Five things we learned at South Florida’s Safe Streets Summit

Last month, the National Complete Streets Coalition joined the South Florida Safe Streets Summit, an annual conference co-hosted by the metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) of Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties. The day was jam-packed with informative and inspirational presentations by local elected officials, planners, authors, professors, and transportation advocates, and Emiko Atherton, Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, delivered the keynote address. Here are five things we learned during the event.

1. Florida officials are motivated.

“To the engineers and planners, I’m asking you to think not out of the box, but out on the street.”
— Richard Blattner, Broward MPO Chair

A recurring theme throughout the day was Florida’s ranking as the most dangerous state for people walking. Rather than discouraging attendees, this fact helped to foster a dialogue about creating change. Local elected officials, planners, and advocates all expressed a readiness and willingness to take action to redesign Florida’s streets in favor of safer, multimodal transportation options. Richard Blattner, Chair of the Broward MPO, opened the Summit by calling for engineers and planners to “think not out of the box, but out on the street.” Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jean Monestime followed up by declaring that Complete Streets will be an important part of the MPO’s SMART Transit Plan. Mayor Paulette Burdick of Palm Beach County gave many examples of new bike lanes in her county. She also explained how Palm Beach MPO is measuring improvements for bicyclists, including mapping roads that are suitable for biking and monitoring corridors with high accident rates. Transportation officials and advocates at the Safe Streets Summit consistently demonstrated their eagerness to rethink Florida’s street design in favor of a safer, multimodal network, and the rest of the day focused on concrete strategies to make that vision a reality.

2. Change will be incremental—and that’s okay.

“If it doesn’t work, we can stripe it back.” – Becky Crowe, Federal Highway Administration

Transforming an entire street network is a daunting task, but making incremental changes are an important way forward. Ashley Robbins of Mobility Lab spoke about the challenges of funding Complete Streets projects, emphasizing that one of the best strategies is applying for small grants, which require less time and paperwork to secure. Rebecca Crowe of the Federal Highway Administration stressed that impactful safety improvements such as road diets can be implemented at a low cost, especially when done in conjunction with road maintenance or resurfacing projects. Crowe also highlighted an effective tactic to reduce opposition to Complete Streets projects: implementing a trial period first. “If it doesn’t work, we can stripe it back,” she remarked. Eric Dumbaugh of Florida Atlantic University and Jeff Arms of engineering firm HDR echoed her words and gave examples of Complete Streets projects that were implemented on a trial basis before becoming permanent. Starting small and generating enthusiasm for Complete Streets will go a long way. “Change will take time,” Emiko Atherton acknowledged in her keynote address, “but doing something well the first time is going to make people want it.”

3. Work across borders.

“If we build bike lanes that end at our city boundaries and lead to nowhere, we have failed.” – Mark Lubelski, City of Sunrise

At a roundtable about instituting change, local elected officials discussed the challenge of consolidating county and municipal efforts to pursue grants and implement projects. The theme of collaboration across borders was reiterated consistently throughout the Summit. “If we build bike lanes that end at our city boundaries and lead to nowhere, we have failed,” remarked Mark Lubelski, City Manager of Sunrise, Florida. Sarita Turner of Policy Link spoke about busting silos, highlighting the concerted effort of USDOT and HUD on the Ladders of Opportunity and Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing initiatives. Presenters also called for collaboration across sectors, embracing the potential of public-private partnerships to advance the Complete Streets movement. Fred Jones of Michael Baker International summarized a case study from North Florida where Jacksonville University and the City of Jacksonville are working together to construct a traffic-calming roundabout at the campus entrance. These examples, as well as many others not recounted here, emphasize the importance of collaborating across borders, silos, and sectors in the pursuit of safer, Complete Streets.

4. Community engagement needs to be genuine and inclusive.

“We need to see the community as a resource and a partner, not just as the people we serve” – Sarita Turner, Policy Link

In a moving session about equity in transportation, Scot Spencer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation called for the end of the “decide, announce, defend” approach to community engagement, where decisions are made in advance of public meetings and community members are treated as an audience, not as contributors. Fred Arms of HDR made a similar observation about the need for true two-way dialogue in the public engagement process, which he called “a listening exercise.” Atherton went a step further, adding that listening without actively breaking down cultural barriers is insufficient, because the loudest voices may not represent the community’s interests. This need for genuine engagement extends beyond the project planning process, too. Sarita Turner of Policy Link spoke about the frustration some communities feel during needs assessments. “Communities are tired of being studied,” she remarked. “They want to be in partnership with you.” An important takeaway from all of these discussions is that community engagement needs to be undertaken early in the process and in a manner that is mindful of barriers to involvement.

5. Making streets safer for walking can make a whole community happier and more prosperous.

“Urban design can change the way we feel, the way we think, the way we treat other people.” – Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

The final key takeaway from the Safe Streets Summit was the overwhelming enthusiasm for Complete Streets and the comprehensive benefits they can provide. Dale Bracewell from the City of Vancouver spoke about safety improvements, explaining that Vancouver’s network of protected bike lanes have resulted in a 41 percent increase in cycling trips and a 17 percent reduction in collisions. Professor Eric Dumbaugh emphasized Complete Streets’ potential to create economic value by encouraging customers to linger in attractive, public spaces. Finally, Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City, shared his findings that people who commute on bike or on foot express more joy and less fear, rage, or sadness than those who drive.

Florida certainly has a lot of work to do to make its street network safer, but at the Safe Streets Summit the sentiment was decidedly optimistic about the potential for Complete Streets to make a big difference across the state.

Complete Streets