For the first time since the 1980’s, regular traffic is finding its way back to Downtown Buffalo’s Main Street through the present-day Cars Sharing Main Street program. The former pedestrian mall, anchored by the ground-level path of the NFTA Metro Rail has been remembered as a local scapegoat for Buffalo’s economic decline that actually began decades earlier.
Post-World War II economics shifted the trajectory of American cities. Primarily with the selling of American-manufactured goods to overseas markets, and home ownership prioritized for newly- developed suburban units, this was particularly harmful for Northeastern “Rust Belt” cities that were founded upon citizens generating their own local economy. Among many stumbles that awaited Buffalo from this trend included dismantling of Shelton Square, a former wide commercial square that once linked Niagara Street directly to Main Street. It was a bustling hub of shops, theatres, and restaurants originating from the Joseph Ellicott Street grid where upon maturity, it was comparable to New York City’s Times Square. Shelton Square was once one of the beacons of Buffalo’s successful heritage.
The loss of Shelton Square would be one of many major self-destructive mistakes that would plague a city that once served about 600,000 residents during the 1940’s. Present-day Buffalo is at constant odds with its own identity of 278,000 residents in the 2020’s; Traumatized by its own self- destruction, the city today has to contend with many long-time citizens averse to long-term change, leadership reluctant to take on the toughest issues affecting the hardest-hit neighborhoods, and a series of developments that remain on the table amid decades of public discontent.
Despite every major accomplishment witnessed from Buffalo’s current “renaissance,” many lingering problems from the last half of the 20th Century remain untouched.
Origins of Metro Rail
The history of Metro Rail began with a streetcar system that developed throughout a still-growing city in the 19th Century. Several smaller railway companies operating routes in different neighborhoods eventually merged into the International Railway Company by the start of the 20th Century. These streetcars had routes mirroring today’s Metro buses, but servicing a much more robust population. In a time before automobiles became an overwhelming component of the American economy, streetcars were a common resource for public transportation.
When the innovation of the subway arrived to the United States in the 1900’s, Buffalo was one of the leading cities ready to capitalize with its own system. A city equipped with over 400,000 residents at the time presented its very first subway draft in 1906. This plan emphasized an east-west route centered under William Street, with Shelton Square being a main focal point according to its location on the radial street grid. A later draft presented by the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce in 1918, includes the more familiar north-south route along Main Street.
Like many parts of the city, William Street was very different from the street seen today. But due partially to disagreements about a proposed central station at Fillmore
Avenue and William Street, the entire subway plan was delayed and eventually fell through. Had the plan been resurrected or proceeded, it could have become a natural resource for the Central Terminal that was built in 1929.
Buffalo transportation survived with streetcars up until 1950.
Buffalo transportation survived with streetcars up until 1950. The growing use of automobiles prompted many cities to retire their streetcar systems, San Francisco and New Orleans being rare exceptions. With the dissolution of the International Railway Company, Buffalo’s streetcars were phased into modern bus routes. Routes would be adjusted over time, but buses would reduce frequencies while grappling with population loss and further influenced by suburban developers to restrict routes in particular areas.
Plans for a Buffalo subway re-emerged in the 1960’s when the University at Buffalo presented plans to expand upon its existing campus in the University District. After rejecting bids to build a second campus Downtown, it was ultimately decided that their new campus would be built in undeveloped land deep in Amherst. Becoming its new headquarters, the move changed the trajectory of Metro Rail plans to accommodate a commuter link between the North Campus (Amherst) and the South Campus (University District). However, these new plans in and around the North Campus would be tailored for the impulses of private developers, often influenced by sprawl-based zoning that failed to consider the raw, logistical needs of UB students, staff, and faculty.
Like with many other subway plans developed in other cities since the 1960’s such as the Pittsburgh Light Rail of Pittsburgh, or the Metro Link of St. Louis, Metro Rail was proposed as a remedy to the decline already occurring in Buffalo at the time. Zoning laws passed in the 1950’s drew sharp lines between residential, commercial, and industrial development, which had a massive influence on newer builds and urban renewal projects around the city. The aforementioned Shelton Square reconfiguration to accommodate suburban-designed traffic drove hundreds of shops, theatres, and restaurants out of business. More anchor shops and theatres were sacrificed up and down Main Street.
