“Charettes are a good way to engage people into making our city better,” said West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio, recalling last week’s four-day sessions entitled “West Palm Beach Mobility and Okeechobee Boulevard Corridor Study Charette,” which took place from June 12-15, 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Palm Beach County Convention Center.
Mayor Muoio brought in her mobility consultant Gable Klein and the Alta Planning + Design consulting team, who were hired by the city to work on a study on West Palm Beach’s mobility issues, due out later this year.
On Monday, June 12, Mayor Muoio set out to hear out public concerns in an effort to provide solutions, as part of the city’s preliminary next steps. Klein, an urban design consultant, TEDx speaker and former transportation chairman for Chicago and Washington, D.C., opened the mic addressing various issues of concern among West Palm Beach residents, mainly traffic issues on Okeechobee Boulevard between I-95, the train station, and other key downtown areas, such as S. Dixie Highway, S. Olive, and Fern Street.
Over 250 people were in attendance that night, with ten to twelve sitting around a table, drawing out ideas on maps, and then getting the chance to share with everyone in the room. This was great, as Mayor Muoio and other city officials got to hear directly from the people, engaging in tactical discussions. Then on Tuesday during the day, the consultants worked on different ideas people had presented the night before, narrowing down to the ones listed as the main issues.
“The idea is to balance the needs of people that work and play in West Palm Beach,” said Klein. “The city has grown by 14% in population and traffic has grown by 6%, in the same ten-year period.”
But there’s a good story to tell here. West Palm Beach has become very walkable, very livable, and it’s really a great example for the region. As a lot of people say, it’s the living room of the Palm Beaches. And everyone gets that, but there’s this tension between people who are trying to get through the area, whether it is for work or recreation, or somewhere else to the east like Palm Beach, or to the north or south. There’s also the tension about people feeling safe around CityPlace.
As people see it, the Okeechobee corridor presents a regional problem, and so there needs to be a regional solution. After gathering all the data received from the diverse group [in age and background], Klein and the rest of the Alta Design team set out to decipher all the ideas presented by developers, concern citizens, or people who work in transportation. According to Klein, it was one of the best charettes he’d ever been to. “That tells me is that you have a sophisticated group of people in West Palm Beach who are ready for change,” he said.
Part of that change is the signal lights’ frequency. “From Chicago, LA, New York to Miami, I’ve never seen a traffic pattern such as this,” voiced a woman at the summit. Everyone agreed, as who could argue that it’s hard to get across Okeechobee?
“I’m staying at the Hilton, and last night I saw thirteen seconds pop up as I was trying to cross the median,” said Klein. “I’m a runner, and I couldn’t do it!”
There’s a large elderly population in our city, as well as teenagers on foot or on bike, and young mothers with little kids trying to cross Okeechobee. And it easily takes two light signal cycles, or six minutes, during peak times to get across.
When you put all of these pieces together, then you understand why there are so many people frustrated with the traffic along this corridor. According to Klein’s study, the traffic is actually relatively low in this area of Okeechobee. His team found that there were only 5,000 cars riding down east of I-95 and Australian. But, by the time the cars got to the intersection between Tamarind and Okeechobee, things differed.
“I think there’s this perception that traffic is bad, but it’s not really the traffic. It’s the synchronization of the traffic lights and the bridge that’s not right. We are running the signals on 200 seconds. For instance, in DC, we do 100 seconds max. And at peak times, we do 64 to 72 seconds, to flush the intersections,” he explained.
Are we causing the congestion, or is there congestion? The solution was found in the ideas presented and studied at the charette.
As Tuesday and Wednesday nights’ findings became more clear, the facts showed that this region is growing exponentially. “This city is going to continue to grow,” Klein said. “So, do we want to shape this change, or do we want to just see what happens?”
The consultants focused on six major areas. The assignment for the entire tactical team was to divide this group into four groups:
- Street Escape Issues—overpass, underpass for pedestrians, crossing points between rail to rail, from Tamarind to Quadrille. Coming up with a tool kit for providing shading, lighting, sitting, making it a stress less environment for people.
- Trails that connect people and create walkability—We now have one between I-95 and Australian, and another on Flagler Drive. How does that connect to Okeechobee? How can we enhance it?
- Transit—availability of core buses and trolleys in the entire corridor from east to west. Adding an express route to aid with traffic flow. Adding a park & ride site near I-95, and a trolley that may shuttle people into the downtown areas, and even one to Lake Worth Beach.
- Traffic Flow. Fixing the signaling cycle.
Every day the discussions got more refined and more detailed. Then on Thursday, at the last meeting, the consultants said:
- this is what you told us
- this is what we heard
- this is what we evaluated
- this is what we learned
- and finally, this is how we visualized it for you
It was finally structured in a way that people could see what can be done short term. Things that don’t require a lot of funding, or a lot of time and engineering. But effective and timely changes that can easily show improvement, so that the community can get excited about the changes in our city and the possible things we can do to make it better.
Mayor Muoio said she’s very happy with the results of the charette, and the professional way in which it was conducted. She’s going to Washington next week, and one of the meetings she’s having is with the Coast Guard. She’s looking to discuss having the Okeechobee bridge open/close schedule change from 8am, which is peak time for commuters, to 8:30 a.m. “If I can get them to change that time to 8:30 a.m. that would make a big difference to all of us,” she said.
The City of West Palm Beach is embarking on a bold initiative to enhance the way people move in the city. To provide input, Mayor Muoio invites you to go to wpbmobility.com, where you can write and submit your ideas.
West Palm Beach residents attended four public meetings and charrettes regarding the Okeechobee Corridor and mobility factors that improve safety and our traffic flow.