional energy spent on A/C…

    > It all depends upon how much sea level rises.

    if your home is still there to heat or cool.

  14. Good points. Just a few minor additions:

    1) Generally true BUT A/C also needs to move any heat generated by appliances, people, lighting, electronics, etc. In the winter those heat sources actually reduce the need for active heating. In fact, large office buildings typically don’t need heating until temperatures drops under about 40°F.

    2) Again generally true but long term we’re moving away from oil heat and towards heat pumps. In fact, I’m looking at installing a geothermal heating/cooling system in my residence in the next few years (and also installing solar panels). So in the end this point might be a wash.

    3) True only so long as we’re actually moving towards solar panels for electrical generation. We still have a lot of coal and natural gas plants in this country. Also, in places like the northeast wind can power the aforementioned geothermal heating/cooling systems and winters here are generally very windy.

    In all cases better insulation obviously helps a lot, as do smaller homes. We cut our oil heating bill about in half when we installed new windows in 1994.

  15. It’s not just the rising sea levels which are the problem. Miami is already uncomfortably hot 8 to 10 months of the year. Once full-on global warming kicks in it’ll be dangerously hot all the time. I can’t see that it would make much sense for people to continue to live there. As a person who prefers cooler weather I frankly don’t see the appeal of it even now. It might be time to just stop building, not allow residences to be reoccupied once their present residents move out, and cut our losses. The more we try to fight nature the more it’s going to hurt when nature finally wins.

  16. Perhaps. That’s a matter of taste though. Most people live in tropical and subtropical cities–even if they can afford to move out. Personally, I’d take 90 degrees over 50 degrees any day.

  17. We’re ~60 feet above sea level, so I think that makes us good for at least a few more centuries, even assuming worst-case sea level rise. My brother is in the Rockaways. I’d say that area is a few major storms away from being rendered uninhabitable.

  18. Ugh. 90 degrees? It’s not even dry heat in Miami. It’s like a NYC summer where the humidity just hangs there. And warm weather always means lots of bugs. Yuck.

    To me 40 to 50 degrees is perfect weather for any type of outdoor activity. You generally don’t sweat if you dress properly. If you’re not active you don’t have to wear layers of clothing to stay warm like you do when it’s 10 or 15.

  19. That just shows its a matter of taste, and that plenty of people like Miami weather. Personally, my ideal is a dry climate of 85 degrees, but Miami, to me, is preferable to most northern inland climates.

  20. The bigger issue with warm weather is insects. Besides being disgusting, they spread all sorts of disease. Even if I could tolerate warmer weather I still would prefer cooler weather just because of the much lower population of insects.

  21. I tend to agree autonomous cars won’t come to the rescue in the time frame the mayor of Miami thinks they will. That said, ever increasing population and congestion aren’t inevitable. Given resource limitations, it might make sense for us to start implementing measures to stop population growth, perhaps even reverse it. That would solve congestion (and high housing costs in cities) at the same time. Obviously, it’s a political minefield to talk about limiting population, but long term I feel it’s the only way humans will survive. We could have 15 billion of us living mostly in poverty by 2100, or 1 or 2 billion living fairly well. The former will means wars, disease, probably the eventual end of the human race. The latter could mean a long term future as we expand humanity to other worlds.

  22. just like in the early 2000s when they were saying “don’t build rail! automated cars will be here by 2009!”

  23. Okay? That isn’t a good reason to abandon Miami–because you really hate insects.

  24. Sea level has risen about 10cm in the last 50 years; and Miami Beach, using extraordinary measures, is able to keep the water mostly at bay. 1-2m of sea level rise by the year 2100 will be a whole different ballgame.

  25. Heat is going to be less of a problem than sea level rise. For one thing, the temperature changes experience in global warming are much larger near the poles than at low latitudes.

    A much bigger problem will be increased intensity of storms: global warming typically makes the wet places get wetter, and the dry places get dryer. And fewer but more intense storms. Florida will likely get (even) more large damaging hurricanes. Combined with general sea level rise, this will result in a situation where significant portions of the city are simply washed away and demolished in single storm events.

  26. Yes, I agree. All of Greenland melting is 6m sea level rise, you’re at 20m. So to get up to you, large portions of Antarctica will have to melt too. All of which is possible based on “business as usual” CO2 inputs. But we all believe it will take at least centuries or more.

    A more pressing concern is the 1-2m of sea level rise projected by 2100, and maybe 3-4m for 2100-2200. Those will be challenging enough, and could certainly wipe out the Rockaways.

  27. Storms are a better reason. Not so much to abandon the city immediately, but to not rebuild any areas damaged by major storms. And I feel the same about any city. If/when a major storm wipes out the Rockaways in NYC, that area should remain permanently off limits to redevelopment.

    I don’t care if people choose to live in vulnerable areas but I do care if we decide to repeatedly bankroll them to rebuilt over and over.