These along with several ill-conceived highway projects and urban renewal efforts exacerbated the decline. A prime example was the destruction of Humboldt Parkway by New York Route 33, the Kensington Expressway, that decimated property values across East Buffalo, and isolated neighborhoods from the Main Street grid. The North Oak neighborhood was completely erased from the city’s imprint. The Fruit Belt battled with a seizure of its identity after already bearing a geographical wound from the path of Route 33.
These were among the many horrific examples of urban disinvestment that would peak during the 1970’s. This escalation of events led to residents losing their homes, many local merchants closing their businesses, and a widespread loss on urban investments that persist to this day throughout the city. Buffalo saw its largest population drop during this decade, going from 462,000 residents in 1970 to 357,000 by 1980.
Many state funding issues also led to project delays throughout the 1970’s. The threatened bankruptcy declaration of New York City depleted funds statewide, which became yet another example of the troubles cities were facing during the post-WWII period. As a result, only 4,000 residential units of the original 27,000 planned around UB’s North Campus would ever materialize.
The rise of the welfare myth during the later 1970’s manifested into concerns from suburban commuters about crime spilling into suburban neighborhoods. The design of UB’s North Campus, by its very nature, was intended to discourage the camaraderie of urban density. The self-fulfilling prophecy of crime and blight in central cities grew into an implicitly learned hostility against the city itself, which would further alienate Downtown Buffalo from the Western New York region.
The resulting Metro Rail that was constructed during the 1980’s would not include secondary links to Tonawanda, nor would it include a link to the UB North Campus as once anticipated. No routes to the Airport in Cheektowaga or to the Buffalo Bills Stadium in Orchard Park would materialize. All that came was a singular, six-mile track along Main Street, going from the south edge at the waterfront to the north edge at the UB South Campus within city bounds.
The existing Metro Rail came to symbolize the post-WWII anti-urban hostility that the city of Buffalo continues to experience to this day.
The existing Metro Rail came to symbolize the post-WWII anti-urban hostility that the city of Buffalo continues to experience to this day. It became the product of both active and passive factors playing into the economic and environmental segregation of American cities and surrounding suburbs.
Reactionary legislation was approved to discourage redlining and blockbusting among real estate markets. This was to ensure that the debacle of the Route 33 Kensington Expressway would never occur again. Yet segregation practices that were now readjusted based on income status and economic advantages rather than race, came to mirror surviving segregation practices that drove the separation of cities and suburbs.
One of the most infamous cases of transit discrimination, tying into a broader case against classism, occurred with the opening of the Walden Galleria in 1989. While it served as the largest shopping center in Erie County, Metro buses were initially forbidden from dropping riders off on the mall property for the first decade, specifically as a deterrent for low-income residents. This presented an unwanted challenge for those who shopped at or worked at the Galleria, but could not afford a car. Such was the case for Cynthia Wiggins, who was killed in traffic on Walden Avenue on her way to her job at the Galleria in 1995. The case was settled four years later in favor of her family, where it was revealed that had Metro buses been allowed on mall property, she would have been able to get to and from her job safely.
Around Buffalo, Routes 33 and 198 continue to rip through parks and neighborhoods, while isolating neighbors mere yards apart. The loss of homes and safety hazards posed by these thoroughfares, topped by the NYSDOT’s reluctance to solve the root issue further underlines the suburban fiefdom that has had a negative influence on the central city.
In Downtown Buffalo, many shops, theatres, and restaurants were bulldozed for lesser commodities. Main Place Mall, intended to replace Shelton Square, specifically saw its shops disappear from the time it opened, becoming a frequent subject for “dead mall” documentaries before closing for good in 2020.
Ultimately, Metro Rail failed to save Downtown Buffalo as was once promised, but instead was blamed as the reason for the loss of multiple small shops and anchor businesses.
