We’ve all been in that Uber, looking down at our phones and playing Candy Crush or whatever, when we look up to see that our gig-economy cabby is taking the absolute weirdest route to our destination. They don’t know the area and rely on the algorithm to tell them where to go. And the algorithm doesn’t know shit.
I get it. GPS can be a very useful convenience and might even save your life, in certain situations. But, is it really much more different than carrying a printed map in our glove compartment or pockets?
Knowing the terrain entails so much more than just finding the right intersection. It’s about recognizing the landmarks, engaging with the memories and feeling the feelings a particular place, neighborhood or city elicits.
I’m no Luddite. Much of my work depends on all the technological “wonders” of our time. I use digital cameras, lots of different software and I know how to code. But, I’m also keenly aware of the price we are all paying for making them such a prominent feature of our lives.
I was here before all of this and I remember what it was like to get lost in a city with only my wits to carry me through. You see the world in a far different light when you’re the only one looking. Today, we have a million eyes looking along with us. A million different opinions to color or override your own.
This may sound like an advantage, but it is most definitely a curse. At least, it is a curse for the individual. Only a hive mind can thrive in such an environment. The further we go down this road, the more the individual human recedes and blends into the amorphous nothingness of single mindedness.
Nowhere is this so apparent than in the contrast between the popular music of the late 20th century and that of the early 21st. It is becoming nearly impossible to find musicians these days. People who express a creative urge through instruments and song are being replaced by the algorithm, that know-nothing know-it-all infecting our real lives. I have written about this before, but I want to do more than that.
The Creative Impulse
Many of the creative ideas I have revolve around ways to mitigate the alienating aspects of this tech-infused world. It is an instinct, more than anything. Like all creative endeavors, it is an individual journey of self-discovery that may or may not yield a “piece of art”.
If I was a sculptor, perhaps I would chisel away at a big rock that would end up on a street corner. And it would end up there so other people could see it and appreciate it. Make it part of their inner landscape. The algorithm has no use for my art.
So, the question is why do we make art to begin with? Why make music in the first place? We have gone from using technology to make art to making art for technology. And that, in my opinion, is complete insanity.
I have just launched a Kickstarter campaign for a project many years in the making called Inspired Ground. And as the name implies, it has to do with the literal ground we walk on and the value of the unexpected. It is about an art form the algorithm is intent on destroying: Street musicians, colloquially known as “buskers”.
Buskers are the very definition of what we call the “gig economy”, except that what they do falls short of perceived notions of value in our algorithmically-driven world. While some people are too captivated by their devices to listen to a man rocking it on the sidewalk, even those who do stop can’t give the performer a tip because they’ve pretty much gone cashless.
Inspired Ground is a musical anthology/film documentary project that will take advantage of all the technology available (Internet, crowdfunding, digital cameras) for a chance to create a lasting space outside of it.
The pilot of what I hope will turn out to be an ongoing series is about the busker who inspired it all, Drew Dunbar.
Five years ago, I was in Las Vegas doing some video production for a mobile technology company – ironically enough. After the conference I was covering was over, I had some time to kill before heading to the airport and decided to take some pictures around town. That’s when I spotted Drew jamming on one the pedestrian bridges along the strip and I recorded him doing a great cover of the classic rock song, “Hey Joe”.
I had also recorded an original tune of his, but had not uploaded it to my YouTube channel because I wanted to establish a line of communication with him in case there was any ad revenue he could collect. I was never able to find him until now, when a fellow busker emailed me back in May.
But the story is already on the Kickstarter campaign page. Go there >>
PHOTO - A U.S. Marine helps a Cuban child off a refugee boat, Key West, Fla | Courtesy Wall Street Journal
Miami’s image of a multicultural melting pot of Caribbean and Latin American cultures, all co-existing together in an idyllic setting of palm trees and warm beaches hides a deeper history of Black disenfranchisement and state-sponsored population transplantation, unprecedented in American history.
The area’s first black community was settled by Bahamians in the 1880’s, well before the incorporation of the city in 1896. It was called Coconut Grove then, as it is now, and provided many of the black male registered votes used to reach the required quota for the official creation of Miami. Slave-descended Black Americans and other Afro-Caribbean groups were likewise used for the same purpose. All were subsequently stripped of their voting rights, as the region was transformed into an international metropolitan hub and Jim Crow laws spread throughout the South during the early part of the 20th century.
Black labor was the primary source of man power used to build Flagler’s pivotal railroad and to develop the earliest farming settlements, which would make South Florida the breadbasket of America. As the country emerged out of World War II, “benign tools of segregation” began to replace the violent lynch laws, and racist zoning practices started to carve out the real estate along the skin color line. Overtown, a thriving enclave of black culture in the middle of the city known as “The Harlem of the South” and with 45% of Miami’s black population, was bisected by the construction of I-95 – along with many other black and minority neighborhoods across the nation – as part of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system.
In order to build the massive vehicular artery, the government invoked eminent domain, seizing the land and property of black businesses and homes, displacing over 40,000 people in the 1960’s. The livelihoods of hundreds of “black doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, entertainers and hotel owners” were destroyed, as a result.
Simultaneously, the federal government was implementing a population transplant operation from a Caribbean nation just 90 miles away from Miami, which had been snatched away from the entrenched, mob-affiliated political class by a bearded revolutionary, who was just beginning his 5-decade tenure as America’s most iconic nemesis.
Mayflower of the Caribbean
The first wave of Cuban immigrants, that touched South Florida shores are collectively referred to as the “Golden Exiles”. Arriving between 1959 and 1962, 31% of the Cubans who came to the United States during this period were educated professionals with resources. Many already had bank accounts in the U.S. and further benefited from extensive help from the American government, unprecedented in scope and generosity.
