The Great Bike Debate

Will Coral Gables Develop into a Biking Community? Citizens are Split

By Mike Clary

January 2020

On most workdays, urban designer Kenneth Perez bicycles to the office from his home near Miracle Mile, often traveling south on Alhambra Circle. The commute is fast, mostly shaded, and “the health benefits are both mental and physical,” he says. J.D. Collongette’s daily routine includes biking to the gym, and then to his job as a waiter in a downtown Gables restaurant. For him, not using a car “makes financial sense, and it’s a good workout.”

And concert violinist Charles Castleman rides his bike 175 miles a week, including 16-mile round trips between his home on Brickell Key to the University of Miami, where he is a professor at the Frost School of Music. “For me biking is largely a relative of meditation,” says Castleman, who is 78. “The benefit of exercise is almost incidental.”

Perez, Collongette and Castleman are just three among a growing number of riders empowering the emergence of Coral Gables as a center of bicycling culture. The movement to entice people out of their cars and into the saddle of a two-wheeler is central to the goal of making the City Beautiful “the most livable, environmentally friendly and multi-modal city in Florida,” according to the city’s website.

“Can you imagine commuting to work while having fun and de-stressing?” the city asks residents. “Can you imagine riding a bike in a safe, protected bike lane with your family without sitting in traffic? Coral Gables is working to make this mobility option a reality for all ages and abilities.”

To accomplish its pedal-power goals, the city is banking on a 2014 commission-approved Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan that outlines the expansion of the existing 10.5-mile bicycle network with 34 miles of new bikeways. The path to that happening, however, is not entirely clear.

Alhambra: The First Hitch

The next step in the plan is the Alhambra Circle Traffic Calming project, which would turn the scenic roadway into a “Complete Street” by installing five-foot-wide bike paths, and some sidewalks, between Coral Way and San Amaro Drive a few blocks north of the University of Miami campus. That 4.6-mile stretch of road would then connect with existing bike paths on Alhambra Circle north of Coral Way, on Red Road, Sevilla and Anastasia Avenues, and connect downtown to the Biltmore Hotel, the Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center, and Betsy Adams Park.

The plan calls for creating bike lanes on Alhambra Circle by reducing the north-south vehicle traffic lanes to 10 feet in width, repaving the roadway and installing handicap-accessible sidewalk connecters. The bike lanes would also be used by riders of increasingly popular e-scooters.

But in recent months some residents of the impacted area have begun pushing back against the city’s plan, contending they were not properly advised of a project that could mean the loss of shade trees and green-space swale, bring unwanted bicycle and pedestrian traffic to their neighborhoods, and make the streets less safe for drivers. “This plan is potentially catastrophic,” says Marvin Ross Friedman, who lives in the 3400 block of Alhambra Circle and is one of dozens of residents who expressed their opposition in October when city officials conducted an on-site walk through of the area. “There is no reason this should be done,” he says.

Also vocal in opposition was Silvia Pinera-Vazquez, who with other neighbors distributed “No bike paths on Alhambra Circle” yard signs. Other signs reading “Do not kill this tree” had been tacked to some large live oaks and black olives near the roadway that opponents said would be endangered by more paving. “What makes me most angry is the lack of resident involvement in the process going back to 2014,” says Pinera-Vazquez, who again voiced her opposition at a Coral Gables City Commission meeting in December. “This is a plan developed by all the special interest groups who will benefit down the line.”

Assistant City Manager Ed Santamaria, who led a contingent of a dozen officials and bike plan consultants on the walk-through, disputes that, saying residents have had ample opportunity to comment on the proposal since the concept was first proposed in 2004 and the current master plan was published more than five years ago.

Nonetheless, Santamaria said the surge in opposition has led the city to push back the timeline for the start of construction until later in 2021 and schedule another walk-through for this month. “We understand that some sensibilities are bruised, and we can’t make everyone happy,” says Santamaria.

