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Posted by: Mike Governale

Mike Governale at TEDxRochester. Mike is a designer, blogger, and founder of a local public transit advocacy group, Reconnect Rochester. [PHOTO: Jeffrey Hamson]
Greetings. I’m Mike Governale, founder of Reconnect Rochester. I’m a graphic designer, originally from the NYC area and I now live in Rochester, NY. I have a deep fascination and love of cities – how they are formed over time and the way they continue to evolve.

Dense urban places have proven themselves, over tens of thousands of years, to be arguably the most sustainable form of human habitation. But over the past 70 years many cities—especially those in the U.S.—have lost this edge.

I write a blog, RochesterSubway.com external link, that explores Rochester, “America’s first boom-town,” and how it suburbanized itself to near extinction. The site looks at the amazing physical and social history of this place. And what it needs to do before it can become urban, sustainable, and relevant, once again.

Last November I gave a talk at TEDxRochester. The talk focuses on how our transportation choices impact land use, and ultimately the health and sustainability of our community. I think the presentation serves as a good introduction to who I am and why Reconnect Rochester is so important to me…

The Transcript,
for those who prefer to read:

So, I have a blog.

So, what? Everyone has a blog.

Well, mine was inspired by the “Rochester Subway.”

No, not like the sandwich shop.

I mean the actual Rochester Subway.

But I’m not here to give you a history lesson about the subway. Just know that we DID have a subway at one time, and a very extensive streetcar network. Really a world-class transit system.

But by the 1960’s, all of this…was replaced with this; the subway is now interstate 490 and 590.

Rochester's subway is now interstate 490 and 590.
Now, I’m not any kind of transportation specialist, or even an historian.

I’m a graphic designer. And I really just wanted to be able to hang the story of the Rochester Subway on my wall and imagine, “What might have been” had we not given all this up.

So with the help of my friend Otto Vondrak, I designed a Rochester subway map.

It’s got the original subway line in blue and all of the stops.

And it even shows all of the lines that were proposed at one time or another.

Rochester subway 'fantasy' map.
Of course, this map is complete fantasy. But it has opened up Pandora’s box. Everyone who sees it seems to have sort of a visceral reaction to it. And not everyone reacts the same way.

RochesterSubway.com receives quite a bit of interesting mail from readers.
I’ve received tons of stories from people who have fond memories of riding the subway when they were little kids.

I’ve received serious proposals from people either wanting to reopen the subway or turn the abandoned tunnels into something of a shrine or a museum.

I’ve also heard several ghost stories. The photo on the left is supposedly a photo of a subway ghost that chased someone out of the abandoned tunnels. I can’t make this stuff up.

And many people have told me this map instills a sense of pride in them for their hometown.

As though somehow this map puts Rochester into the exclusive league of cities around the world with real, actual rail transit systems.

But the full magnitude of this fantasy subway map hit me when I began receiving hate mail.

Some readers, like Christine, think transportation is luxury item.
For example, Christine. This woman wrote me to say this…

“This city does not need another whacko liberal project to waste our tax dollars. We do not want your stupid bus station. We do not want a fast fairy. And we do not want a subway. Buy a S.U.V. if you need a ride.”

Ladies and gentlemen, THIS is what I love about blogging.

Little golden nuggets of ideas can come from anyone, at anytime.

I thought about Christine’s comments, and I realized she’s right. If all I need is a ride, I should pay for it myself. I shouldn’t expect you, the taxpayer, to pay for some wacko, liberal project to move me around town. In fact let’s take a look at some of these kinds of “whacko projects”…

How about the Inner Loop?

34 Million dollars to build in 1960.
It destroyed entire neighborhoods, and has strangled downtown ever since.

Today the city is seeking 22 million dollars to correct this giant mistake.

How about an ever sprawling network of streets… and highways that constantly need maintenance and rebuilding every 20 years.

Millions of dollars each year for road upgrades, new highway interchanges at the University of Rochester, diverging diamonds… what ever that is.

And how about Municipal parking garages and fancy new bridges… And all the maintenance that goes with these projects.

Christine probably thinks her gasoline taxes pay for all this stuff? Not even close. Highway “user fees” (including gas taxes and tolls) only pay for half the cost of building and maintaining our roads and highways.

Highway user fees are not paying for the full expense of our highways. It's not even close.
Since the dawn of the interstate system, over 600 billion public dollars have been sucked into road construction alone.

If not for THESE whacko liberal projects, Christine would not be getting very far in her S.U.V.

See, I started researching and writing about these things on my blog. And the more I dug into them, the more I came to realize that Christine’s thinking is terribly flawed. Mainly because transportation is not just about getting MY ass from point “A” to point “B”.

