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Miami bridge bascule

"Miami's slow-motion infrastructure meltdown is already apparent"

Art Basel Miami and Design Miami should step up to help address the infuriating congestion that blights Miami art week, writes Ian Volner.

Several Miami art weeks ago, some marketing wiz at Uber got it into their head to launch a one-time-only promotional gimmick. During the annual culturefest in South Florida, app users could summon a branded motorboat service, ferrying themselves and a group of friends across Biscayne Bay in speedy, splashy style.

No longer. For the nearly 100,000 guests who descended on the Floridian city last month, as for the more or less coequal number of actual Miami Beach residents who had to put up with them, the means of getting in and out and around were as unglamorous as they were inconvenient.

Things are not much better during the regular working week in Magic City

But while Art Basel and Design Miami do make matters infinitely worse (one memorable carshare trip in December, from the Convention Center to the Design District, took this writer nearly an hour to cover a distance of five miles), things are not much better during the regular working week in Magic City.

Nor are they improving: according to infrastructure analytics firm Inrix, traffic in Miami-Dade jumped 30 per cent between 2021 and 2022. In the global congestion sweepstakes, the area now occupies the number eight spot worldwide, up from 32nd place just two years ago.

How did it happen? What's the way out? And why, for all the clout and cash that Art Basel and its attendant functions have helped attract to the city, have organizers and city leaders not found a way to make the fairs a part of the solution?

There aren't a lot of good answers, and fewer still short ones. But here's a quick, critical speedboat tour of Miami's ongoing transportation crisis.

Transit, for good and ill, has been key to the city's fortunes from the start – in particular for Miami Beach, separated from the mainland by about two-and-a-half miles of shallow water.

Carl Fisher, the resort community's early developer, launched his Miami Beach Railway in 1920. Running over the County (now MacArthur) Causeway, the trolley service was an essential prop to the beach town during its early years, the only alternative to the narrow automobile lanes alongside it and the rickety Collins Bridge (later the Venetian) to the north. Unfortunately, hurricanes and economic downturn spelled doom for the railroad, which closed in 1939.

It's easy to get caught at an open crossing, watching in mounting fury as a gleaming mega-yacht glides slowly past

By the time Miami started swinging again after the Second World War, auto-mania had seized the country. The MacArthur was widened, the Tuttle and Kennedy causeways soon joined it, and a state of semi-permanent gridlock slowly descended over the peninsula.

While the trans-bay bottlenecks constitute the better part of Miami's Basel-week woes, they represent only one part of the overall problem. Pressed up against the vast Everglades preservation area, the city proper is hemmed in and mass transit is sparse. There's a spur to the airport – though it requires connecting with a separate terminal train – and a steadily growing bike-share network, albeit with only six miles of protected paths to ride on, and some fairly aggressive drivers to contend with.

Then there's another uniquely Miamian vexation: with eight drawbridges scattered throughout downtown, it's easy to get caught at an open crossing, watching in mounting fury as a gleaming mega-yacht glides slowly past.

All these perils and more are presently being compounded by the most ominous threat facing the region: climate change. To the prospect of permanently swamped highways and side streets, local and state agencies have responded (as writer Sarah Miller reported in a memorable 2017 article) with "some pumps and raised roads" – but while conservative elected officials may laugh off the ecological danger, the social and economic effects of Miami's slow-motion infrastructure meltdown are already apparent.

While Florida as a whole has grown, the city has experienced a net decline in population since the pandemic, with 80,000 people leaving town between 2020 and 2022. High housing prices and limited employment opportunities have played a role, plainly, but both are tied inextricably to the transportation problem.

As local economic development group Opportunity Miami noted in an online brief, "Affordable housing that is far from jobs and schools can quickly turn unaffordable due to high transportation costs." A tale as old as time, to be sure, but seldom so well illustrated.

Some better fair-sponsored transit options would be a start; maybe a little creative thinking about programming

However halting and inadequate, some progress is being made. This year, the Florida state legislature enacted the new "Live Local" law, incentivizing developers to build denser, lower-cost housing. The initiative dovetails with Miami21, a citywide zoning ordinance that encourages transit-oriented development.

There's even talk of finally restoring rail service to the beach, via the same route used by old Carl Fisher over a century ago – although, notwithstanding the announcement in late 2022 that the Metromover system would be used for the expansion, some skepticism would seem in order. "Metrorail Projects Going Far Off Track", declared a Miami Herald headline, detailing the total lack of progress on a beach-city connection despite a voter-approved tax to fund it six years earlier. The article was published in 2008.

Interestingly, the very year that the transit referendum passed was the same that Art Basel Miami Beach first touched down at the Convention Center. It has now been more than two decades since then, and 18 years since Design Miami's debut, and yet the success of the fairs has not led to any notable attempts to remedy either the particular logistical hassles of fairgoers or the bigger issues at play in Miami.

This failure seems especially egregious in the case of Design Miami, an event that purports to bring together some of the best minds in architecture and product-making and which, with its regular appeals to environmentalism and social equity, might consider putting some of those values to work in its own backyard.

How? Well, some better fair-sponsored transit options would be a start; maybe a little creative thinking about when programming takes place and where, to try to cut down on the mad crosstown dash.

More importantly, the fairs could try to start a conversation among attendees, buyers and other bigwigs about the city's problems –even to suggest, however gently, that if municipal leadership won't take stern measures, the future viability of the fairs themselves could be in doubt.

It would not seem an idle threat: certainly not for anyone stuck on the causeway during the height of the festivities, praying for a motorboat or a miracle, and wondering why they ever came to Miami in the first place.

Ian Volner is a New York-based architecture, design and art critic whose writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Architectural Digest and The New Yorker among others. He is the author of several books, including the award-winning This Is Frank Lloyd Wright and The Great Great Wall: Along the Borders of History from China to Mexico.

The photo is by Phillip Pessar.

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