How and Why Metro Rail Must Expand
While implicit segregation was not exclusive to Buffalo, other American cities in the Rust Belt fared better with their own transit lines as shown in the examples above. Many are also grappling with their own dilemmas regarding aging expressways, yet operate comprehensive light rail routes that tie the downtown core, if not to its surrounding suburbs, to more points around the urban perimeter.
Buffalo’s humble Metro Rail has been infamous for falling far behind the national curve. While the walls on NY Route 33, the Kensington Expressway, continue to crumble and public buses continue to reduce services, plans are still on the table for the long sought-after completion of the UB North Campus line. But that accounts for only one of six main destinations where Metro Rail was planned to be expanded.
Expanding the Metro Rail could bring many yet-to-be seen benefits to the city of Buffalo and Western New York at large. Annual budgets spent on maintaining the aging Route 33 could even be re- purposed for funding this long-term regional expansion. Here are the many still-feasible extensions originally envisioned:
- Amherst Corridor: Serving Buffalo’s most successful suburb, this corridor would not only complete the link to UB’s North Campus, but also extend to other focal points along Millersport Highway, potentially going as far north as Lockport.
- Tonawanda Corridor: This route would ideally run on an abandoned railway corridor, serving as one option for the long-desired commercial path to Niagara County.
- Eastern/Airport Corridor: This route would re-ignite the long-neglected commercial districts of East Buffalo (Michigan, Jefferson, Fillmore, and Bailey), provide all-new business opportunities for the Broadway Market, as well as breathe new life into a newly-revived Central Terminal. Ultimately, it would revitalize Genesee Street as the rightful arterial for travelers and tourists between Downtown and the Airport, thus rendering the present-day Route 33 Expressway obsolete.
- Southtowns Corridor: Would provide an alternative to the traffic jams that occur on Bills’ game days, and prevent patrons from being stranded after games at night. Also, it would join South Buffalo with the rest of the city through its path along South Park Avenue and available railway rights-of-way, even providing stops at one or both of the southern Olmsted Parks (Cazenovia and South Parks).
- Niagara Corridor: Would run directly along Niagara Street/River Road as a route to North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls. This would tie tourism more directly between Erie and Niagara Counties, generating more partnerships with Canadian businesses.
- Main Street Corridor: Even the existing Metro Rail route could be extended further east into Amherst, Williamsville, and Clarence. If extended as far east to Batavia, it would generate a travel option to Darien Lake.
Like many times throughout its two centuries of history, Buffalo was able to shape its identity from experiences of other cities. On a larger scale, New York City has a wide-ranging subway system that links four of its five boroughs closely together. San Francisco has two separate systems: The MUNI that serves the city/county of San Francisco, and the BART that serves the larger San Francisco Bay Area. Additional examples in numbers of ridership, and availability from cities more comparable to Buffalo’s population include Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, among others.
Recent news came of the DL&W Station’s revival as the first extension of the Metro Rail, which will be opened in 2023. This is a very small but important victory that opens the door for more expansion opportunities discussed above and in endless NFTA planning documents. These plans along with grassroots advocation proposals such as those presented by Citizens for Regional Transit offer the potential for a great public transit system serving the Buffalo-Niagara region.
We have arrived at a moment in American history where federal investments are being made in American cities reinforcing and improving everyday foundational infrastructure. A critical lesson that emerged from the pandemic experience is the need for a second breadth of funding for cities that missed out on the first wave from the 1960’s to 1980’s. The expansion of public transportation services should address the common disparity in transportation options for citizens who either cannot afford a car, or those who do not prefer auto travel. For Buffalo, every incentive is needed for the NFTA to improve its existing bus routes to accommodate demands for better transit.
This article describes the dream of what could have been, and may someday be possible. There is much that can be achieved today (see CRT’s website), building a foundation for future expansions that may ultimately achieve a truly regional public transit system that completely connects our region, and solidifies a better connectivity with our Canadian neighbors.