As the population in Southeast Florida continues to grow in the coming decades, the need for a richer menu of transportation choices will become increasingly important.
If one looks back far enough, the region had a history of diverse transportation options. Most of Southeast Florida’s settlements originally grew around rail stops along Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast (FEC) Railway. Many of these stations were also once connected to local streetcar lines supplementing the horse drawn wagons of the day. A number of the historic FEC passenger station structures can still be seen today, sitting idle, as the FEC line has not carried passenger trains for the past several decades.
In all, the Southeast Florida region historically featured over 3S FEC Railway passenger stations. They were located in communities as diverse as: Vero Beach, St. Lucie, Fort Pierce, Jensen Beach, Stuart, Jupiter, Palm Beach Gardens, Lake Park, Riviera, West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Boynton, Delray Beach, Boca Ra- ton, Deerfield, Pompano, Oakland Park, Fort Lauderdale, Dania, Hollywood, Hallandale, North Miami Beach, North Miami, Miami Shores, and Miami.
The 192Os saw the beginning of the proliferation of the automobile in Southeast Florida. This fast-growing new technology and the personal freedom it represented soon eclipsed the use of transit. The Southeast Florida building booms of the early 19OOs coincided with grand national visions of the City of the Future, such as the famous designs by Norman Bel Geddes for the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Unlike older parts of the country with substantial cities built pre-auto, South- east Florida was seen as a virtual blank slate where these visions of a bold future built around the automobile could be achieved in a pure form. Streetcar lines were eagerly pulled up and replaced with wide arterials designed for automotive speed and efficiency. This “golden age of the automobile” lasted for several decades.
As South Florida’s population grew, some of the very physical characteristics of the built environment that were originally meant to improve the free flow of the automobile ironically began to have the opposite effect. In an attempt to avoid slowing auto traffic on arterials, street intersections were made as infrequent as possible. This resulted in an intentionally implemented lack of connectivity, which in turn meant that all traffic needed to use the sparse roads that did connect – a formula for traffic congestion at relatively low building densities.
As the character of the automotive arterials became harsher, new real estate developments turned their backs and became introverted, with often only a single entrance road for hundreds of homes. This cycle of increasingly severed connectivity was compounded by a pattern of extremely low intensity development with separated uses and an increasing reliance on the automobile as the sole mode of transit. This coincided with dramatic population growth in the region. Over the course of a few short decades, the dream of free flowing Cities of the Future instead became a reality of tremendous amounts of time, money, and energy wasted by crushingly inefficient vehicular traffic congestion.
Today, the all-too-common daily South Florida sight of tens of thousands of commuting automobiles stuck in rush hour traffic congestion with motors idling is particularly and cruelly ironic in a region with so much at risk from the accelerating levels of sea level rise that likely will result from global increases of green- house gas production. This is compounded by a second irony – today, the grimly unwalkable and unbikeable character of South Florida’s auto-centric streets causes many South Floridians to fight tooth and nail against travel by any means other than by car.
So, what can be done?
Emphasis should be placed in the coming decades on supporting the mobility of Southeast Florida’s residents and business people with a diverse array of transportation options. In many locations, redevelopment is currently occurring at transit-supportive intensities. There is a complementary explosion of interest in travel by foot and bicycle.
Transportation change on the scale needed in South Florida will not be easy, but there are some encouraging trends. Many communities are implementing bicycle plans, and increasing numbers of bicyclists can be seen on the streets for exercise, recreation, and regular work commutes. Several South Florida municipalities are moving forward with plans to create streets more friendly to multiple modes of transportation and for more regular bus, streetcar, and even light rail service. Resumption of passenger service on Henry Flagler’s FEC Railway alignment is inching closer to reality.
All of these exciting initiatives to broaden the array of transportation options available to South Floridians should be harnessed to further the region’s future prosperity.