On the last Friday of October, more than a hundred cyclists gathered at Holiday Park armed with bikes, costumes and masks. They rolled out and pedaled close to one another in a pack. Like a school of fish, the formation required accurate, synchronized movements and was pursued in an attempt to better protect themselves from predators — in this case, the gas-guzzling, 2,000-pound chunks of steel, aluminum and rubber that dominate the roadways.
October’s installment of the monthly Critical Mass bike ride featured riders with iridescent ghostface masks, witches hats and Michael Myers welding uniforms. They wound through residential streets and over drawbridges. They took up the entire lane on Las Olas Boulevard, A1A and Wilton Drive, in some instances slowing traffic to 10 miles per hour. It was unclear whether it was riders’ festive mood, wide grins or dramatic waves, but the drivers and passengers in the motorized vehicles on the 12-mile jaunt didn’t seem to mind, with many honking and giving the thumbs up in solidarity.
“I think of drivers as superheroes. They get into this amazing device that can launch them from 0 to 60 miles per hour in eight seconds,” says K. Sakai, president of the Fort Lauderdale-based Little Seamstress Cycling Club and a regular on rides like Critical Mass. “They’re packed with hundreds of horsepower that can travel across town in minutes — I drove earlier to Ocala and back in one day! What kind of mortal can do that?”
Then Sakai pauses, and quotes the popular Spider-Man adage. “With great power, comes great responsibility,” he says. “But, when misused or worse, not understood, tragic things can occur: Denise Marsh, Sunny LaValle, Aaron Cohen.” The names of three cyclists who were struck and killed in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in the past decade.
With its flat terrain and year-round warm weather, South Florida has the makings of a cyclist’s paradise. But as Fort Lauderdale’s population increases, more cars come too, congesting the streets and at times bringing rush-hour traffic to a crawl. In 2012, the City of Fort Lauderdale formed a new Transportation and Mobility Department to prioritize safer streets and sharing the road with drivers, motorcyclists, cyclists, pedestrians and other means of transportation. It also became one of the first municipalities in Florida to adopt a Vision Zero action plan, which seeks to eliminate all traffic-related deaths and serious injuries.
But Vision Zero was adopted seven years ago, and cyclist fatalities have continued in Fort Lauderdale; there were two in 2022. Florida repeatedly ranks as one of the deadliest places to ride a bike in the country; a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report examining the state’s 1,341 fatal cycling accidents between 2010 and 2019 found the 6.18 deaths per 100,000 residents to be the highest in the country and 162 percent more than the national average.
Fort Lauderdale leaders say they’re working on making things better for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers, but that challenges include project costs and the confusing nature of city, county and state jurisdiction when it comes to roads. They point to improvements such as nearly 50 miles of bicycle lanes added in the last decade and lowered speed limits on some roads.
But local cyclists and experts say the kind of infrastructure that’s added also matters. According to a 2019 study in which researchers from the University of Colorado Denver and the University of New Mexico looked at 13 years of data from 12 cities, separated bicycle lanes – lanes where bicycles are separated from cars by poles or other infrastructure – resulted in lower fatalities and injuries for all road users, including cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. Researchers also found that painted bicycle lanes provided no additional safety, while sharrows – lanes with bicycle symbols telling motorists that cyclists may also use the lane – were actually less safe than no markings at all, as they provided a false sense of security.
South Florida attorney and cyclist Eli Stiers has represented many cycling accident victims over the years, and he views the right kind of infrastructure as crucial.
“Everyone’s looking for physical separation between cars and bicycles,” he says. “I think just completely separating bike lanes from the roadway (is) the gold standard.”
Fort Lauderdale has focused almost exclusively on painted lanes and sharrows.
Local cyclists want safer riding conditions and measures including more and better bicycle lanes, emphasis on lowering speed limits, educating drivers and increased enforcement in areas such as safe driving and bicycle lane maintenance.
“Pretty much once a week you’ll hear of a friend getting hit by a car,” Sakai says. “I think about getting hit by a car pretty much every day.”
A Scary Place to Ride
The Little Seamstress Cycling Club was formed in 2017. Today there are more than 35 members; ages range from teens to late 60s. The idea is that the better riders pass down their tips and insight to help the other team members. Over time, the group improves as a whole while keeping training accessible to almost anyone.
But regardless of any member’s skill set, Sakai says, everyone agrees that cycling in Fort Lauderdale’s relatively flat terrain remains an uphill battle. Sakai, who lives in Margate, regularly rides into Fort Lauderdale, but the commute is often harrowing, and not just because of bad drivers. On roads with bike lanes, Sakai often encounters garbage bins, trash heaps and other debris like shattered glass and abandoned bumpers, in the designated green sliver for cyclists.
