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Reimagining the 20 Minute Commute

Author: Bridge Rauch, BTRU Member

Please take a moment to sign Buffalo Transit Riders United’s (BTRU) petition to our congressional representatives and join BTRU on May 24th at 5pm at NFTA Metropolitan Transportation Center at 113 Ellicott Street for a rally to demand that we “Build Back Buffalo’s Buses Better.” Masks and social distancing required.

It’s a blustery winter morning. You roll out of bed at 7am at your home in Amherst. After putting the kids on the bus and puttering around with your morning routine, you start your car remotely. You let it sit in your driveway, pumping exhaust as it warms, and you hop in just after 8:30. After a sometimes stressful but short 20-minute drive down Sheridan to the 290 to the 33, you arrive at your office and park in the half-filled lot that dominates the front of your building. You clock in right at 9.

Buffalo boasts about our 20-minute commute as both a point of pride as well as a regional amenity.

But what are the unseen costs of this cultural staple under our current and emerging policy choices, which centers car dependence in all transportation planning?

It’s a blustery winter morning. I roll out of bed at 7am on the West Side. After completing my morning routine, I leave at 8:15 to scramble down the icy, uneven sidewalk to grab a #3 bus a block away. Just a year and a half ago, I could leave about 10-15 minutes later, but because of state budgetary cuts, the NFTA reduced bus frequencies systemwide and cut the #7, as well as over 75 miles of other bus routes. Riders protest these cuts, but we have also grown accustomed to this pattern of the state budget being balanced at our expense, especially after NFTA’s 2011 22% system reduction. I check the headlines on my phone and sip my coffee as I wait. If all goes well, I catch the bus at 8:30, am lucky enough today to grab a seat, and hop off a block and a half from my office at 8:55 to clock in at 9am.

But maybe this morning doesn’t go so well – I slip on the icy, uneven sidewalk, spilling coffee everywhere and bruising my knee. The bus pulls up at 8:40, 10 minutes late, but the driver does not open the doors, as there is literally no more room with passengers unsafely sardined in. Even without COVID concerns, the crush risk of that many people crowded together in such a small space is a quiet danger that all the passengers onboard grimly accept out of the more immediate fears of what may happen if they arrive at their destination late. I have the relative privilege of a flexible workplace, so although annoyed, I wait for the next bus at 8:55 and arrive at my office late at 9:20, then clock out a bit late at the end of the day.

Another passenger on that bus also walks into work late. But their workplace is not as flexible, and they are fired on the spot for tardiness. They have a car they would have driven today, but it is a used clunker they spend thousands of dollars annually to keep on the road, and it’s currently in the shop for the second time this year.

A parent in the Pine Hill neighborhood, meanwhile, never left their house – the exhaust from traffic on the 33 this morning combined with the cold winter air aggravated their child’s asthma to such a degree that they both had to stay home.

How did we find ourselves in such an inequitable system that pits different commuters against each other in such harsh and horrifying ways? Much came about directly because of the policy decisions of previous generations about our built infrastructure. 

The policies presently under consideration will likewise build the world our children will inherit.

The policies presently under consideration will likewise build the world our children will inherit, and if we continue under the presently favored policies, we can look forward to handing them a future where we will successfully transition to electric cars for our still-car-dependent populace, which will decrease oil consumption and alleviate local air quality concerns. The 20-minute commute as we know it today will be preserved.

However, even if we had a fully green grid, this system will not be carbonless – to maintain our car-dependency, we will still need to rely on dwindling oil reserves and related dangerous and damaging extraction practices to construct more impermeable oil-based asphalt roadways and parking lots, which will still sit mostly unfilled outside of half-abandoned strip malls. These new roads and new parking lots will also require all of us to pay higher taxes every year.

Parking lot – Pixabay
Strip mining – Pixabay

Other resources will continue to be depleted to support an infrastructure that will still be rooted in consumption. While oil use will be reduced, strip mining in faraway lands will increase as the transition to personal electric cars spikes demand for lithium and rare earth minerals.