The Cuban Refugee Program assisted the exiles with resettlement, job training, housing and education programs to the tune of US$ 1 Billion in those early years. In addition, they benefited from special business loans and accreditation of their foreign-earned degrees. The program continued for decades and US$ 3 Billion more were invested through 1996.
Policies like affirmative action also gave Cuban arrivals a leg up at the expense of Black Americans, reducing the latter community’s already shrinking employment opportunities in Miami.
After the “Golden” wave of immigrants, the second stage consisted of mostly middle-class, mostly white Cubans, who were able to take advantage of the groundwork laid by their immediate predecessors as part of a so-called “ethnic economy”. The transformation of the city’s demographics was well underway. By the 1970’s, the relentless Cuban exodus would overtake the Black population as the second largest in the city, behind White Americans.
The McDuffie Riots was a watershed moment for Miami. Sparked by the acquittal of all 7 police officers indicted in the killing of African-American accountant, Arthur McDuffie, the violence expressed a subconscious recognition of a changing of the guard, literally.
The MPD officers who were involved in the incident with McDuffie on the morning hours of December 17, 1979 were White Americans, except for one. Alex Marrero, the officer who beat Arthur McDuffie to death, was Cuban.
In the most macabre way possible, this signaled the success of the Cuban exiles’ political and economic ascent. Aided by the generous hand of the state, they had firmly established themselves among the higher rungs of the city’s pecking order and were beginning to take hold of several seats in municipal governments.
A new swell of Cuban migrants would soon flood the streets of Miami, but this group occupied a far different social stratum than their state-side cousins and looked more like Arthur McDuffie than Ricky Ricardo. Unlike their predecessors, who had come in through the customs gate at the airport after a short flight on Pan American Airlines, the latest arrivals were processed like cattle by the Coast Guard.
The Mariel Boatlift dropped tens of thousands of Cubans on South Florida shores in 1981. Many were sent to different parts of the country as the sheer number of people became unmanageable for a single city. Carter sent thousands of “Marielitos” to Arkansas, then governed by Bill Clinton, who blamed the loss in his 1982 reelection bid on the influx.
Although the Mariel Cubans also received special assistance by the federal government, it was a fraction – in dollar terms – of what the first two groups enjoyed. It was, nevertheless, a king’s ransom compared to the roughly 80,000 Haitians who had taken refuge in Miami during the same period, who instead of getting help were looked upon as a drain on public resources.
The Politics of Color
A recent study entitled “The Color of Wealth in Miami” takes a deep dive into the economic reality of the various ethnic groups, nationalities and races that comprise the residents of Miami-Dade County, revealing a stark picture of racial marginalization and an economically segregated population.
Ranking 8th among the poorest regions in the nation and 3rd least affordable metropolitan area according to HUD, Miami-Dade County presents one of the country’s biggest disparities of wealth-inequality, which the data shows is heavily skewed by skin color, irrespective of ancestral origin.
Latinos comprise 65% of the population, far and away the largest in the County. Of these, Cubans are the most numerous, representing 18.4%. The rest are broadly spread out among Colombians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, as well as many other Latin American nationalities in smaller groups. West Indian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants such as Haitians, Jamaicans and Trinidadians and Tobagonians add up to about 8%. African-Americans (non-Latino Blacks) in Miami-Dade County come out to roughly 7%. Non-Latino Whites in the Miami area comprise only 33%, almost half than their numbers in the state as a whole.
The median wealth gap between Whites and other ethnic groups in Miami is incredibly wide. Calculated at around US$ 107,000 on average for White households, the closest group was the Cubans, who nonetheless hold just US$ 22,000 median household wealth or about 20% of the median household wealth of Whites. Puerto Ricans, for example, report a negative US$ -3,940 median wealth position.
The study analyzes differences and relationships between income, wealth, education and race as they pertain to Miami-Dade County, and finds that people who self-report as White (Latino or otherwise), tend to show better socio-economic indicators than their Black and Latino counterparts. One of the most telling observations is how Cubans, Colombians and Dominicans who self-identified as White “did not report substantially higher rates of college educational attainment than their co-ethnic counterparts who racially identify as Black. But they did report substantially higher incomes.”
Home ownership is, likewise, one of the clearest signs of Miami’s wealth-inequality with nearly 71% of non-Latino Whites owning homes, followed by Cubans, Colombians and Dominicans who self-identify as White with approximately 53%, 49% and 47% home-ownership rates, respectively. Among black Miamians, home-ownership rates are between 40 and 60% lower, regardless of nationality.
A home, of course, is the most basic economic anchor there is. The difference between having a stable place to live and raise a family and not can determine a person’s future economic success. From education to employment opportunities, there are many variables this one factor can influence during the course of our lives. In Miami, non-white home-ownership has been under attack by speculators and irresponsible government. And climate change is about to make it worse.
The Last Wave
The 2008 crash left thousands of Miami’s most vulnerable in a very tenuous position, after foreclosure affected 1 in 14 homes by the end of 2009. Real estate developers, encouraged by local leaders, have since returned with a vengeance and are aggressively targeting low-income, minority communities who happen to live on the higher ground elevations of the County.
Sea-level rise and the constant risk posed by an ever-more active hurricane season, coupled with rampant property speculation and gentrification represents a serious threat to the already frail socio-economic fabric of Miami, which could devolve into widespread violence of the kind the city experienced almost forty years ago.
According to a report issued by The JP Morgan Chase Institute on the “financial implications of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma”, the inflow of checking accounts of both businesses and individuals in the wake of the natural disasters fell 20% below baseline. Of the two cities, Miami showed a slower rate of recovery than Houston.
The precarious financial position of the majority of Miami’s residents, with 51% of households lacking enough cash to survive more than three months in the case of an emergency, along with predatory real estate developers salivating over their land should raise all sorts of red flags.