During a walk-through of the proposed new bike routes, Assistant City Manager Ed Santamaria, on the left, led a contingent of about a dozen officials and bike plan consultants who were met with local opposition. Among them: Silvia Pinera-Vazquez, center, and Marvin Ross Friedman, left.

The Bike Plan in Jeopardy?

Neighborhood opposition has killed bike path projects before. In 2018 the city scrapped plans for a designated route along Riviera Drive after residents complained loudly about the loss of green space and an increase in traffic congestion.

Regardless, the money for the Alhambra Circle remake is there, thanks in part to a 2015 federal transportation grant of $597,670. And according to bicyclists, so too is the need. But does the political will exist?

Although the bike plan was approved by the commission more than five years ago, at least one current commission member – Vice Mayor and announced mayoral candidate Vince Lago – has his doubts. “My biggest concern is that we should have a consensus and hear from actual residents and not outside interest groups,” says Lago, who describes himself as an environmentalist, but not a bicyclist. Lago favors installing sidewalks on all collector streets “before we discuss anything further,” he says. “I want to let it play out.”

The prospect of more delays in implementing the bike plan drives proponents crazy. “More should have been done by now, absolutely,” says Tony Garcia, whose firm Street Plans wrote the master plan. “We did a similar study in Miami Beach [about the same time] and they have gone on to implement a significant amount of it, comparatively.” But, Garcia added, Coral Gables “is a conservative city.”

At a lively, earlier community meeting that drew about 100 people to the Youth Center this past fall, opponents voiced concerns about traffic, the loss of tree canopy, and the duplication of a bike path that now exists on Red Road, just a block to the west. More than one speaker said bike lanes would complicate passage along the curving roadway over a small canal bridge on Alhambra Circle, five blocks north of Bird Road. “That bridge is too narrow, too dangerous,” said one resident. “And that master plan was not approved by residents.”

Even before that meeting, bicyclist and urban planner Victor Brandon Dover warned that “a few fearful people are stirring up a ‘bikelash’” designed to thwart any measures to encourage bicycling and make it safer. “We could end up with a long-needed link in the local bike network without taking away from the drivers’ experiences or diminishing the beauty and value of the street at all,” said Dover. “We could make the whole neighborhood safer and saner and better, for everyone, not just the people on bikes.”

Gables resident Robert Ruano, chairman of the nonprofit Bike Walk Coral Gables and one of the most vocal proponents for the plan, said the opposition to the bike path leaves him “disappointed in a lot of my neighbors, because it seems like those against it are thinking only of the way it might affect them. This is a win-win, but people are afraid of the new.” Ruano was one of the founding members of Bike Walk Coral Gables, and also argues that it’s not just about bike paths but about sidewalks along the same streets.

Another disappointed veteran cyclist and Gables resident is John Swain, secretary of Bike Walk Coral Gables (see side bar on right). In a post-meeting letter to city commissioners and City Manager Peter Iglesias, Swain wrote, “People don’t like [any] change and will resist. Once the Alhambra complete street project is completed and residents get used to it, there will not be many, if any, complaints.”

Swain said the majority pro-bike sentiment expressed at the September community meeting “clearly shows that there is citywide demand for walking and cycling infrastructure. Your residents want this project to go forward… Citywide, the residents of Coral Gables want safer streets.”

The Question of Safety

Safety is a clear concern for those who bike regularly. And almost every bicyclist has a near-miss story. Castleman said a motorist challenged him to a game of chicken at a busy intersection, and he was once knocked off his bike and thrown into a cement wall by a speeding skateboarder. “Lots of bruises, no broken bones,” he reported.

Collongette has been bumped from behind at a stop sign and knocked over. “I have seen people get hit, and seen a lot of close calls,” he says. “Without clear bike lanes, it’s mayhem. My mom tells me every day that I’m nuts.”

