On April 2, 2021, Erie County celebrated its bicentennial anniversary, kicking off a year of celebration. This significant milestone is an opportunity for the community to reflect on the history, stories, and legacies of the many men and women who came before us.
Author, Thea Hassan, Gobike Buffalo
Buffalo’s Current Transportation System and the Environment
“You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Every. Body. Gets. A. Car!”
Americans have a love affair with their motor vehicles, and Buffalonians are no exception. And it’s understandable: in the 20-minute city, decades of unchecked urban sprawl have resulted in vast distances between where people work, live, and recreate. According to the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council, between 1970 and 2010, urbanized land in the Buffalo-Niagara region has increased by 78% (160-square miles) despite a population decline of 16%.
The easiest way to navigate these distances is with a personal motor vehicle, and there’s a reason for that. For the past 70 years, Buffalo has built its transportation system with a singular goal – to move motor vehicles. To do so, we have destroyed neighborhoods, our world-class, Olmsted-designed park system, and our waterfront to create an automobile-dependent environment. We also cut-off access to basic necessities like jobs, healthcare, and education to anyone who cannot or does not own a motor vehicle.
For decades, here and around the country, the leading priority in street design has been level of service – a waning traffic engineering design metric that rates streets on how quickly motor vehicles flow through them with the least amount of delay. This metric ignores pedestrian, bicycle, and transit access and the safety of all road users. Level of service does not count the number of people able to move through a corridor or intersection, just the number of motor vehicles. This means dangerous, high-speed streets like Oak Street or Goodell Street in downtown Buffalo are deemed well-performing despite obvious deficiencies like high vehicular speeds and near inaccessibility for pedestrians and bicyclists. This also means buses carrying 30 people are counted the same as a car carrying one person, and cyclists and pedestrians are not counted at all. Meanwhile, proposed street designs that prioritize pedestrian or bicycle access are given the “technical brushoff” and determined unfeasible due to potential impacts to level of service or perceived impacts to parking.
Travel lane widths are established not on the actual width necessary for vehicular access nor what is safest for people walking, biking, or driving, but what will keep vehicles moving the fastest. Likewise, we set speed limits not to keep people safe but to keep traffic flowing. (Speed limits are set at the 85% percentile of average motor vehicle speed. Sound crazy? It is).
We’re using bazookas to kill gnats. We’re using 3,000-pound machines to move a couple hundred pounds of cargo.
The result: the most significant source of greenhouse gases, both statewide and nationally, is from the transportation sector. Light-duty vehicles, like cars, SUVs, small- and medium-sized pick-up trucks, and other passenger cars account for 82% of carbon dioxide released in New York State within the transportation sector, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
According to the National Household Travel Survey, about 20% of vehicle trips are one mile or less – a walkable distance for most. More than half of trips are five miles or less, a very transit-friendly and/or bikeable distance. The short, quick, personal trips of millions of New Yorkers add up to more than 60 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually. We burn 12.8 million gallons of gasoline every day in New York state to fuel our transportation system. One gallon of gas contains about the same amount of carbon as an eight-foot 2×4; thus, we are burning about 12.8 million eight-foot 2x4s every day. That is a lot of wood.
As evident in every environmental crisis, what’s bad for the planet is bad for its inhabitants. According to the New York State health department, an estimated six out of 10 adult New Yorkers are obese. About a third of New York State children are obese or overweight. More difficult to measure are the impacts from habitat and green space loss and pollution of every kind on economic opportunity, ecological diversity, waterways, community connectivity, and quality of life.
Short Distances, Big Vehicles
To truly mitigate our local and state climate impact, we need to allow people to make better transportation choices and enable people to right-size their transportation mode to meet the demands of their trips. Instead of always reaching for the car keys, we need to encourage and allow folks to grab their bike lock or transit pass instead.
We have the technology to address this crisis. Electric mobility devices are finally legal in New York State, allowing e-bikes and e-scooters to provide cheap and accessible transportation for short trips. Regular bicycles offer the most efficient form of transportation known to man. The NFTA’s metro train line is one of the few places locally to receive Niagara Falls hydropower. Complimenting these technologies are commuter assistance programs like GO Buffalo Niagara and GOBNMC, which offer services like guaranteed ride home, corporate transit pass discounts, and other commuter benefits in downtown Buffalo.