During preparations for Hurricane Irma, tens of thousands of people from low-income communities were evacuated as part of a county-wide operation unlike any that had ever been attempted. Many weren’t even in an evacuation zone, yet were urged to flee to a number of improvised shelters throughout the county. After the storm, thousands lined up to receive D-SNAP aide, because they had no cash on hand to replenish their refrigerators.
A majority of Miami stands on the brink of financial annihilation as a result of decades of racist policies. The Pew Research Center ranked Miami 10th in the nation among economically segregated cities, close to doubling its “Residential Income Segregation Index Score” of 30 in 1980 to 49 in 2010. Only certain Latino groups have experienced some relative level of economic mobility. It’s no accident, perhaps, that these are also the same groups who play a role in the goals of American foreign policy in Latin America: Cubans, Venezuelans and Colombians.
In recent years, the mayors of four South Florida counties signed an emergency plan that contemplates mass evacuations and other crisis measures in the case of sea-level rise. Given the history, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to assume that our County and city leaders would take advantage of a climate-related crisis like this to dislodge people from their homes, counting on the fact that they couldn’t afford to come back.
On Monday, former Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, delivered the keynote address at the 6th annual Safe Streets Summit held right here in Miami, among the top five cities in pedestrian fatalities and the second-ranked city in America for poverty and income inequality.
The Obama-appointee’s remarks revealed how design is at the center of America’s most marginalized communities and how technology is contributing to the reformulation of personal mobility. Foxx, who is now Lyft’s Public Policy Director, nonetheless stressed that “There’s no algorithm that can push us beyond the unavoidable questions of humanity or the existential questions we face in this country now, probably more than [at] any time in my lifetime about how we all live together”.
He began his presentation talking about Major League Baseball’s Rule 1.04, which suggests the most desirable location of home plate on the field, so that batters always hit with the sun at their back. The same kind of deliberate intent informs the building of our roads, bridges and all other parts of our urban landscape. “There’s no infrastructure,” he stated, “that is randomly placed anywhere.”
Anthony Foxx’s political career began relatively recently, in Charlotte, North Carolina where he grew up. He became a City Council member in 2005 and Mayor just four years later, at one of the most daunting times for the city. As the second-largest financial services center in the country, Charlotte was especially hard-hit by the 2008 financial crisis. Foxx’s success in turning the city’s fortunes around and his innovative approach to the foundering Blue Line Extension project, earned him nationwide attention and, eventually a nomination to become the 17th Secretary of Transportation in 2013.
Streets are a personal issue for him. He understands how the immediate environment affects communities and how the interstate highway system lies at the root of much of our problems today. “The highway system has been a marvelous economic success. It has accomplished what it was intended to do, but let’s be clear,” Foxx said, “…the impact on urban communities was severe.”
The interstate highway system, ushered in by Eisenhower in 1956, was originally designed to link farmers with market centers. The program, however, continues to this day and has cost nearly $130 billion, so far. As Foxx points out, there has also been a great cost levied on urban spaces. The highways literally cut right through the center of most major cities, bisecting neighborhoods and displacing millions of people.
“When I look at the neighborhood that I grew up in,” Foxx recounts, “it was actually constrained by these very freeways I’m taking about… I-77 and I-85 actually meet just about two blocks away from where I grew up.” He continues, “…when I looked out in front of my grandparents’ house I saw a freeway. When I looked to the right I saw a freeway.”
One of the most telling graphics Foxx presented was a side-by-side map of the city of Charlotte before and after construction of the interstate highways. Marked in blue were the areas populated by the lower-income communities and in red the more affluent ones. The pre-1960’s map showed the affluent neighborhoods concentrated in the city’s urban core and the poorer ones surrounding it, on the periphery. The current map shows a complete reversal, with the affluent areas moved out into the suburbs and the low-income neighborhoods clustered in the center, hugging the freeways.
He cites examples of how highways are also used to effect so-called “slum-clearance” strategies to push low-income communities out of areas identified for redevelopment. “There is an area of Baltimore, where the city is literally bisected by a freeway and actually stops cold.” Foxx tells us. “It’s called the ‘freeway to nowhere’. This was done, in part, as a slum-clearance strategy.”
Marginalized by Hue
Cities and neighborhoods all across America have suffered the same fate over the years. Staten Island, St. Paul, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, Montgomery and our own Overtown were among the few places Foxx mentioned as he laid out the facts of a story told again and again, which he insists is “the product of design… not the product of benign neglect.”
Pointing out that remuneration was non-existent in the 50’s and 60’s, Foxx highlighted the fact that the compensation given to many of the displaced families for their homes was based on severely depreciated values since their properties were about to be razed to the ground. This is a reality, which affected a disproportionate number of African-American communities, like the one in Brooklyn – a neighborhood in Charlotte, NC that, according to Foxx, had “1,200 or so African-American owned businesses”, and was just one of many neighborhoods, that came under assault when “thousands” of urban development agencies wreaked havoc in communities nationwide.
The impact on lower-income areas is hard to overstate, but Foxx perfectly illustrated the effects that displacement can have on marginalized groups with the story about a neighborhood in St. Louis, “that abutted what’s now the international airport. And that community was… low-income, high African-American population. That community was displaced to create room for the airport. That group of people moved to a place called Ferguson.”
A Matter of Life and Death
The day-to-day reality on the ground for pedestrians in Miami and other major cities around this country is the stuff of nightmares. Lack of sidewalks, dangerous crossing areas, heavy vehicle traffic and all manner of disincentives and obstacles for walking or biking make for a very segregated lifestyle. For people in low-income areas, it can be deadly.
“Let’s say you’re a single mom, you have three children,” Foxx suggests, “You just spent two hours at the grocery store, an hour taking a bus to get from the grocery store to home. You get dropped off at the bus stop and the house that you live in is 90 feet across the street. The nearest crossing area is more than half a mile down the road. How many people would walk half a mile to the crossing area?” Foxx asks. “Well,” he continues, “this mom carried her kids across the street. The youngest child who is about 3 years old, loses his mother’s hand and is struck by a car and killed.”