During his commute to work, Kenneth Garcia has so far avoided close calls. “When a car is coming, you have to have faith that people are driving correctly,” he says. “I ride defensively and am always aware of my surroundings.” Bike lanes, he said, “would make a big difference in my sense of safety, and make it so that I don’t feel like I’m in the way of anybody.”

Gables resident and bicyclist Sue Kawalerski, former president of the Everglades Bicycle Club, said designated bike lanes would cut down on collisions between cyclists, pedestrians and distracted drivers; according to the Coral Gables Police Department, there were 38 biking accidents in 2018 severe enough to warrant a police report, up from 30 the year before. “Ideally, everybody should be in their own separate lane so we’re not crashing into each other,” she said. “But residents have to be heard. Then we can come to an agreeable solution.”

Ruano says that there is simply no valid argument against installing either bike paths or sidewalks, and that fears of losing trees are highly exaggerated. “We have beautiful tree canopies over streets where there are both bike paths and sidewalks. How is it that they can thrive? The argument that we will lose trees is simply not true.”

Opponents to the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan say trees would be endangered

Indeed, assistant public works director for the Sustainable Public Infrastructure Division, Jessica Keller, sent out a mass email after the Alhambra walk-through. In the email, she supplied illustrations of the city’s methodology for installing sidewalks, which would be more invasive than the bike paths. “The City has five arborists on staff, actively engaged and responsible for the health and beauty of our urban forest,” the email read. “It is the City’s intent to keep trees in their existing locations and to avoid any root pruning.”

Ruano says he is trying to remain hopeful that Coral Gables will carry out its vision of making the city a bicycling center. “It’s a big test,” he says. “If the city doesn’t go ahead and approve a bike lane on Alhambra Circle, where will they ever approve it?” Like Ruano, other members of the Gables biking community cannot understand the opposition to more bike paths that will encourage alternatives to the automobile. Oliver de Abreu opened his third SunCycling shop on Ponce Circle, for example, because of what he perceived as growing demand in Coral Gables. He says his top buyers are people who want to bike to work, navigating the backroads on a bike rather than the bumper-to-bumper of US-1. “We need to support other means of transport in the city,” he says.

Oliver de Abreu

Nonetheless, residents in the areas where bike paths are planned will be heard from again. In addition to the January walk-through, the city in 2020 plans to poll by mail about 1,000 homeowners on Alhambra Circle and nearby streets. Santamaria predicted the poll would show a 50-50 split between those who support and those who oppose the plan.

“There are passionate opinions on both sides of this matter,” he says. “[But] bicycling is definitely going to be a component as to sustainability, promoting active lifestyles, traffic calming, and to make all modes of mobility safer. Will Coral Gables have an identity for its bike culture? That depends on how all this unfolds. That’s the intent. But there has to be a lot of engagement between now and then.”

The seeds of Bike Walk Coral Gables began in 2011, when then-City Commissioner Ralph Cabrera suggested the city should have a Gables Bike Day. A group of biking enthusiasts embarked that year on the first of what became an annual event (this year’s will take place in April). “What we found was that there wasn’t much biking infrastructure in the Gables,” says John Swain (above, center). And so, the bikers formed a nonprofit organization with a mission “to promote safer streets in Coral Gables and healthier ways of transportation.” Part of what the small band of bikers (about a dozen) who comprise Bike Walk do – besides advocating for bike paths and sidewalks – is to lead monthly biking tours of the city that start at the Coral Gables Museum on every third Sunday. “We go only as fast as the slowest rider,” says Swain, for those who might want to join in. “We don’t leave any biker behind.”
Go to for info.
Every Saturday at 6 a.m. a gang of anywhere between 15 and 40 bike riders assemble on Aragon Avenue in the colonnade that fronts No Boundaries Sport, a cavernous store that sells gear for cycling, running, hiking, swimming, and “trekking,” For those brave enough to rise early, the group bicycles somewhere between 70 and 100 miles, typically to the south. “The thing is, there are not a lot of safe areas to ride in the county, or in South Florida, period,” says Israel Rodriguez (above), the store manager who leads the pack of two-wheelers. Typically, the group will ride south on Ponce, then down Le Jeune to the Cocoplum Circle (where they pick up more riders) and from there on a route to Black Point Marina, west past Homestead, and on south to the old abandoned U.S. military base at the edge of the Redland. “We get a lot of different people, from delivery boys for Jimmy Johns to CEOs who would rather bike than take a car,” says Rodriguez. “It would be nice to have a few more bike lanes.”

