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Lessons for Buffalo from a Labor Day Weekend in Minneapolis

The renaissance and development momentum of Buffalo in the past decade has recently brought increasing, national exposure to all of the architecture, event, culture and other tourist-related assets of the City of Buffalo.  Equally commendable has been the effort by local organizations such as Buffalo Niagara Enterprise (BNE), Visit Buffalo Niagara, and others who have brought attention to these assets not only to regional and national audiences, but also to local residents who had abandoned and forgotten about the City of Buffalo many years ago.

While these initiatives have led to a growing tourist industry, the City of Buffalo is failing to capitalize on a more lucrative market, and reputation, by failing to implement a comprehensive strategy merging policy and physical development between private investment, public infrastructure, and transportation planning to attract a more mobile and connected 21st Century tourist.

Over the past Labor Day weekend I visited Minneapolis for the first time.  I left Friday evening from my office in Downtown Buffalo and returned Monday evening, without once getting into a car in Minneapolis.  The biggest takeaway from my trip, in addition to how lovely the City of Minneapolis is, was how the structure of public amenities, transportation infrastructure, tourist attractions, and local neighborhoods in Minneapolis is quite similar to Buffalo and presents a case study that Buffalo can easily aspire to, and quickly surpass if we plan strategically.

Map of the Minneapolis Nice Ride bicycle share station locations with the Minneapolis Blue and Green LRT lines.  This three options were the only means of transportation I needed to use over the weekend.
A map of some of the Minneapolis Nice Ride bicycle share station locations with the Minneapolis Blue and Green LRT lines. These three options were the only means of transportation I needed over the weekend.

Friday Evening: After arriving at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport I took a $1.75 Light Rail Train (LRT) from the airport to Downtown Minneapolis, complete with four bicycle racks per train car.  (We will save the discussion of locating their football stadium along a LRT line for another post since it wasn’t yet football season when I visited).  The four-block walk from the LRT station to my hotel along a restaurant, retail, and outdoor cafe ground-level lined street without a single surface parking lot completed my 10.2 mile, 30 minute trip from airport to hotel.

By comparison, traveling from Downtown Buffalo to the airport, 10.6 miles, requires an automobile (getting a ride from someone or spending money on airport parking) or taking a Google map-advised 47 minute ride on the 24 bus that is not as easy for tourists to understand as an LRT system. Additionally, neither option to the Buffalo airport really offers an exciting proposition functionally or aesthetically.  After arriving at the hotel, I changed, went to the hotel bar for a drink with my girlfriend (who flew in from LA earlier in the day), and then we went to a bar across the street from the Hotel for a night of dancing and conversation. Total Transportation Cost: $1.75.

The Mill City Farmer's Market.
The Mill City Farmer’s Market.

Saturday: In the morning my girlfriend and I walked 1 block to the Minneapolis Nice Ride bicycle share. Paying $12 for the day for the two of us, we rode 1.5 miles to the Mill City Farmer’s Market (which I spotted during an eight-mile morning run exploring the city) for breakfast.  Located on the Mississippi River within a historic district of grain elevators, converted industrial warehouses, and a contemporary theatre, we spent the morning exploring the area and watching local children dance to impromptu street musical performances.

In the afternoon we rode our bike share across one of one of five bridges with bicycle lanes within a 2-mile section of the river (three of which are only bicycle and pedestrian bridges) to explore the University of Minnesota and Dinkytown.  After a few hours on the east side of the river, we returned to our hotel, changed into our Alma Mater’s attire, and went to a local bar in the North Loop neighborhood to watch the season opener of USC football with the Twin Cities University of Southern California Alumni Club for the remainder of the night. Total Transportation Cost (2 people): $12.

Minneapolis' historic Stone Arch Bridge was a former rail line before being transformed into a pedestrian and bicycle only bridge.
Minneapolis’ historic Stone Arch Bridge was a rail line before being transformed into a pedestrian and bicycle only bridge.

Sunday: After walking around the corner from our hotel for breakfast, we again utilized the bicycle share for the day at the cost of $6 per person.  A 1.2-mile trip along dedicated bicycle lanes later we arrived at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to explore their collections of art from Ancient Greece to Contemporary outside the City’s downtown in a tree-lined residential neighborhood.  On our way to return to our hotel to change for dinner, we stopped at Loring Park for a quiet walk around the lake to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.  For dinner we meet friends at a local restaurant off the beaten path known for its funky, tropical atmosphere and drinks along the Mississippi River about four miles from the hotel.  Total Transportation Costs (2 people): $12.

Minneapolis' Sculpture Garden Park.
Minneapolis’ Sculpture Garden Park.