People with cars would be hard-pressed to even imagine such a scenario. But, this is not just a scenario. This is a tragic true story out of Atlanta, Georgia. But, something like this could have just as easily happened – and certainly has happened – anywhere in South Florida.
“These streets don’t really exist for the people who need to use them on foot.” Says Foxx. Indeed, Miami is among the least walkable cities in the world and our public transit system is an abject failure. Meanwhile, County Mayor Gimenez, floats red-herrings like flying taxis and Chinese concept buses as he tries to push through yet another highway project.
I have a feeling the former Secretary of Transportation is familiar with Gimenez’ absurd propositions. At one point during his presentation, he brought up a picture of Saudi royals surrounding a drone-like, multi-propeller flying car. “I’m just showing you this. This is a flying car or whatever, um… good luck with that.”, he quipped.
“If you look at long term trends,” Foxx went on, “in fact, the city we’re sitting in today – you’re going to see so much more growth, that it’s going to be difficult to keep up with the infrastructure, with the needs of a growing population.”
A Fork in the Road
We have to start making better choices and undoing some of the bad ones, that were made in the past. As technology quickens the pace of change in the world, we have to find ways to ground ourselves and not become the victims of convenience.
There is a grand illusion surrounding our new digital age, expressed succinctly by an anecdote Foxx shared with the room about his wife and her online Christmas shopping habits. After completing all of it, she proudly turned to her husband to brag about how many “trips” she had “saved” by making all her purchases over the Internet. “And me, 17th Secretary of Transportation,” said Foxx to the amused crowd, “has to say to her: ‘Honey, you just created 25 trips… god knows how many miles of trips you’ve created!’”
The virtual world is dangerous because it makes us even more blind to how the world really is. And, before we become like Stephen King’s Lawnmower Man and fully fuse with our silicon simulacrum, we have to take a step back and take a good, long look at where we are and what we are doing.
Over the last half-century, our cities have become nothing but massive parking lots. There are hardly any trees anywhere and our quality of life is diminishing by the minute. “People are recognizing that the personal automobile has its limitations.” Said Foxx. “We spend the second-highest amount of our wallet, as a country, on transportation. And yet, the cars that we buy are used about 5 to 6 percent of the time.”
The interstate highway system served its purpose, but we are outgrowing it as a society. We also might recognize that the problems it created may turn out to be more harmful than any of the benefits accrued over the time of its use, and that a car-centric view of the universe is a net-negative for the world, in general. “I frankly think there are urban freeways,” Foxx concludes, “that could be torn down and replaced with open space or affordable housing or other assets that would be more valuable.”
Last Thursday, the TPO board members voted to forgo extending the beleaguered Metrorail to South Dade, and instead approve plans to build a Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) along the busway, a 20-plus mile stretch of pavement that currently runs several bus routes from the Dadeland South terminal to different points in the southernmost parts of the County.
The question of Metrorail extension has been dangled over the heads of Dade County’s transit-challenged population for decades now, like a chunk of raw meat over a starving circus cat. This last instance of kabuki theater comes on the heels of massive and continuous cuts to bus routes all over the city and the roll out of the new, privately owned “Miami Trolleys”, and the by-now infamous campaign promises of Carlos Gimenez, who led the charge for BRT – beginning just months after hoodwinking the electorate with glossy re-election posters proclaiming “More Rail”.
However, if we look more closely, we can see that neither Gimenez nor any of the “Rail, but” crowd who have been promoting the ‘idea’ of rail while leaving themselves enough space to backtrack at a moment’s notice were never really planning on giving residents of Miami-Dade another mile of rail. The airport extension only got built because former Mayor Alex Penelas left the project fully funded before leaving office and – most importantly – it would ostensibly serve the interests of the tourist industry; a concept, which has so far proven wrong. But, the fate of Metrorail expansion to South Dade had been decided years ago when they ripped up the existing train tracks, which ran all along what is now the Busway.
Fast-Track to Nowhere
The special session three days ago, once again leaned on the people’s well-known desire to see Metrorail extended. In yet another sham hearing with a few pro-rail voices peppered throughout, the final pro-BRT majority had been determined long before. Among the most disappointing pro-BRT votes was that of newly elected County Commissioner Eileen Higgins, who herself ran what is possibly the most pro-transit campaign of any aspiring Commish in the history of the County. The few minutes allotted to each Commissioner during the session saw Higgins offer a justification of her upcoming vote, citing her “luxurious” experience with BRT in Mexico City – a massive metropolis with a public transit system that surpasses that of New York’s and many other world class systems.
Commission Chairman, Esteban Bovo Jr.’s hypocrisy was in full display from the beginning. When fellow TPO board member and pro-rail, Coral Gables Commissioner, Vince Lago was defending his motion to re-open the “reasonable opportunity to be heard” in favor of the community, Bovo interrupted Lago in typical fashion and warned his colleague over “grandstanding”. Bovo’s admonishment was completely uncalled for and drew a quizzical look from Lago, whose motion was nevertheless adopted by Bovo, but only allowed 2 minutes for public comment, lest the individual had spoken at the first session, in which case they got only 1 minute to speak. Bovo, himself, would conclude the day’s proceedings with a grandstanding, 8-minute speech about being for rail despite voting against it seconds later.
The entrenched, American Dream ideology of several board members was also expressed during the short meeting, with Commissioners Joe Martinez and Javier Souto doubling down on last century’s car-equals-freedom paradigm. Martinez even went as far as to disparage public transit users entirely, implying they’re not worth spending any real money on. Souto, who – incredibly – was just reinstalled for yet another term in office, ran down his decades on the dole as if it was some kind of virtue and proclaimed to know more than anyone else. His pitch as elder statesman should convince us that we don’t need rail, apparently.