Many climate action plans mention the need for mode switching, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 Mitigation of Climate Change report,
Avoided journeys and modal shifts due to behavioral change, uptake of improved vehicle and engine performance technologies, low-carbon fuels, investments in related infrastructure, and changes in the built environment, together offer high mitigation potential.
Unfortunately, many local, state, and federal climate action plans focus primarily on electrifying the fleet, not reducing vehicle miles traveled through mode share transition.
We need to fix our infrastructure with balanced equity. Our outdated, antiquated approach to street design must be rethought.
Complete Streets, Complete Happiness
Most streets in the region are currently missing the basic building blocks of a healthy street that support sustainable transportation modes. We call these building blocks “complete street elements.”
Complete streets are streets that have been rethought and redesigned for everyone. Complete streets prioritize the needs and access of people, not motor vehicle speed and access. A complete street has trees and landscaping, street furniture like benches, trash cans, and lights, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and visual and physical features to encourage slow vehicular speeds like narrowed travel lanes, raised intersections, and curb extensions. Instead of squeezing parking spaces into every spare inch of right-of-way, a mix of curbside uses are introduced to support small businesses, community needs, and mixed-mode users. These amenities could include transit stops, parklets and café space, bikeshare stations, or delivery drop-off areas.
We have city and state policies on the books mandating a more holistic street design approach. The City of Buffalo passed a complete streets policy in 2008. New York state passed a similar policy in 2012. Niagara Falls, Tonawanda, Lackawanna, Lockport, and Grand Island also have policies in place. Nonetheless, the gap between these policies and street design is far from closing.
We see the success of complete streets in our community– after Ohio Street was redesigned in 2014, new developments quickly followed. Delaware Avenue’s road diet between North Street and Niagara Square, which was quite contentious when implemented, increased vehicular volumes (10 to 30%) and increased pedestrian volumes (20 to 30%) while also decreasing crash-related injuries in all modes.
Despite the evidence and policies, infrastructure proposals prioritizing active transportation and speed deterrent measures – like the school zone cameras – still turn into street fights. Our proposed road diets currently parallel actual diets too closely: we set the intention, we buy the healthy food, but we keep dipping our hands into the “cars rule” cookie jar. In this case, our metaphorical cookies are maintaining motor vehicle speeds, and allocating all curbside space to vehicle storage. Unsurprisingly, our diets continue to fail.
A false dichotomy of cars versus bikes is unwittingly constructed as mixed-mode users beg for space and safety. These feuds are nothing new; people have been fighting about traffic management for decades. (A fun story from the Buffalo Courier archives – when the electric trolley was introduced in Buffalo in 1889, residents on Allen Street between Franklin and Delaware opposed the new technology and prohibited the cars on their block. The company kept a horse tethered on the street to pull the trolley cars back and forth on this short block only to bridge the gap in the system.)
In truth, complete streets benefit everyone: whether you are in a car, on a bike, walking, or riding a bus. They reduce crash rates, encourage safe travel speeds, and help buffer inevitable human mistakes from tragic endings. They use design and technology to enforce speed limits and encourage people to obey traffic laws. Complete streets support our economy, community health, and individual well-being. They also encourage more people to walk, bike, or use transit.
We got a little too carried away with our love affair with cars. Now, we are trapped. We must fix our infrastructure to allow for the right-sizing in our transportation choices.
Most Buffalonians – 89%– live within a 10-minute walk of a park, per the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore data. But how accessible is the walk? Within a 10-minute walk of my house, there are two parks, Masten Park and MLK Park. Speeding motor vehicles, little to no pedestrian infrastructure, lack of tree cover, and the Kensington Expressway’s on-and off-ramps create an uncomfortable, unsafe environment. Every street should instead feel like and be as safe as a walk in the park. If we want birds in the park when we get there, we all must do our part to reduce our greenhouse gases in the transportation sector, including supporting complete street initiatives.