21 thoughts on “The Great Bike Debate

  • January 14, 2020 at 2:28 am

    Seems there aren’t any regular people mentioned in this article. They either own bike shops or belong to bike clubs etc. I’m just not onboard. You think you got casualties now?! The minute you bottleneck Alhambra, those casualties will multiply. We are home to the most aggressive drivers in the US. And if you actually think you are going to discourage cars from cutting through the Gables you’re dreaming. Total joke and total waste of time and money.

    • January 17, 2020 at 11:15 am

      People who belong to bike clubs are regular people! How will having dedicated bike lanes “bottleneck Alhambra”? It’s NOT having them that bottlenecks. The objective is not to “discourage cars” but to make it possible to cycle instead of drive for those who would like to. I’m one of them. I can’t get away from driving even relatively short distances because cycling is so dangerous in Miami/Coral Gables. Bike lanes would keep cyclists and drivers separated and improve traffic flow and safety!

  • January 15, 2020 at 12:10 am

    It’s interesting that you simply mentioned the existing bike path on red road. In truth, there are two (2) bike paths on Red road or just steps away from Robert Ruano’s home.

    It’s sad that a single resident , Robert Ruano, is not only pushing to NOW have a new bike path on the other side of his side street, but also runs a organization that was mentioned within the application that would clearly benefit monetarily if this bike path disaster is approved.

    There is simply massive conflicts of interest like Mr. Ruano who served on a committee board recently that voted on the bike path plan. (He has recently resigned from said committee because of the conflict) There is also members of City staff who are married to individuals who are associated with the Pro Bike movement.

    The IG office should be contacted on the clear conflicts of interest!

    The author of this article should do a better job on reporting the actual issues based on facts on how the residents were kept in the dark on a plan who clearly will benefit a select number of special interest groups.

    Finally and last time I checked, we all live in a subtropical climate and our humidity is off the charts. Can we do a poll on how many Gables residents would actually ride a bike to and from work during the months of February to December?????

    • January 17, 2020 at 11:28 am

      1. What kind of “special interests” benefit from bike paths? How much money is to be made off some bike lanes? The special interests are people who want to bike and who form organizations/clubs to try to make it safer. And there are many more people who like to bike around the city than are “involved” in the politics of it. 2. How were residents “kept in the dark” about any plans? What is the “disaster” of bike paths? What is your actual objection, other than a conspiracy theory about a “Pro Bike” movement? What is wrong with wanting to be able to get around by bike? 3. The bike paths planned cover much more territory than just near Red Road, and yes, they need to go in both directions, on both sides of the road. 4. Yes, I would cycle year-round both for work commuting and errands, by cycling early AM, bringing a change of shirt, accepting humidity! Not everyone would, but why stop those of us who have adapted?

      • January 22, 2020 at 9:58 am

        Let me educate

        Bike tour groups make money

        Bike shops make money

        Contractors associated with the awarded work make money.

        I just mentioned all three groups associated with this application.

        The OIG office needs to be contacted on the obvious conflicts of interest from special interest like Ruano who was a part of this application.

        • January 28, 2020 at 12:39 pm

          So the fact that there are a few small-money bike tour groups and shops that would benefit from paths (and employ people) means that “regular people” cyclists should be ignored? Obviously somebody would get a construction job that employs people to build it, but did you also fight all the development in Coral Gables because somebody would get construction jobs? Yes, Alhambra residents concerns should be considered, but this means CONTINUED consideration of bike paths, not shutting down the discussion.

