A flashing crosswalk signal on Biscayne Boulevard at Northeast 72nd Street was rammed and knocked down by a bad driver. One year and many narrow escapes later, it still has not been replaced.
During those 12 months, thousands of pedestrians have risked their lives crossing one of Miami-Dade County’s most dangerous roads. Drivers treat Biscayne Boulevard, which threads through a dozen of Miami’s oldest neighborhoods, like a racetrack, often exceeding 50 mph on a multi-laned road with a 35 mph speed limit.
Residents want to know when the Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacon will be replaced. And what about a similar pedestrian-activated, yellow flashing light at Biscayne and Northeast 30th Street, which has been broken for six months? Or the one at Biscayne and Northeast 84th Terrace, which was repaired about nine months ago only to be felled again in February?
“Three of the nine [beacons] on Biscayne Boulevard are not working properly,” Upper East Side resident Felipe Azenha wrote in a Feb. 24 email to county, city of Miami and Florida Department of Transportation officials. “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.”
Azenha, who rides his bike to work in downtown Miami, has reason to be exasperated. He and his neighbors have long advocated for a redesign of Biscayne Boulevard that would slow the speed of traffic and make it a safe street for all users, whether they are driving, walking, cycling or riding the bus. The boulevard carries 30,000 vehicles per day and is the site of an average of 340 reported crashes per year. Downed light poles, smashed signs, dented bus shelters and amputated car parts are a frequent sight.
Azenha and his son were hit in the 30th Street crosswalk on their way to school last year. They were not injured, but the driver sped away.
“Nearly every week my son and I have close calls with vehicles that do not yield to us because this mid-block crosswalk does not work properly,” Azenha said.
Azenha believes 30 days is a reasonable amount of time to repair or replace the signals, which is the responsibility of the county’s Department of Transportation and Public Works.
Not so, says Alice Bravo, department director. Fixing a light fixture or push button on a malfunctioning unit should be done in 30 days but “replacement due to a knockdown has a significantly longer lead time,” she wrote in an email. The long wait is because of “a variety of reasons, primarily due to a shortage of materials in the industry (only three manufacturers of the systems, and none are interchangeable).”
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The usual procurement red tape is complicated by the fact that vehicle collisions with the signals are a frequent countywide occurrence.
“There is an average of three crosswalk/pedestrian signals knocked down each week,” Bravo said, making it difficult for the county to keep up, but not explaining why the county doesn’t have an inventory of signals at the ready.
Why then, ask Azenha and his neighbors, does the county persist in installing the problematic signals?
“What does beg the question, in my humble opinion, is why would the [county] engage with a technology or fixture for public use that has such limited capacity for replacement?” resident Alejandro de Onis asked Bravo in an email with the group. “How would a contract with a manufacturer even be approved with such an inefficient replacement protocol? It seems like a waste of valuable time for citizens and potentially quite a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Mike Pacifico, who lives in Belle Meade, complained about the department’s “completely flawed and broken approach to this issue.”
“Reading your ... response is very frustrating for reasons that seem pretty obvious to anyone taking an outside/objective/Econ 101 perspective to this situation,” Pacifico wrote. “The use of solutions that routinely get destroyed and are in short supply and have long lead times seems like a no-win for everybody except for the manufacturers (who, if smart, probably find a way to commend a surcharge for any sort of expedited manufacturing).”
Bravo said work orders have been issued for the units at 72nd Street and 84th Terrace, with new ones supposed to go up in March. But the one at 30th Street may take even longer because it was built by FDOT with a black decorative pole.
Azenha will keep asking when. His commitment to improving greater Miami’s mean streets is remarkable. He writes weekly emails to a list of government officials, political leaders, transportation experts, community activists and fellow residents, calling attention to Florida’s ranking as the most deadly state in the nation for pedestrians and cyclists and politely demanding change.
Nine of the top 14 metro areas with the highest percentage of pedestrian fatalities are in Florida, with Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford ranked No. 1 and Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach ranked No. 14, according to the “Dangerous by Design” report by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition.
Although studies cited by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety Administration show that a yellow flashing beacon on the right side of a crossing increases driver yielding behavior from 18 to 81 percent (and to 88 percent with beacons on both sides of the crossing), the units have also been criticized for confusing drivers, who don’t see a red light and don’t stop, or giving a false sense of security to pedestrians, who assume oncoming cars will stop.
A 12-year-old Satellite Beach girl was struck in a crosswalk on A1A on Dec. 22. She was returning from the beach with her grandfather and dog when she pushed the button, activated a flashing yellow light, and waited for a gap in traffic before stepping into the road. But the driver didn’t stop in time. Sophia Nelson survived on life support until Christmas Day; her organs were donated to four recipients at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando.
“They’re all wringing their hands that we lead the nation in pedestrian and bicycle deaths. And then we come up with stupid ideas like this,” Brevard County Commissioner Curt Smith said of FDOT officials in Tallahassee in the wake of Sophia’s death. “Who the hell’s running the show up there? I mean, it just doesn’t make sense.” He told Florida Today he wants to “get these damn things taken down or at least changed to red flashing lights that people understand.”
Last week the driver who fatally struck Sophia was issued a $169 fine for failure to stop at a crosswalk. Surveillance footage showed the lights began flashing when the driver’s car was 400 feet south of the crosswalk, which police said was ample time to react, brake and stop. On Feb. 20, Nelson’s parents urged state lawmakers in Tallahassee to pass the Sophia Nelson Pedestrian Safety Act, requiring that pedestrian-activated lights be switched from yellow to red or completely removed on roads with more than two lanes or where the speed limit is higher than 35 mph.
“She put trust in that button when she pushed it. And she put trust in the yellow lights, that traffic would stop. And she put trust in that driver, that she had given the driver plenty of room to slow down and stop,” Nelson’s father, Mark Nelson, testified before a Florida House committee.
The real problem is that flashing yellow lights at mid-block crosswalks like those on Biscayne Boulevard are merely better than nothing on an FDOT-owned roadway that should have stoplights every 350-400 feet, urban planners say.
“The fact that these things keep getting hit tells you something: What if they were people?” said Tony Garcia, founder of the Street Plans design firm in South Miami. “Don’t design a neighborhood street like a highway. There is a highway a few blocks west and it’s called I-95.
“FDOT’s philosophy to move the greatest number of cars as fast as possible is stuck in another century. The state and county need to work together for modern urban solutions. Why do we have to leave town and go to New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Rome, Paris or Madrid to be in a walkable city? The only difference between Romans and Miamians is that Rome was built before cars existed.”
The broken crosswalks on Biscayne Boulevard hark back to one on Bayshore Drive in Coconut Grove that was broken for 18 months. In a bureaucratic game of tag, a flurry of calls and emails from residents to the county resulted in no repair until a reporter called the manufacturer on his cellphone and he drove down from Venice, Florida, to fix it.
Walking is becoming more hazardous to your health in the U.S., where 6,590 pedestrians died as a result of motor vehicle crashes in 2019, a 50 percent increase since 2010, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.