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What if Buffalo was a 35 minute city, would that be so bad?

A few months ago, after the tragic death of a child in Delaware Park and subsequent controversy over the status of the Scajaquada Expressway, Diana Augspurger,  a resident of Kenmore, started an on-line petition demanding that the Scajaquada, remain as an expressway. Here is the language in her petition statement:

How can an expressway become a city street overnight? Where is the discussion? If you want to reduce the speed to parkway speed at 45 mph, add trees and dress it up, that’s one thing. This heavily traveled road connecting 2 major city arterials was never meant to be a bicycle path, have traffic lights and roundabouts. It was built to facilitate traffic navigating around the City of Buffalo. We have miles of parkways just down the road and acres of park right at the expressway’s edge. What we won’t have if this change is enforced, is an efficient path to downtown, north towns and south towns. Why is this convenience being taken away from those of us who use it daily and in some instances, multiple times a day? This change is being sold on the heels of a major tragedy. To leverage that tragedy in order to press an agenda does not seem in keeping with what is in the best interests of the public. Looking at this recent photo, what about that looks safe?

It is an interesting demand on her part, as a Kenmore resident—that the people of Buffalo give up their quality of life, safety, and the usability of their park—for her convenience. Why should HER convenience be taken away, she asks. She points out that there are “miles of parkways just down the road” that people can use, but fails to point out that most of those miles of parkway were also converted to a stinking high-speed highway for her convenience. It is a kind of car culture arrogance we have developed in this country, which demands swift passage in our cars at the expense of everything else.

However, Ms, Augspurger’s petition does not demand that a new highway be plowed through Kenmore for her ease of travel. No, that would never be allowed would it?  Perhaps, absent a new Kenmore freeway, she could just accept a six-minute longer commute?  If there was no highway in Delaware Park today, it would never enter anyone’s mind that one should be built there to convenience the people of Kenmore. Why is this even a controversy?  Why is there a highway through the middle of the city’s main park? Why is there no highway through Kenmore?  Of course there should be no highway through Kenmore. Of course there should be no highway through Delaware Park!

There is an oft quoted local phrase, a point of pride, a marketing pitch that goes like this—”Buffalo is a 20 minute city”—the pitch is followed by the explanation that “you can drive anywhere in the area in just 20 minutes!”  This concept is sold to the pitchee with an amazed sounding reassurance—because Buffalonians know this just sounds too good to be true to outsiders. Many cities have commutes of 45 minutes to even a crazy sounding two hours. How could you not be impressed with Buffalo’s greatness after hearing about this 20 minute thing?

The twenty-minute thing is a bit of an exaggeration, of course.  It might actually a whopping 40 minutes to get to the ski slopes at Kissing Bridge. But is this 20 minute commute really a good thing?

It makes me cringe when I hear the “20 minute city” repeated, because what it really means is that you can get to the suburban big box stores and malls easily in your car leaving vast stretches of city streets devoid of stores and sidewalks lacking people. It means many services and stores are only available in vast ugly stretches car centric sprawl centers. It means there are highways slammed through parks and there are parkways turned into noisy carbon monoxide choked commuter trenches. It means 100% of Buffalo is cut off from its waterfront by highways to assure that suburban commuters can get to their downtown jobs in 20 minutes or conversely , city residents to their suburban job—each traveling in their own personal isolated city killing cars. 

Being a 20 minute city really means that Buffalo forfeits being a real city, the congested busy kind—the kind with lots of people filling the streets with vibrancy.  When people from a big busy city come to Buffalo, what they see is a place that looks dead, empty, lifeless. This is not just me saying this.  Be honest, you have all heard it from visitors to Buffalo. It’s not a good thing to hear. It is the price of your 20 minute commute.  Of course you can tell them that the mall is just a 20 minute drive away.  

Hundreds of trees removed, gorgeous Elmwood bridge replaced with a viaduct, large areas of the lake filled in.

 

A few years ago Congressman Brian Higgins insisted that spending $50M to rebuild Route Five along the outer harbor was important because it saves Hamburg commuters 3 whole minutes of travel time. Similarly, many say that the Scajaquada Expressway absolutely must must must remain as a highway to save a few commuting minutes. Buffalo has an extremely high density of highways within its approximately 40 Square miles.  Almost 3% of Buffalo’s land area is dedicated to highways (692 acres). The highway system, just inside Buffalo alone, consist of a whopping 76 bridges and viaducts with just over 140 lane miles!  The maintenance and replacement cost just on the bridges is massive. Imagine a typical snowstorm where plows make several passes on these highways to keep them clear. A six inch snow could mean more than 1000 miles of plowing!

Here is a rough tally by highway:

142 total lane miles (LM).
Skyway = 78.3 Acres, 17.8 LM
Scajaquada = 115 Acres, 20 LM
Kensington = 145 Acres, 44LM
Thruway = 353 Acres, 60 LM

Is all this highway capacity really necessary? What if Buffalo gave up some of this highway capacity?  What if it took 35 minutes to get downtown instead of 20 minutes? Would that be  so bad?

“It would be a major change in the landscape of the City of Buffalo,” said Joan McDonald, commissioner of the New York State Department of Transportation. “It was unfortunate that the Scajaquada was built as an expressway and not an urban boulevard. We are now considering whether the four lanes should be cut down to two, which would have a big impact on surrounding city streets. We’re also looking at where to install traffic signals and light posts and where to construct pedestrian overpasses.”

Removing a highway is often a foreign concept for civil engineers like Ms. McDonald.  All their training has been focused on moving high densities of cars fast.  It is almost like a moral imperative that cars need to keep moving and everything else be damed.  Can she not imagine the park as a park, it is a convenient place to move cars through right? NYDOT  is still studying options which retain traffic speeds as high as 40 miles per hour. They just don’t get it! A letter to the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition from the agency describes the agency’s current progress on redesign of the highway:

  • Examining full complement of alternatives with speed limits set at 40 and 30 mph;
  • Four lane and Two lane options within Delaware park;
  • Analysis of full removal of the roadway between Parkside Avenue and Elmwood Avenue.
  • Initiated the process for changing the road classification from a principal urban arterial expressway.

This stone bridge is gone. This area is crisscrossed by viaducts.

 

The current status of the NYDOT options study will be presented to the community today September 16 at the Olmsted School #64, 874 Amherst Street, Buffalo—starting at 5:30 pm.  It is important that you come to this meeting. Make sure NYDOT knows, in no uncertain terms, that the people of Buffalo want their park back and that a highway does not belong in the park.  Tell them that 40 mph is too fast. Tell them that 30 mph is too fast. We don’t design residential streets for 30 mile per hour traffic. Why put 30 mph traffic in parks? Tell them the park should not be used as a speedy cut through. Tell them you want the park back to the original design. Tell them you want the highway gone for its entire length from the Kensington to Niagara Street.

This is a rare opportunity for Buffalo to demand that leaders make the right choice for a change.  This is Buffalo’s chance to be an urban leader for the 21st century.

Check out this video to understand how much of the park has been destroyed for this highway.

Images are from the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition

Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( www.blurb.com ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

View All Articles by David Steele
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