Locally, we will continue to lose greater and greater portions of our rural areas as accelerating suburbanization paves over land further and further away from urban cores, and we abandon even more of our built environment in inner ring areas. The increased rainfall from climate change, which could have been captured by now-paved-over rural wetlands, instead will cause worse and worse flooding downstream. With less local farmland, our food needs to be produced in areas further and further away from population centers, increasing the risk of scarcities and our individual carbon footprints. With less greenspaces, we reduce the amount of carbon we can recapture.

Inequities will persist, dividing and weakening our region. 

The average car model on the road will continue to grow larger and larger to match infrastructure designed to prioritize the speed of cars over the safety of all road users, pedestrians, cyclists, and other active transportation users will continue to be endangered by traffic violence. 

With practically non-existent public transit, seniors, people with disabilities, and others who are unable to drive will need to instead rely on spotty privatized rideshare services, which will increase in price as the private investment currently artificially deflating passenger costs dries up. Housing and utilities will also continue to increase in cost.

Racial injustices and segregation will continue to be exacerbated by urban expressways and the subsidization of sprawling suburbs. 

Perhaps most worryingly, on this path, while the rate of overall greenhouse gas emissions worldwide will decrease, we will very likely fall short of goals needed to reduce the worst impacts of climate change.

By maintaining the car-dependent 20-minute commute as it is presently, we choose to hand our children an overbuilt obsolete 20th century infrastructure, which will thoroughly bankrupt our region and buckle under the effects of climate change. 

The 21st Century 20 Minute Commute

How can we change our trajectory? What would a modern, more equitable, sustainable, balanced, and humane transportation system look like – how can we reimagine the 20-minute commute for the 21st century?

What if you weren’t dependent on your car? What other options could you imagine if you had a choice? What if we built a transportation system that did not pit different modes against each other, and worked in harmony as part of the larger urban ecosystem?

North Buffalo Rails to Trails

What if you could leave your car at home and instead safely ride an electric bike on complete streets and separated paths, or greet a few of your neighbors in the morning when you hop on an electric shuttle bus which takes you to an electric Bus Rapid Transit station, which then speeds you downtown on a dedicated right-of-way? 

Maybe, with the reduction in overall traffic and a prioritization of transit systems, your commute continues to remain 20 minutes. Maybe it now takes 30 minutes instead of 20 – but maybe, with someone else driving, you no longer need to keep your eyes glued on the car in front of you, so you can now leave your home a few minutes later and clock in not when you walk into the office but instead when you log onto your email on your phone during your ride in, and you actually gain 20 minutes of leisure time each day instead our current 20th century paradigm of losing 40 minutes every day driving back and forth.

If our entire community, including the rider who risked losing their job due to a single late bus, can now rely on a zero-emission electric bus fueled by a green grid on every route every 10 minutes (or maybe even every 5!) we can reduce the risk of overcrowded or delayed buses. With regular and reliable transit options, that rider can sell their clunker and use the savings to finish their degree and get a better job.

With greater ridership rates and the reorganization of resources no longer spent trying to maintain and expand sprawl, sidewalks are better maintained and more accessible to people of all abilities and cut bus routes are restored – I and other riders can choose how, when, and where to move about the city and our region. I choose to sit and watch the world go by outside the window on my favorite route, the restored #7.

The parent in Pine Hills, in contrast, chooses not to take transit, but instead to drive themself and their child in a small electric car- a choice that parent makes this morning not out of necessity, but more for leisure, as where I find my ride on the bus relaxing and you enjoy your bike ride, they find that with the overall reduction in automotive traffic, their previously stressful drive is now meditative as well as a chance to privately chat with their child for a bit. 

Without drivers being pitted against all other street users, walking and biking is much safer – the parent lets their child out a few blocks away from school, feeling confident about their child walking as it is now much safer without the risk of traffic violence. Without the exhaust from the lessened traffic on the fully restored Humboldt Parkway, the child’s asthma is under greater control. 

