Talk of Downtown
The Freebee Effect
Miami’s Next Connect: Unlocking Opportunities in the Built Environment. By Aaron DeMayo.
Miami’s transportation system is one of the most diverse and unique in the United States. In addition to buses, trolleys, trains, and autonomous people movers, Freebee shuttles provide an important service. These electric powered shuttles offer convenience and connect people to places that might otherwise be difficult to reach by walking, thus unlocking numerous opportunities to redefine the built environment. On-demand free rides can be requested using the Freebee app or by flagging down a shuttle. Recently, the Miami Parking Authority initiated a one-year program with Freebee to determine the service’s feasibility downtown.
For urban and mobility planners, a difficult aspect of public transportation is how to solve First Mile and Last Mile mobility, connecting people from a location to their destination, or vice-versa. Downtown Miami has choices to provide that connectivity, including electric bikes, scooters, the Metromover and now also Freebee Shuttles.
The first mile and last mile issue is often discussed regarding occupants of public transit. Within the Freebee Shuttle Downtown Service Area sits Government Center and Overtown Metrorail stations, 13 Metromover Stations, and numerous bus, trolley, and jitney stop. What is often overlooked is that First Mile and Last Mile issues are also being created due to dependence on private vehicles. People often search for spaces close to their destination even though it may be far easier and cheaper to park slightly farther. Providing simple and safe options for movement from garages or parking lots to destinations, and back, is key to the future viability of a pedestrian and people-focused downtown.
Manolo Reyes, City Commissioner for District 4 and Chair of the Downtown Development Authority has supported the Freebee shuttle service and advocates higher usage of Miami Parking Authority garages. Most trips into Downtown Miami still occur by car, and frequently with only a single occupant. Cruising, the act of driving while looking for parking, often of an on-street parking space, creates significant traffic and dirty emissions that pollute our air quality. This also makes our city less efficient as cruising is often done at slow speeds, creates traffic and can result in accidents.
The Miami Parking Authority manages over 46,800 parking spots with approximately 11,800 on-street spaces. In Downtown Miami, there are tens of thousands of public parking spaces available from the MPA and private operators within garages and parking lots. Yet Downtown Miami still prioritizes most of our public space to the movement and parking of private vehicles, with only a small amount of the space for sidewalks.
If more people utilized the thousands of parking spaces in the existing garages and parking lots, we could remove some on-street parking to create wider sidewalks, increase street trees to reduce the heat island effect, add protected micro-mobility/bike lanes, make space for outdoor dining, add dedicated loading zones, and allow for more efficient on-street vehicular movement. These changes are already in the works with the Flagler Street Renovation, the proposed Avenue 3, and Biscayne Green. Designated Mobility Hubs can be created next to MPA garages, Metro Rail, and Metromover stations. The hubs would include dedicated spaces for Freebee shuttles to charge and idle waiting for riders and designated electric bikes and scooters pick-up and drop-off stations. Widening sidewalks will make it safer for pedestrians. As a result, there would then be numerous options to get from garages and lots to people’s final destinations, safely, conveniently, and economically.
Across the Bay
Miami Beach installed street signs directing motorists to the nearest garages and identifying the cost savings available for drivers who park in garages. Similar signage can be installed downtown so that visitors and residents are aware of changes. By moving more drivers to specific garages, traffic patterns and signalization can be improved downtown. By charging the right prices for on-street parking, we can maintain one or two open spaces per block. Prices will balance supply and demand. The availability of on-street parking at higher costs also increases the turnover rate and increases short trips into shops when people are confident, they can quickly find a space. Thus, increasing business for our ‘Main Street’ shops and restaurants. Currently, the MPA is offering a 50% discount for parking in its four downtown garages for riding Freebee. As this effort gains traction and MPA garages fill up, perhaps mobility hubs and discounted rates can also be offered at private lots as a Public-Private Partnership.
Research from City Observatory, Redfin, and Zillow has found significant correlations that homes with high walkability levels measured by Walk Score command a premium over otherwise similar homes in less walkable locations. In South Florida, there is a 20.2% premium for homes in walkable neighborhoods over car-dependent. Data show that the walkability premium has continued to increase over time.
Improving parking policies may be the cheapest, quickest, and most politically feasible way to achieve many social, economic, and environmental goals within the urban core. The increased pedestrian safety from wider sidewalks, safer protected mobility lanes, and less expensive parking options in garages would incentivize people to choose those options. Each of these ideas supports each other and would become a self-sustaining positive feedback loop. A major key to allow for this transformation of our built environment is the ability for people who either choose not to or are unable to walk or utilize electric scooters or bikes to have a convenient On-Demand means for door-to-door service, this is the Freebee effect.
Aaron DeMayo, Principal of Future Vision Studios, writes about architecture design and urban policy.