Only TPO Executive Director, Aileen Bouclé and Commissioner Moss offered some kind of practical opposition to the pro-BRT item on the table, calling into question the 35,000-rider threshold proposed in the BRT plan to “convert” the system to rail once the aforementioned rider density is reached. Citing Commissioner Moss’ numbers regarding rider densities in other cities around the country, far lower than 35,000, Bouclé suggested an amendment be considered to change the South Dade BRT plan’s language from an arbitrary rider-threshold number to a contingency designed around a national average of rail rider density. After some lip service from Bovo and others, Bouclé’s logical request was quickly swept under the rug and ignored.
Finally, Miami’s new Mayor, Francis X. Suarez, stated his opposition over the fact that the full BRT project study had only been submitted Monday afternoon, and nobody – including him – had read more than a few snippets, much less the entire 1,200-page document. No matter, according to the TPO board majority. The vote was fast-tracked to take place by 1pm, thanks in part, to the deliciously ironic pleas of TPO board-member Carlos Hernandez, who begged the board to move quickly on the item because of his long and arduous 4-hour commute to-and-from the County seat.
Just minutes after one o’clock, the Metrorail was struck down again and BRT was passed as the preferred option for South Dade, despite the overwhelming and repeated support for rail by both the residents of South Dade, and the rest of the county. Meanwhile, Gimenez will move forward with his plan for an 836 extension along the edge of the Everglades, costing about as much as the rail extension would have, and multiplying the threat to our already stressed eco-system, to boot.
The Old Switcharoo
Before lunch had even arrived, Bovo posted a victory tweet announcing the TPO’s passing of South Dade’s BRT project. The wording of his post should raise red flags, as he immediately starts changing the terminology, referring to it as “enhanced premium transportation alternatives”. We should be wary about what actually comes of this BRT project we still know little about, except for a couple of expensive animated renderings they were already playing on MDT’s digital signage screens BEFORE the vote.
In addition to Bovo’s slick tweet, the County Mayor, himself belied the entire premise of converting BRT to rail in the future right after the meeting, when Herald beat reporter, Doug Hanks asked him if Metrorail would ever be expanded in Miami-Dade:
After the vote, I asked @MayorGimenez if he thought Metrorail would ever be expanded in Miami-Dade. His answer: "Metrorail? It's very difficult. Because it's very expensive." Did say commuter rail on Brightline tracks was likely, and maybe light rail elsewhere.
It’s unlikely we’ve seen the end of “Metrorail vs (bacon)” scam. We may have even been privy to the set up for the next farcical battle in Miami politics involving this evergreen issue, with Mayor Suarez’ inconsequential no-vote on Thursday. Carlos Gimenez has recently stated his desire to remain in public office and challenge Suarez for city Mayor in 2022. Transit will still be a major – and probably bigger – problem in Miami by then, so if Gimenez and Suarez do square off in six years, you can be sure they’ll try to use Metrorail as a political tactic again. We can’t allow that.
The TPO’s decision over BRT vs Rail underscores the County’s continued failure to properly address, manage or otherwise offer functional public transit solutions to the people of Miami-Dade. Transit director, Alice Bravo has shown herself to be unequal to the task. Now, she will oversee the implementation of BRT for South Dade, but no one who has used Miami-Dade Transit lately can seriously expect any kind of practical improvement.
As a long-time user of MDT, I can’t be optimistic. As many others, I know the reality on the ground. The county is so far behind where it should be on transit, that it will take a complete 180-degree shift in priorities and a basic level of honesty from our political class, that – like my bus and trust in County government – is simply not there now.
In Miami, one of the most popular phrases used by our political class is the ever present “American Dream”; the go-to euphemism for social mobility and odd rebuttal to the residents’ continued demands for better public transit.
A Better Life?
Cars, according to County Commission Chairman Esteban Bovo, are part of the so-called American Dream. For the people who move to Miami from all over the world, toll-roads, expressways and bumper-to-bumper traffic on Bird Road is the fulfillment of a yearning they carry over from their respective Latin American ‘shit holes’. Buses and trains? That’s just a bad dream.
While Bovo pays lip service to the transit-challenged population, engaging in visible marketing bus adventures, the pervasive mentality among his ilk – who otherwise never step foot in a bus – is decidedly anti-public transit.
Just a few days ago, Bovo put out this telling tweet:
Using the @IRideMDT app made the experience good. I use Metrorail often, however the bus doesn’t work for me since I have my son in camp and meetings all over town. https://t.co/jyExnaWlla
Perhaps the commissioner is unaware that most people in Miami have children, too, and taking “meetings all over town” is about as feasible on a Miami-Dade bus as getting to a 9-to-5 on time. Perhaps the bus “doesn’t work” for him because it doesn’t work for anybody.
El Sueño Cubano
With few exceptions, wherever you look on the County Seat dais, instead of representatives we find agents of developer interests masquerading as elected officials, who carry a chip on their shoulder about a boogey man in another country altogether. It’s almost as if these guys have been making policy in Miami for the last 30 years just to ‘stick it’ to Castro, and show him how capitalist capitalism can be. To them, public transit is an expression of socialism, it seems. The car, on the other hand, embodies the ‘free market’ ethos they ostensibly champion, while rigging the game for their developer friends in back room deals.
The Mayor, who staked his entire re-election campaign on public transit, has invoked the so-called American Dream to excuse one of the most unbelievable about faces in recent memory, comparable only to George Bush’s “Read my lips. No new taxes.” Giménez even had the audacity, after circulating campaign materials with the words “More Rail Lines” directly above his pepper shade comb over, to dismiss rail as “19th century technology”, shortly before taking a publicly-funded trip to China with a 15-people entourage. The two-week sojourn was billed as a fact-finding mission for innovative transit solutions; a laughable premise, which never seemed to produce any kind of official – or unofficial- report of their observations. The only notable fact to come out of the Asian vacation was the Mayor’s absolute silence about the tragedy of the collapsed FIU pedestrian bridge. Despite having direct family connections to the company, which designed the ill-fated structure, not a single word came from Beijing or wherever in the Middle Kingdom Carlos Giménez happened to be at the time.
