A View from Ft. Lauderdale

Fort Lauderdale is a strange city. At first glance it’s a perfect example of the typical sprawling, strip-mall filled, car-friendly Florida city. As I visited last weekend for work my first impression certainly supported this – as we attempted to walk to grab a burrito we had to make our way to the only crosswalk in either direction for half of a mile, then dodge (read: jump over) the hedge that surrounded the shopping complex, preventing anyone without a metal shell from entering the facility.Image

When you travel a bit around the county, a few incongruous elements start to emerge. The whole region is linked by both national inter-city rail (via an Amtrak station) and a comprehensive regional rail system connecting Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Palm Beach. Bike share stations are scattered throughout both the downtown business core and the surrounding suburban counties. Water taxis transport people along Ft. Lauderdale’s extensive canal system. A planned streetcar system will soon connect several major areas of the downtown core. They’re in the process of creating an elaborate greenway system with 370 miles of trails throughout the county. 

So what makes this community of 165,000 in the city proper and over 1.8 million in the county different than dozens of other similar areas spread throughout the southern U.S.?

I’m putting my money on tourism.

Some cities are designed for the people who live in them. Others are designed for the people who visit. I was certainly a visitor this past week, but not your typical Ft. Lauderdale tourist – I was staying on a ship docked in the cargo area of the huge Port Everglades. While the infrastructure to move people off of cruise ships and onto the beaches and into the business district is well developed, those luxuries don’t extend over towards the shipping ports.

Of course, most of the 12 million people who visit Broward County every year aren’t staying in a shipping port – they are on cruise ships, on yachts (there are a whole lot of yachts), or they are in one of the area’s 35,000 hotel rooms. 

Their transit development over the past few years seems clearly aimed at tourists – streetcars without dedicated rights of way are not a particularly efficient use of transportation money, unless you are aiming at a group that values comfort over efficiency. The area is too spread out for most commuters to be able to switch to bike sharing systems, but they are great for getting visitors from the downtown core to the area’s beaches. The regional rail system allows people to easily head to other popular tourist destinations like Miami or Palm Beach.

On one hand, perhaps public transportation money could be better spent on improving the area’s bus system (a few BRT lines could do wonders for the region), or on improving bike lanes along popular commuter routes. On the other hand, these developments do also benefit residents, and if the only way to get new investment in public transit is by aiming it at tourists, it is certainly better than the total lack of funding that similarly sized cities around the country have to deal with.

I wish the best for Ft. Lauderdale – it was a strange and car-focused city, but if their tourist-centered transit development can lead them towards a more urbanized future life could improve for everyone. It’s not ideal, but it might be the hook that pulls them away from a dystopian future of strip-malls and freeways.

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