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Canadian Tourist Explores Buffalo by Transit

Author: Vincent Puhakka

Buffalo and Toronto have never been ‘sister cities’ in an official sense but historically, the two urban regions are linked by a long history of mutual attraction. I grew up in suburban southern Ontario with stories of my grandmother, parents and older colleagues visiting Buffalo for a more vibrant city experience than could be had in “Toronto the Good”. Up until the mid-1960’s, the city was everything that Hogtown was not and I gather that this sort of cross-border nightlife journey was not uncommon amongst Canadians.

In spite of this family history, I have known Toronto as the bustling Great Lakes metropolis and for better or worse, my only experience with the Niagara Frontier was shopping at the Galleria or heading to the airport for an affordable flight. All that being said, Buffalo always had a sort of fascination for me. As an urbanist, I believe that the industrial cities of the US Northeast and Midwest have a lot more potential to become vibrant people-oriented places than the currently booming metros in the Sunbelt. With their historic architecture, walkable street grid and many neighbourhoods constructed before the car was king give me hope that the so-called Rustbelt can replicate the success Toronto has had in becoming a people centred urban place.

In the Toronto media, it’s becoming more and more common for travel stories to focus on the merits of visiting nearby American industrial cities and Buffalo’s inspiring renaissance has not escaped notice in these pieces. With a free weekend on my hands, I decided to take a weekend trip to Buffalo earlier in August. Of course, I wanted to hit major tourist attractions but also was paying attention to a key, but neglected, component of inner city revitalization: public transit. For example, Toronto has been able to maintain complete streets and historic neighbourhoods by not undergoing the same “pave paradise and put up a parking lot” mentality that prevails throughout most of North America. Good public transit has allowed this to happen since people feel that a car is not a necessity to reach the inner city and even allows for completely car-free lifestyles to be possible. This makes Toronto’s streets such interesting places and lessens the need for city-killing surface lots and parkades. With this belief, I decided to make my visit to Buffalo car free from start to finish and see if transit was helping or hindering the Buffalo renaissance.

I started my journey at Union Station to catch the morning Maple Leaf train. Incidentally, this could be a great way for Torontonians to go to Niagara Falls but the train does not seem to be marketed as such and all the passengers I spoke to were bound for destinations in the US. Traveling by train would be slightly more expensive than taking the Greyhound but I wanted to catch some of the Lake Ontario scenery on the way down and generally, just enjoy taking trains. The route on the Canadian side of the border is enjoyable and relatively quick; where the train fails is at the border crossing. Unlike other cross-border trains (EG, the Cascades from Vancouver to Portland) there is no preclearance at Union station and there was an avoidable 45-minute delay for US Customs to come through the train and speak to each passenger. If our governments were serious about limiting driving between major cities this bottleneck would be eliminated very quickly!

trainsdfafArriving in the Exchange street station is yet another disappointment. Compared to Union, which in spite of many problems is clearly a major gateway, Exchange street felt like it was designed to hide train passengers away from prying eyes….underneath the I90! The station is usefully located downtown and the connection with Metro rail was fairly simple but to encourage tourists to arrive downtown by public transport, I would argue a major redesign of this facility is needed.1

However, the maligned Metro rail came as a pleasant surprise! The trains were frequent, unimpeded by traffic and were a great way to get a view of the city. In my experience, many Canadians don’t even know that Buffalo has rail transit of any kind and although it’s described in the media as a stub line, the trains seem to cover a good portion of the inner city. With other formerly industrial regions like Detroit struggling to get any form rapid transit off the ground, this system is a major asset and selling point for the city.

I stayed in Elmwood village; what I would describe as my favourite neighbourhood in Buffalo. Unfortunately, it’s a little bit too far from the Metro line and accordingly I needed to rely on the NFTA route 20 to leave the area. My experience tells me that bus service is where NFTA falls apart. Far from being frequent enough for “turn up and go” riding, people new to the city are dependent on the clunky transit website and buses that, if you’re lucky, run every 20 minutes or so during the day. For a city that otherwise checks all the urbanist boxes in terms of potential, this is not the sort of frequency that attracts new riders and especially does not lend itself to use by tourists. Personally, I was fortunate to be using a transit app that was valid in Buffalo but we can’t simply assume that everyone will have a smartphone. Easily available transit information and tourist friendly schedules will reduce car use by vacationers and naturally, will have the added benefit of improving service for all citizens.

What’s worse, a quick glance at the NFTA  ride guide will show that many routes do not even approach that 20-minute schedule. After discovering this, I began to understand why the lack of Metro rail extension is such a hindrance for Buffalo. At home in Toronto, the subway lines are linked with frequent feeder buses. Far out in the suburbs where I spent my childhood, I was still able to catch a bus running 10 minutes or better all day and this complimented the rapid transit and frequent surface network downtown. Out of curiosity, I looked up how one would travel to destinations in Amherst or Williamsville by transit. While parts of Amherst seem to have bus service 30 minutes or better most of suburban Buffalo is utterly car-dependent. With inner city services not that much better, it would seem that you still need to own a vehicle in the NFTA service area. This reality definitely hindered my ability to explore the wider region.  

Of course, comparing Toronto transit and the NFTA is not entirely fair; as Toronto has become a much larger city and its buses and trains are run entirely by the city itself. NFTA, in contrast, is a public benefit corporation serving multiple cities and counties. Although to some extent this puts the system at a disadvantage when it comes to democratic oversight, it is potentially able to access more sources of funding, such as sales taxes, than it’s much larger Toronto counterpart dependent on the city property tax. Thus, with a little vision and an understanding that without improved transit the entire city’s renaissance is at risk, the NFTA can show significant ridership growth. The example I’d point to is Cleveland. Similar to Buffalo it has been undergoing an inner city boom and transit has been positioned as a major part of that; with significant funding going into rapid transit expansion. There is no reason why Buffalo could not replicate this. There are plenty of cities in North America where it is possible to be a tourist, or indeed live, without a vehicle and Buffalo has the ‘good bones’ for this to happen as well. Hopefully, Buffalo urban advocates push for improved transit and this becomes part of the conversation surrounding revitalization in the city.

Vincent Puhakka is a member of Scarborough Transit Action, an outreach group in the eastern suburbs of Toronto bringing together citizens interested in advocating for better public transit at all levels of government. (The arguments represented are not necessarily the views of Scarborough Transit Action as a whole and unless otherwise noted, are the opinions of the author.)

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