It’s also not a trivial matter that the Mayor traveled to a communist country to conduct business, and everyone who lives in Miami should get the joke. As a member of the world’s leading anti-communist exile community, Carlos Giménez and the rest of the Cuban-born gang who presides over the vast majority of local government seats have made a living backing a five-decade old economic embargo on ‘la patria’, and condemning everything left of your right hand’s pinky finger.
Cars Killed the Dream
The irony is that the automobile itself is to blame for the demise of the so-called American dream.
For close to a century, the American working class managed to gain benefits and increase wages, while reducing the number of hours they had to put in each day. This, in turn, resulted in the creation of the biggest middle class in modern history. The automobile was a big part of that process, spurring growth and entrepreneurship.
The federal highway system and urban roadway development gave rise to the car-based, American lifestyle characterized by suburban sprawl, malls and the big box store. It was an ode to prosperity as each generation bequeathed a higher standard of living to the next. This was the American Dream, and for a few decades it actually worked.
As Dr. Richard Wolff from the New School so clearly lays out in this lecture from 2009, the 1970’s was the beginning of the end. Since then, corporate profits have consistently soared while wages have stagnated, remaining at virtually the same level. The rise of productivity coupled with flat lining wages allowed corporations to acquire massive wealth, while the workforce they employed had no choice but to turn to credit cards to bridge the gap between income and their desire to continue to living the American Dream.
General Motors, was among the first companies to take advantage of the American working class’ new plight, and decided to go into the mortgage lending business, expanding the scope of their original car loan business, GMAC. The General Motors Acceptance Corporation kick-started what would become the credit card/debt boom in the United States. The automobile, in particular, would be used as the asset, which underpinned the burgeoning credit-based economy. Linchpin of the small loan industry, cars have been used to both issue loans and secure credit lines using the vehicle as collateral.
Television is riddled with car commercials, that flash financing and leasing terms on the screen. Every movie and TV series, almost without exception, promotes the idea of car ownership as a status symbol, rite of passage and the key to all your dreams come true, especially as it relates to sexual prowess. Anyone who knows the history of the diamond trade and how DeBeers manipulated public perception through movies and stealthy advertising techniques to literally create a market out of thin air, knows this is not an accident.
The unpolished truth is that cars are little more than debt traps. Gateway credit drugs designed to hook people on a lifetime of interest payments and modern-day indentured servitude. The literal American nightmare.
The children and grandchildren of the ‘exilio’ have heard the stories of dispossession and betrayal. If “El Sueño Americano” makes a cameo, it carries with it a certain melancholy, double entendre that reveals the real dream of their redemptive return to the island. This place called Miami is really just a way-station. It was never part of the plan. Smart or otherwise.
If the past keeps informing our actions in the present, then we are simply sowing the seeds for history to repeat itself. At some point, you have to let go. Miami is ready to move on. Francis X. Suárez is the first Miami-born Mayor the city has ever had. His father, County Commissioner Xavier Suárez, is one of the few voices in the County who seems resolutely against building more toll roads and regularly advocates for better transit solutions, though he, too, has been known to indulge in the occasional fawning over personal internal combustion engines.
The Columbus High alum, Francis Suárez, has hitched his wagon to Beckham’s soccer stadium as the first major project of his era. The wisdom of this move is yet to be seen, but the city’s very recent history with sports stadiums does not augur a good outcome. A serious lack of transparency in the process and the young leader’s full-on support of the massive development is concerning, to say the least. Hopefully, as the first native mayor, he will identify as a resident of this city first and foremost, understanding that Miami is not Havana 2.0 anymore.
Miami needs leadership that sees the city as more than a tourist trap or a preferred destination for asset flight of Latin American grifters. It’s time for the people of this community to stand up and demand a public transit system on par with the enormous potential of this beautiful place. The cost of neglecting transit for decades is already manifesting, and will ultimately inflict a terrible toll on the future of Miami if nothing is done to stop the irresponsible, short-sighted and tone-deaf approaches we have endured for years.
Our commissioners and representatives keep dreaming about America. But, this is our bed and we’re the ones laying in it. It’s time to wake up.
MIAMI, FL – Grant Stern’s Only in Miami radio show (880 The Biz Radio) held a Transit Town Hall yesterday evening in Wynwood’s popular venue, Shots.
Florida Rep. Kionne McGhee (D) spoke eloquently about the pressing issues facing residents of Miami on transit as part of a panel, which also included Transit Alliance co-founder, Marta Viciedo, Miami-Dade Commission candidate for District 6, Maryin Vargas, and Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Esteban Bovo chiming in remotely over the phone.
McGhee has emerged as a vocal opponent of County Mayor Gimenez’ BRT proposal for South Dade, that was recently unveiled and looks to replace the original plans for a rail extension. The Representative for District 117 has demonstrated an ability to cut through the political noise, and express the overwhelming support for rail among the people of Miami.
eMerge Americas is a technological innovation conference that takes place in Miami, and bills itself as the “premiere technology event connecting Latin America, North America and Europe”, but should not be confused with the almost identically named political organization Emerge America, whose mission is to further the careers of Democratic women in government.
eMerge Americas was created by the Technology Foundation of the Americas, a non-profit organization founded by Manny Medina, whose company, Terremark, built the NAP facility in downtown Miami, one of the most important IXPs in the world. Medina sold Terremark in 2011 and became a full-time technology advocate, leading the conversation about transforming Miami into a global tech hub.
According to a 2014 piece from the Miami Herald, “The plan for eMerge Americas is that major information technology companies will showcase solutions in the areas of cloud computing, cyber security, big data, mobile applications, and social networking to leaders in the technology sector in the Americas.”