Humboldt Parkway, Buffalo, New York. This is a southbound view from the pedestrian bridge between Northland Avenue and Hamlin Road. Wikimedia

In this version of our future, the world our children will inherit, while still a very different and a much more challenging one due to now-inevitable effects of climate change, is in many ways a far better, equitable, and more just one. They can dream of a future where we not only weather and reduce the effects of climate change but also begin to restore our climate and environment for the children of the next century.

Which path will we choose? 

Our regional political and policy leadership are unfortunately choosing the harder path by continuing to lobby for car-centered infrastructure investments in a vain attempt to maintain the existing obsolete 20th century transportation paradigm centered around car dependency. 

Our policymakers support widening existing roadways and building new, at-grade urban highways such as the proposed Tifft Boulevard. They argue that simply transitioning to electric cars will somehow be a panacea for climate change without addressing how maintaining car-dependency also means maintaining all the related poor land use policies and worsening inequities.

Perhaps most bizarrely and infuriatingly, policy leadership seems fixated on unproven Automated Vehicles technologies to try to maintain car dependency.

Perhaps most bizarrely and infuriatingly, policy leadership seems fixated on unproven Automated Vehicles technologies to try to maintain car dependency – why gamble our future on these potential technologies that *might* become available to consumers that would, at best, maintain the sprawling status quo, when a strong public transit system could effectively serve the same functionality for the average person as an AV car today with existing technologies if the political will were there to improve public transit services? 

Map of 1935 streetcar system in Buffalo | Wikipedia

Heck, the technology for AV functionality has been around for over a hundred years – the transit system Buffalo residents were served by in the 19th century connected residents from their front door to all parts of the state by rail. Just imagine, a century ago, residents of Buffalo were so connected by transit systems that I could have walked to my corner on the West Side, caught a trolley, transferred to a train downtown, then transferred to a trolley in Syracuse, and literally hopped off just a few hundred feet from the front door of my parent’s house as it passed through the rural farm I grew up on!

In sum, by continuing to center car dependency in our transportation planning, we choose to foist the racial, social, and economic inequities that plague our region onto future generations, and burden our children and grandchildren with increasing monetary costs to municipalities and taxpayers as the crises of climate change, resource depletion, and deferred maintenance increase the cost of subsidizing car dependency.

Let’s instead pick the path of the 21st century 20-minute commute – while we cannot turn on a dime, we can choose to redirect our local, state, and federal policy, and begin to shift towards a 21st century system centered on public transit and active transportation modes.

In particular, the upcoming federal infrastructure package, which Congress expects to vote on in early July, gifts our region with the opportunity to make a leap from the mistakes of the 20th century towards an equitable 21st century transportation system centered instead around the humble public bus, as well as active transportation modes. 

We need to demand immediate investments into the NFTA as part of this package, specifically for improving and increasing bus services, as well as an increase regionally and nationwide in annual operating funding for public transit. BTRU’s current petition homes in on several bills that would aid in this shift for our congressional representatives to support.

We also need to push our state political leadership to better support public transit – we must draw a line with our representatives in Albany and stop anymore decreases to our State Operating Assistance (STOA) to NFTA, as well as demand that past funding cuts be undone. 

We also need our local municipal governments to prioritize public transit access and service in street designs and to develop planning strategies of affordable and equitable transit-oriented community development which centers demographics which rely the most on transit access.

Simply increasing funding and prioritizing the right of way access for the NFTA, however, would fall short of the goal of better bus service – bus riders need to be able to hold the NFTA accountable and ensure that transit funding is utilized equitably through the addition of at least two riders to the board of commissioners, which will require the passage of state legislation to reform transit authorities.

Buffalo Transit Riders United asks for your support in these efforts. If you or your organization would like to see an equitable 21st century 20 minute commute, we ask that you sign our petition at BuildBuffaloBusesBackBetter, follow us on social media or join our Facebook group, and join us on May 24th at 5pm at the NFTA Metropolitan Transportation Center at 113 Ellicott Street for a rally to demand that we “Build Back Buffalo’s Buses Better.” Masks and social distancing required.

Sign the petition.

Lead image: Photo by Ash Gerlach

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