    • January 19, 2020 at 10:55 pm

      Antonio Carreras, I don’t think we’ve ever met but you seem to think you know a lot about me. I appreciate your concern for any conflict and want you to know that the Ethics Commission was asked for an opinion and found I had none, since I was never affiliated with any company that would benefit. For your information, like many of the people supporting this plan, I do not benefit financially from its implementation. We simply want to leave a safer city for our kids and grandkids.

      • January 22, 2020 at 10:38 am

        Please post the opinion letter for Robert from the Ethics commission.

        All WE want was an open and clean transaction on what is best for the residents which hold special weight to those private property owners who are directly impacted.

        Robert, on a side note, I am glad you didn’t try to even attempt to argue all the other points that were truthful.

  • January 15, 2020 at 12:19 am

    can We have a poll done or place a counter on the two bike paths on red road? I am skeptical on a need for another bike path a block away when I never really see anyone using red roads bike path.

    • January 17, 2020 at 11:35 am

      I can’t get to the Red Road bike path because there is no connecting / crossing bike path from where I live/work to where I’m going! Also, it isn’t separated, color-coded, or made safer for such a busy road. To enable actual cycle transportation requieres a more complete solution. What we have so far is a good start but it needs expansion to be really useful.

      • January 22, 2020 at 10:43 am

        So your saying you can’t cross on coral way or ponce but want all the residents effected to tear up their trees….

        • January 28, 2020 at 12:31 pm

          ????? Neither Coral Way nor Ponce have bike paths.

  • January 15, 2020 at 5:30 am

    Your article dedicates significant space to those involved in biking or in a related business to biking. In my opinion the few residents who have chosen to bike to work are the exception rather than the rule in Coral Gables. I do not see riders along Alhambra going to work, I see a few riders very early in the am riding because they enjoy riding. I never see anyone riding along the bike path on 57 Avenue. Take a look at Segovia, the road that runs behind the Coral Gables Library . It is a wide street with a median, bike path and sidewalks. As often as I go to our library during M-Fri work week, I have never seen anyone riding their bike with intent as if going to work nor on a pleasure ride; not even in the summer when school is out. With our hot weather approaching I will also see the bikers disappear. On the winter weekends I may see a parent or two with kids riding the lateral streets, not on Alhambra. Traffic will always prevent leisure biking on Alhambra Circle. It simply does not make economic sense to have a few residents with a dream, grant writers, cycling business owners and or government grants push residents in Alhambra to endure with construction, traffic problems, loss of green spaces and trees for a few riders who most likely are not even homeowners along Alhambra Circle.

    • January 17, 2020 at 11:47 am

      Why should homeowners on Alhambra override the needs of the whole community? (NIMBY?). But why would proper bike lanes cause traffic problems? They would HELP traffic by keeping cyclists away from cars.
      Yes, cyclists are obviously the exception now because it’s still unsafe on 90% of roads and people need to safely get to and from Segovia or Alhambra before they can bike there!
      There are many people who would like to cycle our streets for commuting and transportation (work, errands) not just leisure, but they aren’t involved in the political process and don’t even consider biking due to the danger. It makes great economic and environmental sense to endure a relatively brief construction period so that real people who don’t have time to write grants or join clubs can actually get around without driving.

      • January 23, 2020 at 4:07 pm

        You can get around – there is a safe bike path on Red Road. You must know since you seem to be an avid rider in this generally 100 degree Miami weather that it is for the use of the entire community. All the Alhambra Circle residents want is safe streets for everyone and that is why a bike lane on Alhambra does not make sense because the narrow bridge and winding curves make it inherently dangerous for bikers. Plus why waste our tax payer dollars when the community already has a bike path???