“We have beautiful areas to ride and an infrastructure that demands multimodal means of transportation that are currently not being met,” Sakai says. “Many spots have debris that never gets cleaned so over half of the bike lane isn’t rideable.”
Stu Nelson, who helped bring the monthly Critical Mass bike rides to Fort Lauderdale, began riding his bike as a kid in the Chicago suburbs. His bicycle, he says, was his “freedom machine.”
He’s been riding in South Florida for 35 years. For more than 15 years, he has helped organize weeknight group rides.
“Bicycling saved my life in a sense,” Nelson says. “Not only the fresh air and the pedaling, and being able to go whatever speed you want, but it’s beautiful outside during the golden hour and the violet hour no matter how hot and humid it is during the day.”
Nelson has taken a number of steps to mitigate his risk of being struck, including wearing what he calls the “‘ouch-my-retina!’ brand of blinky” rear lights, and has even changed his routes to avoid streets that make him uneasy.
“I don’t ride down Andrews Avenue unless I’m with 25 of my friends, and I don’t ride down Third Avenue either because there’s no bike lane,” he says. “I’ll take a parallel street or even the sidewalk because I don’t want to get hit by a car, which I think is an ever-present danger and every cyclist in town thinks about that.
“Even if I go out of my way to take a parallel street where there’s little traffic, what used to be where you wouldn’t see a car for four blocks, now you see 15 or 20 cars in those four blocks,” he says. “The number of traffic I am confronting between Wilton Manors and the river has doubled, tripled, quadrupled, quintupled. Riding in the street gets more dangerous every day.”
In the past eight years, Edgar Caceres has been struck four times while on his bike. One time, he acknowledges, he didn’t see a vehicle when turning left — a mistake that left him with his “ear hanging off my head,” with a “neck that will never be the same,” scarring and “dazed and confused for a while.”
The other three times, Caceres says, were not his fault, and can be pinpointed to poor lighting, distracted drivers and the dreaded “right hook,” in which a driver looks left toward oncoming traffic and turns the vehicle right and collides with a cyclist.
“I just feel like drivers don’t really pay attention and don’t respect cyclists,” he says. “They feel like we don’t deserve to be on the road.”
These reasons motivated Caceres to start a weekly Monday night social bike ride four years ago called Gears & Beers. The goal, he says, is to “promote cycling safety and awareness.” He also acquired a tall bike (yes, the kind trapeze artists use at the circus), which might seem unwieldy to ride but makes Caceres feel safer.
“You’d be surprised by how much more visible you are on it, and a lot of people slow down to stop and wave,” he says. “I like to be properly lit, and have a lot of lights on my bike and on myself. I wear a lot of reflective materials, hats, jerseys — stuff like that so I can be seen. Even in broad daylight, I just feel like I’m not being seen.”
Robin Merrill began petitioning 15 years ago to make Las Olas Blvd. safer after witnessing scores of dicey interactions between pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles. Back then, she ran the Upper Room Art Gallery at 1200 Las Olas Boulevard. On March 10, 2010, Merrill rushed to the scene when 65-year-old Carolyn Bianco was struck by a black SUV while crossing at 11th Avenue on her way to an evening jazz concert. Bianco died seven days later.
Less than a mile away at Second Avenue, and exactly two weeks after Bianco’s death, 53-year-old Douglas Allen de Boer crossed Las Olas Boulevard after getting a haircut and was hit by a pickup truck. He died five hours later after sustaining a severe head injury, multiple broken bones and a punctured lung.
Even when improvements are made, Merrill finds the strategy disjointed and “visually confusing.” Take the intersection at Las Olas and Southeast 13th Avenue: There’s an LED-lit painted crosswalk, yellow median and turning stripes, a brief sliver of green paint to demarcate the bike lane, and a painted light blue lane that hugs the sidewalk and curb.
“I know the city and the transportation department mean well, but this sucks. What does the blue [paint] even mean?” Merrill says. “We’re a tourist area and these colors don’t have any universal meaning. None of this has any kind of continuity.”
In 2017, residents, businesses and property owners came together for The Las Olas Boulevard Mobility Project, which seeks to improve the corridor between Andrews Avenue and A1A. A plan was approved in 2021 and aims to bring Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades, stormwater improvements, raised crosswalks, wider sidewalks, more lighting and bicycle sharrow symbols.
“It’s challenging because I hear and feel the frustration of everybody, and understand that it takes too long,” says Karen Warfel, Fort Lauderdale’s Transportation and Mobility Department’s principal planner. “South Florida was built for the car so it is a challenge to try to retrofit the streets to be more multimodal.”
Warfel is proud of the 47 miles of bike lanes that have been added throughout Fort Lauderdale since 2013, and 84 new bike parking spaces have been added since 2017. In the last ten years, the speed limit on multiple streets has been reduced, too. “When we’re able to get these really awesome projects, it’s super rewarding,” she says.