Monday: In the morning we used the remaining time on our bicycle share (it is $6 for 24 hours) to explore more of the North Loop neighborhood and visit a few speakeasies we were told about during the weekend. Unfortunately, just about everything was closed on Labor Day so we had to suffer through to exploring the well-balanced, converted industrial warehouse streets of the neighborhood in search of a place for brunch by bicycle. Before finding a local brewery and breakfast restaurant we discovered a locally fabricated and refurbished light shop, two local (but too expensive) clothing stores, and interior design shop we made note to visit after brunch. After one last return to the hotel to pick up our bags, we walked the four blocks to the LRT station together and were off to the airport after waiting only a few minutes at the station.   Total Transportation (2 people): $3.  

Weekend Transportation Costs (2 people): $28.75

If I was from Minneapolis and traveled to Buffalo, how easy would it be to replicate my weekend visiting the same type of attractions?

If I flew into Buffalo, stayed at the new HARBORCENTER, Avant, or other downtown hotel, how easy, and costly, would it be for me to get to my hotel and return to the airport, go out to a few bars in different neighborhoods throughout the weekend, shop at a farmers market, explore Silo City, visit the UB (city campus only), explore the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, relax in Delaware Park, and take in the vibrancy of Buffalo’s culture?  As Buffalo’s transportation system is currently, it would not be as cheap, easy, and enjoyable as visiting Minneapolis.  The combination of LRT and bicycle share provides a subtle asset for Minneapolis as well.  The system functions to direct visitors to certain attractions by accident or design, or both.  Yet with over 150 bicycle share stations and strategic LRT network, every asset within the City of Minneapolis is within reach.

While certainly not a viable mode of transportation for every individual or every trip, bicycle share and public transit are not just for younger generations and citizens who cannot afford a car.  It is a viable mode of transportation for a person of any age and means if the appropriate infrastructure is present. Minneapolis has 92 miles of on-street bikeways and another 85 miles of off-street bikeways. That network allows for an elderly couple to enjoy a leisurely ride along the Mississippi River, an empty-nested couple to complete their grocery shopping at a mixed-use Whole Foods in Downtown, or a group of young professionals to travel from a farmers market to a bar to watch college football as a part of their everyday lifestyle.

The unattractive and poor street condition has not discouraged bicyclists from using a mixed-use Whole Foods.  Hopefully the Whole Foods coming to Buffalo will replicate this model instead of the harmful, suburban designs of Tops on Niagara Street or Wegmans on Amherst Street.
The unattractive and poor street condition has not discouraged bicyclists from using a mixed-use Whole Foods. Hopefully the Whole Foods coming to Buffalo will replicate this model instead of the harmful, suburban designs of Tops on Niagara Street or Wegmans on Amherst Street.

Rated in the top 5 bicycle systems by almost every metric was enough to make multimodal transportation easy and pleasant itself, but integrating the bicycle network with LRT and public policy such as using flashing red lights at intersections on weekend mornings when traffic volumes are low, further enhanced the accessibility of the City.  As such, the lack of transportation costs associated with traditionally having to rent a car and paying for parking (the daily rate for our hotel valet, and the only option for parking at our hotel, was $34 daily) and gas not only freed our wallets to spend more on the local economy and attractions, but it also freed our ability to explore a wider variety of a city we had no familiarity with, as supported by a numerous amount of studies documenting how people who biked or walked to the area reported they spent more money in the area per month than those who drove to the area.

Bicycle racks on the Minneapolis Blue Line help to integrate bicycle and transit systems to extend the transportation network for users.

Bicycle racks on the Minneapolis Blue Line help to integrate bicycle and transit systems to extend the transportation network for users.

We have an immense collection of world-class tourist attractions in Buffalo, such as our waterfront, historic architecture, museums, Elmwood Village, and Larkinville to name just a few of the obvious ones, that rival Minneapolis and any other city.  Sometimes as residents we still overlook the challenges of accessibility as a result of having such a familiarity with certain parts of our city.  As it was designed, Olmsted’s Parkway system was a way to connect every resident of Buffalo with the entire city, but that parkway system has been eroded and no longer functions as it once did.

We need to think more comprehensively today about leveraging private investment with multiple, varying public infrastructure and transportation initiatives to not only encourage our tourist industries, but provide an interconnected network for our own residents to get out and explore the city cheaper, easier, and more sustainably.  That can be accomplished through investments from bicycle share, to road diets, to transit investments, and to rehabilitating the parkway system, but they must complement each other and the destinations they connect.

By stitching the many walkable and bikeable islands of our city back together we can improve the health of our residents, the diversity and economic vitality of our neighborhoods, increase our tourist industry and national reputation further and possibly even be able to begin to redevelop a few of our surface parking lots with mixed-use infill without having to worry about answering the byzantine and unnecessary question of where are all the people going to park?

Written by Ryan Kucinski

Ryan believes urban environments should be designed for people. A native of Buffalo who studied Environmental Design at UB before receiving a Master's of Urban Planning at the University of Southern California, Ryan is currently working to improve the livability of his hometown as urban planner in Downtown Buffalo.

View All Articles by Ryan Kucinski
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