  28. We’re already seeing this in the form of much more intense rain here in the Northeast. Back when I was young, torrential downpours were rare. Now it seems every time it rains you get a few inches in the span of a matter of hours, as opposed to the gentle rains back in my childhood.

  29. At this point in time, it seems like the best public transit solution is to use autonomous vehicles to bring passengers to/from their suburban homes/places of work or play to subway or light rail stations.

  30. That would be very tough for the thousands of dwellers in NYCHA housing that live in the Rockaways and Red Hook – given that the City & State of NY no longer build public housing but instead subsidize developers (read: mega donors to politicians who make r/e industry-friendly decisions) to build luxury high-rises with – occasionally – 20% affordable mixed in. And even then, the “affordable” in these luxury high-rises isn’t exactly affordable to millions of low-income New Yorkers, which explains why the homeless population in NYC is exploding. It’s not that “people chose to live in vulnerable areas” – it’s that public housing was built in “vulnerable areas” and there are no plans by the City or State of NY to build new public housing “in less vulnerable areas” anytime soon.

  31. High-rise buildings generally fare far better in storms than typical single-family homes. Basically, I would advocate abandoning any housing rendered uninhabitable by a storm and never rebuilding in that location again. The housing projects would likely survive, although perhaps their first floor might need to be abandoned.

    That said, the larger problem isn’t the buildings themselves. It’s not rocket science to design buildings to weather storms. You just don’t put any areas designed for habitation below the second or third or whatever floor the water might reach. The big problem is the infrastructure servicing the buildings. At some point streets become impassable. You can of course elevate the streets at great expense. And this might actually make sense in areas with too much existing infrastructure to consider abandoning. The Rockaways are generally relatively low density. It would make sense to just abandon at least the single family areas once storms render most of the houses uninhabitable. The projects might need a different calculus. Perhaps it’s worthwhile elevating just the streets needed to access them.

    Long term we obviously shouldn’t allow any new development in these vulnerable areas. I was aghast for example at the proposed BQX streetcar and how it would spur development along the waterfront. The waterfront should be parks and other types of things which won’t affect the city much in the event nature reclaims them. Any areas in flood zones need to be off-limits to development.

  32. Yeah cause autonomous vehicles won’t take any room on the road. You just press a button and go. It’s soooooo simple.

    Has Tesla figured out their parking problem yet? …………………… It’s bicycles? Really? They can’t have everyone driving their autonomous cars on the road till they finish work?

  33. “At this point in time” autonomous cars cannot handle real world situations on roads. The technology is developing quickly, but the point at which they can actually function autonomously is still some time in the future.

  34. Protecting land/buildings from rising sea levels if going to be a relatively fixed cost per lot/square foot. Building denser developments spreads that cost across multiple payers. Low density suburban sprawl in Florida may just wash away. Downtown Miami and Brickell will just build a dyke and get on with life.

  35. dykes might not work, but something will. There is always a way. It has a cost. Spreading that cost across denser land reduces how much it costs per person/business.

  36. Look over the list of options in the overview above, and think about which ones will / will not work for a city built on top of porous limestone:

    1. Barrier: NO
    2. Coastal armorong: NO
    3. Elevated Developement: YES
    4. Floating Development: YES
    5. Floodable Development: YES
    6. LivingShorelines: NO for Miami (the living shoreline is already gone)
    7. Managed Retreat: YES

    OK… now think about how much sea level rise options (3), (4) and (5) can reasonable account for before (7) is the only remaining option. Compare against 1-2m (3-6 ft) by the year 2100, and then another 3-4m (15-22 ft) by 2200. Sure, maybe you CAN built everything on 20ft pylons in a 15ft deep lagoon. But I expect managed retreat would be cheaper at that point. See what sea level rise is predicted to do to Venice:

    I believe the measures being taken now in Miami Beach will work for up to 50 years. After that, I am extremely doubtful.

  37. The *city* of Miami has decent density, but the broader metro area does not. That’s because the city proper is pretty small (only about 400K population), and has a relatively low proportion of the metro population. Most of the population lives in low-density development….which is why we have such a low transit mode share today, and why improving cars is a better solution for more of the population than improving transit.

  38. It seems that the mayor really doesn’t want to have much to do with the real world. He just wants fantasy. How is an autonomous bus going to stop to pick up passengers? And how is the thing going to go about people without cash or a pass? Regular city buses have fareboxes. Most of them seat about the same amount of people that a paratransit van seats, even less.

  39. There’s the wee little minor issue of environmental devastation by promoting the most wasteful form of ground transportation ever devised. And no, hybrids and EVs don’t mitigate the problems enough to actually make a difference.

  40. Still they consume power, still they pollute, still they warm the planet. But without drivers, nobody can feel they’re part of the problem, they can just blame robots. Problem solved!

  41. Indeed a new transit stop has opened up within easy biking distance of Tesla’s sunny California facility. But whatever could the solution be to their parking problems?

  42. focus tax payers money on what will benefit them – increase public transportation – more bus routes & trains

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