        • January 28, 2020 at 12:29 pm

          We need a bike path that goes all the way from downtown Coral Gables to South Miami. If you’re not an “avid rider” you might think 80-90 degree weather is an impediment and might not realize that one stretch of Red Road doesn’t allow one to “get around.” If Red Road is better for that stretch North-South, there needs to be connecting paths, a way to get there safely. It doesn’t seem that what Alhambra residents want is “safe streets for everyone” but rather “green space” (?), not losing swale space (to park diagonally vs parallel) and not having “more traffic” (?????) on their street. Bike paths make traffic both faster and safer by separating cyclists from the road (where they have a legal right to be, but it’s dangerous).

  • January 16, 2020 at 4:08 am

    The full implementation of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan is imperative for our safety and the future success of our city as a pedestrian-bike friendly city.

    As the City grows, we need to ask ourselves “how can we get more people through our streets?”. You can either increase the road size (not an option) or you can develop the infrastructure to handle additional modes of transport. No matter what the City decides to do more people are coming. If these additional arteries (on the public right of way) are not accessible to pedestrians and bikers, then you will have increased auto congestion.

    Protected lanes on our streets encourage students to safely ride their bikes to school, residents to stroll downtown to shop and commuters to bike (or scooter) rather than drive to their offices. We need to progress on this issue as other great cities have done i.e. Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Bordeaux and of course Copenhagen.

    This plan will help Coral Gables remain viable with a continued progressive brand as a global sustainable urban city.💚🚲💚🏃🏻‍♀️

    • January 16, 2020 at 9:28 pm

      Interesting. Wendy, please use facts and common sense.

      Florida ranks dramatically hire in both rain and humidity than every single example you listed.

      I would love to snow ski this weekend in Miami but it just doesn’t happen.

      You need to stop fabricating theories that if the build it they will come. Perfect exampe, you have a 2 bike lanes on Red Road plus two sidewalks. This is one block east of Alhambra.

      The city has already admitted that the average speed limit on Alhambra is 37 mph, which they measured. That isn’t much different than what red road has posted as their speed limit.

      I still don’t see bikers on the red road bike path.

      Facts are facts

      • January 28, 2020 at 12:56 pm

        Interesting. Chuck, please use common sense and differentiate between facts and opinions. The false analogy of snow skiing in Miami is irrelevant to whether people want to cycle for transportation, even if there is humidity, rain, heat. If we don’t see cyclists on any single stretch of road it’s because it’s not connected to where people live and their destination. How many people live right near Red Road (or Segovia) and just need to go 1 mile up that same street? There are indeed many people who would cycle if it were safer and connected to more destinations (ie a path from downtown Coral Gables to South Miami). It isn’t a “fabricated theory.” Traffic would move faster and be safer if cyclists were separated from traffic. If Red Road is a better path for that North-South stretch, then connect it to a complete solution. But don’t force shutting down the whole conversation on the whole road.

  • January 20, 2020 at 2:49 pm

    We are all “Regular People”.

    I am one of the founding members of Bike Walk Coral Gables. We are a nonprofit group of all volunteer “Regular People” who’s only special interest is safer streets for everyone. We do not collect salaries and none of our members will benefit financially in any way from this project.

    It is interesting to note that of all of the pro safer streets comments made thus far, all have been from regular “Regular People” none of the people commenting have any connection to our organization whatsoever.

    • January 23, 2020 at 3:15 pm

      As a long time resident of Coral Gables unaffiliated to any profit or nonprofit bicycle group and a “regular person”, it is fair to say that all residents want safe streets for our children. This is precisely why bike lanes down Alhambra Circle should not be placed. The narrow bridge with the multiple winding curves make bike lanes inherently dangerous in this area. In order to protect our children and bikers, the City should steer bikers to the safe bike path on Red Road. Having confirmed with FDOT that it does not place bike paths in unsafe locations, there is no reason to duplicate the same bike path in an inherently dangerous location and place our children at risk.

Comments are closed.