Ocean drive reopens to vehicles after two years

Cars are now allowed onto the famous Ocean Drive street in South Beach.
Cars are now allowed onto the famous Ocean Drive street in South Beach. Photo credit: Mary Jimenez

Scenes from “Scarface” and “Birdcage,” the mansion of Gianni Versace and the birthplace of Miami’s renowned Art Deco movement all find their home on Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive. The boulevard is a hotspot of restaurants, hotels and nightlife situated along the coast of Miami Beach.

On Jan. 24, 2022, the permit to keep Ocean Drive closed to vehicles expired. The street reopens to one-way traffic with a new bike lane as Bloomberg reports.

Additionally, buildings along Ocean Drive will have the option of using their parking spaces as restaurant seating or valet parking.

Closing the street to pedestrians reduces the ability of restaurants to social distance and forces more people to dine inside if restaurants wish to maintain capacity.

“Somebody who sneezes or coughs could transmit the virus into the respirable airflow of that small space,” said Professor Alberto Caban-Martinez, associate professor of public health sciences at the Miller School of Medicine.

However, he points out other factors that mitigate the risk of moving more people to indoor dining.

“Some of the features of Omicron is that it’s more highly transmissible but the severity is less,” Caban-Martinez said.

“We have additional tools to prevent communities and people, like vaccination,” Caban-Martinez continued.

In May of 2020, city officials had closed Ocean Dr. to vehicular traffic to allow for restaurants to meet social distancing guidelines by moving on to the street. The move was warmly met at the time by restaurant owners and customers as The Miami New Times reported.

“You may be walking and shopping in various places or stopping to dine. Making that street more pedestrian-oriented would benefit those businesses more,” said Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a professor and former dean of the University of Miami’s School of Architecture.

However, the move created some issues. On holiday weekends, in particular, crowds grew large, forcing Miami Beach to deploy additional resources from the police department, fire department and park rangers to maintain safety.

Restricting vehicles also hurt other businesses, such as hotels. Clients and valets needed to leave their vehicle a few blocks from the hotel entrance and walk the rest of the distance due to the street’s closure. Residents experienced similar issues.

Plater-Zyberk proposes a solution.

She described a hybrid model where the street might close to vehicles on the weekends when more people are eating out or strolling the street and remain open at other times of the week, so residents and clients of hotels can easily access the building.

“We tend to think of things these days as all or nothing but that precludes the idea that there can be a management component,” Plater-Zyberk said.

The Miami Hurricane asked Assistant City Manager of Miami Beach Lester Sola about this plan.

“We looked into that possibility,” Sola said. “We had envisioned that you could use bollards that could designate when you are going to allow vehicles into the street.”

However, the group that manages Ocean Drive shied away from the idea.

“Right now, we don’t have the means to provide that segregation depending on the time of the day,” Sola said.

Ultimately, Miami Beach still achieved a plan that maintains some of the pandemic-era features while welcoming vehicles back to the street.

“Could we have a solution that really served both parties?” Sola said. “The best of both worlds, for us, was to be able to provide mobility, whether it be for bicycles, pedestrians or vehicles.”

That is not to say Ocean Drive will look the same forever. The local government continues to work on designs for Ocean Drive that prioritize pedestrians more.

“The long-term plan has always envisioned heavy usage of pedestrians as well as bicycles on Ocean Drive. Where we’re at right now is a transition towards that long-term plan,” Sola said.