Because most major streets in Fort Lauderdale aren’t controlled by the city but either the Florida Department of Transportation or Broward County, the city often doesn’t have the authority to implement changes. Another hurdle Warfel faces are pre-determined engineering standards, such as the 10-foot minimum width of a traffic lane.
“The width of the road is only so wide,” she explains. “Sometimes you just can’t physically fit what you want.”
Even when the various agencies align and the plans are drawn up, the city’s budget is approved years out; projects approved in 2022 might not be implemented until 2027. Then there’s the cost. These kind of sweeping projects can cost upwards of $100,000,000.
“Where do you get that kind of money?” Warfel says. “It’s very expensive to do really cool, big projects that we would love to get to do so sometimes we just have to do what we can and keep plugging away.”
In the meantime, Warfel passes out rear lights to dimly lit cyclists riding at night.
“I’ve stopped bicyclists and handed them bike lights because it’s so dark and I came up on them and didn’t even see them,” Warfel says. “I get the traffic homicide reports from the police department and they’re heartbreaking.”
Rules of the (Shared) Road
For the past 35 years, personal injury attorney Lee Marks has ridden his bike 36 miles before coming into his Miami office. It’s his “rolling meditation,” and a time when his mind is sharp and ideas come to him. Whenever he can, he tries to give the thumbs up to drivers to lessen the perceived tensions between the motorized and non-motorized vehicles. He calls it “diplomacy on a bike.”
“I’m of the school of thought that if you want respect, you got to give respect,” Marks says. “I’m constantly trying to teach cyclists to lead the way, to look, and to be respectful of the cars stopping for you.”
But after representing victims of more than 100 bicycle accidents across South Florida, including five fatalities, Marks knows all too well that sometimes cyclists get hurt and even die through no fault of their own.
“One of my clients is a trauma nurse at Broward General, and she’s an accomplished cyclist and triathlete, and she’s just riding one day and gets hit from behind,” Marks says. She survived. Others don’t.
Marks believes better education will save lives.
“Whenever anybody new moves to Florida, and they have to get a license, it should be mandatory that in every written exam that every driver understands that there’s a bicycle statute that gives cyclists the right to be in the roadway,” he says.
Marks stresses that motorists need to give cyclists at least three feet of distance while passing them, that cyclists are allowed to ride two abreast, and that cyclists can leave a bike lane and cross over traffic to get in the left-most lane to make a left turn.
“A lot of police officers don’t understand that and want to give a cyclist a ticket because they left the shoulder area or bike lane,” Marks says. “Motorists have to yield to the cyclists as if they were a car.”
Personal injury attorney Eli Stiers moved to South Florida in 2005 and would ride his bike and train for triathlons. But in 2012, after experienced cyclist and traithlete Aaron Cohen was killed in a hit-and-run accident on the Rickenbacker Causeway on Miami’s Key Biscayne — on a stretch that Stiers regularly rode — “it all crystallized.” Coupled with the fact that Stiers has three kids, he finds himself riding less and less.
“I began to realize South Florida was just a very dangerous place to ride,” he says. “People have been hit and even lost their lives, and this is just an unfortunate reality of living in South Florida.”
Following Cohen’s death, Stiers helped draft the Aaron Cohen Law that now requires a mandatory minimum sentence of four years to anyone who leaves the scene of an accident with serious injuries or death to a “vulnerable road user,” or cyclist, pedestrian, motorcycle rider or roadway worker.
“Even when the financial benefit to me is minimal I almost always take a cycling case,” Stiers says. “I am fighting a bigger fight, trying to help a fellow brother- or sister-in-arms who is out there on the roadways, just like me, but unfortunately became one of the well-known statistics in Florida.”
It’s hard to prove that a driver was distracted, and police officers can only pull over a motorist for texting as a secondary offense, which means unless the vehicle is speeding, has a busted taillight or some other problem. But Stiers stresses that texting while driving and speeding are the greatest threats to pedestrians’ and cyclists’ lives.
“If a pedestrian or cyclist gets hit by a car going 40 or 50 miles an hour, the injuries are catastrophic,” he says. “You’re talking about multiple fractured limbs, hospital bills in the six figures, and the need for future medical care.”
Until there is dependable mass transit across South Florida, Stiers believes that building better and safer pedestrian and cycling infrastructure is the best way to get more people out of their cars and reduce traffic and congestion. He recommends installing protected bike lanes, which would add some much needed separation between the cyclists and the vehicles whizzing past them with either a plastic pole or semi-circle shaped barrier called an “armadillo.”
“If we want more people to ride,” he says, “we have to make the conditions on the roadways as safe as possible.”