The first eMerge America conference in April of 2015 turned out to be a success. The five-thousand plus attendance surpassed the expectation of the organizers, despite this number being quite modest compared to any number of similar events in San Francisco every year, which can draw tens of thousands of people. Nevertheless, the focus of eMerge Americas to engage the Latin American tech sector is undoubtedly promising, and a natural fit for South Florida.
This year will be the third iteration of the burgeoning tech convention, and will feature some notable guests, like keynote speaker Vicente Fox, former president of Mexico and famous Twitter foil of current U.S. president, Donald Trump. Sophia, the AI robot created by Hanson Robotics, will also make an appearance.
The 2018 eMerge Americas conference will be held in Miami Beach’s revamped Convention Center on Monday, April 23 through Tuesday, April 24. For tickets and more information, visit the conference’s website.
Proponents of Miami-Dade Transit are fond of describing it as a world class system; a term that has garnered much derision among its regular social media critics (yours truly included). Indeed, it is no mystery that political and financial challenges plaguing Miami-Dade Transit have made it one of the worst public transportation systems in the nation, and many factors play a role in the complete disaster that is Miami’s public transportation. But, what really takes it over the top, and puts it in a class of its own is the pervasive rudeness, lack of compassion and disdain for MDT commuters by its public-facing staff, like bus drivers and third-party security guards.
While there are certainly exceptions of drivers and security guards working at MDT who approach their jobs with a courteous disposition, and show a willingness to help a lost passenger or answer a question, it is undeniable that many more take a much dimmer view of the people they serve, and refuse to even engage in the most basic forms of polite behavior.
Using Miami-Dade Transit, one often gets the impression that our patronage is resented by the people manning the buses and train stations. A distinct air of contempt is present in many of the day-to-day interactions people have with Miami-Dade Transit staff. A simple question like “When are you leaving?”, when a bus you’ve been waiting on for thirty minutes arrives, and the driver decides to take a break, will elicit a death-stare before you get an answer, if you get one at all.
The Chicken or the Egg
Frustration runs deep in everything related to Miami-Dade Transit. From broken promises to broken buses, from terrible traffic to ridiculous schedules, everybody’s pissed.
Are drivers and other MDT staff simply reacting to users lashing out at the system’s egregious inefficiencies or the other way around? In my personal opinion, formed after years of riding Miami’s buses and trains, there is a massive cultural component within MDT, that is to blame for most of the issues in the customer service department.
There’s no doubt, however, that angry and exasperated riders play a major role in exacerbating an already delicate situation, and contribute to deteriorating attitudes among those behind the wheel of MDT’s buses and others who deal with the public on their behalf.
Nevertheless, it is the Transit Department’s responsibility to make sure the system’s users feel welcomed and respected. A modicum of civility should be the minimum requirement for any person tasked with a job that serves the public in some way, and especially one that represents an entire city. Ideally, they would display a genuine desire to be helpful and informative.
Miami-Dade Transit users have a lot in common with the late and great comedian, Rodney Dangerfield. We get no respect. Mainly, this lack of regard for bus and train riders is expressed in an absence of effective environmental design and an embarrassing paucity of information when something goes wrong and passengers are stranded on Metromover or Metrorail tracks.
Departing from any of the three end-point terminals of the Metrorail, such as Dadeland South, Airport Station or Palmetto, can turn out to be a game of Black Jack (another of Rodney’s favorite things) should you want to get on the next train out, and there happens to be a train on both sides of the track. You won’t find a single piece of signage or hear any kind of announcement that will tell you which train to board. Your only recourse is to spot the elusive train conductor when he or she is on their way to the front or hope that only one of the trains has closed doors, allowing you to pick the other one by process of elimination. But, even then you might be wrong.
Similarly, distinguishing between the green and orange lines of the Metrorail can prove less than straightforward. Even though the recently installed screens on all Metrorail platforms purports to display the color of the incoming train, this information is not always accurate, and only a glimpse of the crooked paper sign taped to the conductor’s windshield can confirm it.
The scope of PA announcements on the Metrorail and Metromover are quite limited, as well, and live updates are so rare, you’d think the only microphone is set up in some janitor closet down a little-used hallway in one of MDT’s out-of-the-way facilities. Perhaps the one that leads to that bathroom no one wants to use because it only gets cleaned once a month.
Another way MDT shows a want of consideration for their customers are the neglected state of their facilities, including public restrooms, elevators and a dearth of waste bins in many stations, as well as the vehicles themselves.
The filth inside the trains and buses is appalling. Several train cars have large holes running along the side paneling and even a few on the floors of the cars. Mice have been caught peeking through by users’ camera phones. Buses don’t seem to get cleaned at all, beyond a cursory trash removal, and roaches are a common sight in the older models.
Toilet paper scarcity in Metrorail restrooms has been documented by freelance writer and journalist, Maria de Los Angeles, a.k.a., “Vice Queen Maria” in her scatological meditation during her adventures using Miami-Dade Transit.
Elevators in the various train and Metromover stations also serve to demonstrate MDT’s disregard for its users. The constant breakdowns can be attributed to the underlying political high jinks, that result in lack of funding for proper mechanical maintenance, but what about the rancid urine smell?
Low Hanging Fruit
Obviously, the problems facing Miami-Dade Transit as a result of municipal graft and other issues are very complicated. But, there’s no reason the current system cannot be improved at the most primary level, which is customer service and routine sanitation.
It might not fix the system’s underlying shortcomings, but it will make the road there more tolerable, and less likely to be littered with half-eaten apples like the one I nearly sat on the other day on my way home.
It’s Ultra Music Festival time, and the kids are back with their short shorts, fishnet stockings and lollipops to let loose for a few days in Downtown Miami. We took some pictures as Ultramiami kicks off, and thousands descend on the Magic City for their annual EDM ritual.
They say the only sure things in life are death and taxes. But, in Miami, we might as well add late trains and buses to that tired phrase. And tired, we are. Tired of waiting for our city leaders to put aside blatant self-interest and crony-capitalist tendencies to finally do something about public transit here.
Declining ridership has been the result of people encountering a system so bad, many prefer to sit in I-95’s parking lot day after day than face Miami-Dade Transit’s interminable delays and breakdowns.
With bumper-to-bumper traffic becoming a regular occurrence, Miami residents are desperate for a functional transit system, that offers respite from an increasingly onerous daily commute. Despite this, Mayor Carlos Gimenez has decided to abandon the platform he ran on to get reelected, and sponsor yet another toll-road initiative, while floating pie-in-the-sky technologies for mass transit, that only serve to derail the conversation.
Unfortunately for us, the masters of illusion who run the Magic City have only made what amount to cosmetic changes to a decaying transit system, despite collecting billions from taxpayers, who are beginning to grasp that they’ve been taken for a ride of a completely different kind.
The incompetence runs deep, and decades of bad relations with the transit union only makes the situation that much worse for riders, who are the ones who ultimately pay the steepest price.
Off The Rails
County Mayor, Carlos Gimenez, and friends, rolled out the first of the new Metrorail cars a few months ago to much self-congratulatory fanfare. A big photo op party was held at the Airport Metrorail station, with beleaguered Transit director, Alice Bravo, and other municipal luminaries cutting ribbons and boarding the new Hitachi-manufactured 4-car train for a private inaugural ride.
The tone-deaf “leaders” chose a weekday morning to have their ceremony, disrupting travel times for actual commuters. Only four new cars were actually put into service. Not even enough to make one complete six-car train, as the original Metrorail once had (according to legend); but enough to hold a press conference and unveil a cheap plaque.
Since that banner day in December of last year, the gradual introduction of more new train cars, which had been scheduled for two new cars a month, has hit a troubling, if predictable, delay. Many of the spanking new train cars have already suffered similar mechanical malfunctions, that took the old trains decades to manifest, like doors that do not open and broken air conditioning causing them to be removed from service on several occasions.
Cynical Metrorail users have christened the new trains with mythological monickers like “Unicorn” and “Centaur” due to the improbability of actually riding one. But, even if they’re fortunate enough to catch an elusive, clean car with functioning A/C, their good luck is likely to be offset by having to cram against other riders like sardines in the packed train.
The Metrorail, of course, is far from the only problem in the Miami-Dade Transit ecosystem. Buses are an even worse proposition for anyone looking to use it.
Anyone who has sat (or likely stood) at a Miami-Dade bus stop with the intention of catching one, has invariably come across the fact that MDT buses do not keep their schedule. Not only are they late on the regular, many simply never show up. “Ghost buses” are an everyday affair in Miami, and can make an already long wait, a cruel and frustrating affair.
Hour-long wait times for buses in Miami is not only common, it is inevitable if you are a regular rider. The only exception is if you’re a tourist leaving the airport. Miami is very interested in getting you to your hotel as quickly as possible, so you can start spending your money in South Florida. But, if you plan on relying on public transportation for sight-seeing or getting around, you’re better off staying in, and calling for room service.
In spite of this, MDT is extending wait times for some of the most used routes and even cutting them altogether. The reason cited for these cuts is lack of funding, which is really just lack of political will by Gimenez and his sycophantic chorus of self-interested County commissioners.
Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, who literally chairs the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development subcommittee, has stated repeatedly that he would see to it that Miami-Dade County gets the necessary funds to expand and improve its mass transit system, but so far Mayor Gimenez has chosen to break campaign promises and is angling, again, to build more space-wasting asphalt toll-roads.
Next Stop: Conundrum
At this point, with such a disastrously inefficient transit system perpetually neglected by an entrenched political class, what is the way forward for a city in dire need of transit options?
The advent of Uber and other ride sharing services has provided some relief to the transit-dependent residents of Miami, but they are also a contributing factor to the increased congestion of our streets, and while these apps are good in a pinch, they are not a mass transit solution.
Likewise, the privately run and free Miami Trolley, is another play for tourists and not genuine option for moving across the city on a daily basis. These low-capacity, and torturously slow retro buses are further hampered by capricious drivers, who have no compunction about leaving their trollies, full of passengers, in the middle of a route to make a Taco Bell run. To make matters worse, Miami Trolley route frequencies are completely unpredictable.
The only positive transit stories with a semblance of efficiency occur within the various incorporated cities inside Miami-Dade County. Services like the Coral Gables Trolley, which has been efficiently operated for decades, works well for the “City Beautiful’s” downtown area. Miami Beach has also developed a good trolley system as of late, and in North Miami, the Haitian community took the initiative long ago with the jitneys.
Maybe it’s time to forget about letting the County have anything to do with transit, since their interests clearly lie elsewhere, and have shown no responsibility in terms of managing and maintaining the current system. Perhaps a more local approach is called for, with cities themselves receiving federal or County funds to develop their own transit systems and only centralizing the payment systems, to facilitate logistical issues like bus or rail transfers.
The bottom line is that Miami-Dade County has proven unequal to the task of running a mass public transit system, and that is unlikely to change in the near future or even a generation.
Several Counties in South Florida came together recently on a contingency plan in case of an unprecedented sea-level rise event. Mass evacuations are contemplated, and considerable resources have been allocated to prepare for this possibility.
If things don’t change, we can always look on the bright side. Our terrible transit system could drive millions out of Miami, making this end-of-the-world scenario less daunting.
Survivors will tell tales of magical vehicles that ran atop copper tracks high above the city. Instead of horned equines, with flowing white manes, that jump over rainbows, unicorns will become metaphors about lost mobility, and a new day will dawn as our descendants strive to reach their Valhalla.