Transportation is about connecting people to jobs and services and food supplies.

And not just for those of us who have the ability, or the means, to drive a car.

Transportation also affects land use. And THIS is perhaps the ugliest, most wasteful use of land.

Satellite image of a section of Jefferson Road in Henrietta, NY. Places designed around the automobile.
This is a satellite view of a small section of Jefferson Road in Henrietta.

EVERYTHING we build in Rochester today is centered around the automobile. Even so-called urban developments like College Town and Irondequoit Square need to be designed around great big parking lots because 98% of Rochesterians drive everywhere.

No hybrid-electric-hydrogen-fuelcell-wind-powered car will EVER fix this mess.

The problem with this, as James Kunstler often says, is that places like these are places that are not worth caring about.

Rochester has too many of these, places that are not worth caring about.
We go there because we have to, we get what we need, and then get the hell out of there as fast as we can… and we sure as heck don’t walk there.

Rochester now has way too many of these places.

One of the things I like to do on RochesterSubway.com is show local places that Rochesterians used to care about, until we needed more space for parking.

The site of the old R.K.O. Palace theater. Everyone loved it. But we loved our cars more.
Places like the old R.K.O. Movie Palace downtown. I can’t tell you have many people have told me how magical this place was to watch a live show or Saturday morning cartoons as a kid.

But soon after our subway and streetcars were removed, we began tearing down places like this so we could park our cars on top of them. Here’s the R.K.O. Movie Palace in 1965.

And just this past year I tried to save this building from demolition. This was a 19th century brewhouse in the High Falls neighborhood. A truly one of a kind building. But it wasn’t just the building I wanted to save. I was actually more interested in saving the public space created by the presence of those buildings and their relationship to the street.

A rendering of what could have been Rochester's Historic Brewery Square. Now a parking lot.
This is a rendering I did using actual photos of the property. And you can see the kind of intimate public space, and attraction, that could have been created between the Genesee visitor center, 13 Cataract Street and the future GardenAerial trail. I called it Rochester’s Historic Brewery Square.

Unfortunately, the equity firm that bought the property thought the land would be more valuable as parking.

The Mayor of Rochester and the Zoning Board agreed. So this is what we have now. A very historic empty lot.

At least parking is plentiful in downtown Rochester.
More than 60 percent of our downtown surface area has been intentionally wiped out and is being used today exclusively for storing our vehicles.

How much CITY do you think can exist between all of these dead spaces?

As you can see, the transportation choices we all make, impact our community in a very real and lasting way.

And think about this: There is enormous demand now across the country for walkable, transit-oriented living.
Young people, college graduates, and retirees are seeking out cities that can offer them this type of urban lifestyle.

Being able to live without having to rely on a car. Being able to walk to work, to shopping and entertainment.
We have very little of this in Rochester, but it represents an enormous economic opportunity that we’re missing out on.

And why wouldn’t we want to do everything humanly possible to activate streetlife in Rochester?
Isn’t THIS is what we’re after?
Foot traffic…
People on the street…
This is what attracts businesses.
Which in turn attracts MORE people.
And when you have people on the street sharing public space.
Fun stuff happens. Good things like window shopping.

This is what our community looked like before we all became car dependent.

These streets are supposed to be the living room of our community. The way it was before we all became car dependent.
People on the street sharing ideas. We didn’t need to have a TED conference to share ideas. The street was the living room of our society.

But today, this is our idea of community. We drive around and communicate with each other through our car windows, and say to ourselves, “it’s such a shame our city looks the way it does.”

And the sad part is, we all seem to be perfectly content. And this is very telling…

I emailed our county executive, and I asked her what she thought about our current transportation system and if there was anything she’d like to see changed or improved.

This was her response…

“Our local transportation infrastructure is far more than adequate… The average commute for residents in our area is a scant 20 minutes… At present, our residents and visitors seem to be very satisfied with the transportation infrastructure we have in place.”

She’s absolutely right. It only takes 20 minutes to get anywhere in Rochester – as long as you’re behind the wheel of a car.

Ask yourself, are you satisfied with this? “Rochester, the city with a 20-minute commute – to no where!?

Are you satisfied with this? 'Rochester, the city with a 20-minute commute to no where?'
We have to understand that THIS did not happen because our economy crashed. THIS happened because for the past 70 years we’ve been building our community around cars instead of people.

The good news is that this IS reversible. But right now, we don’t even realize there’s a problem.

I founded an organization called Reconnect Rochester. We’re not trying to bring back the subway. The ultimate goal is safer, more attractive streets and neighborhoods, through effective use of land and transit.

Reconnect Rochester needs YOU!
We’re building partnerships throughout the Rochester region to get people to at least start talking about smarter growth policies and transportation alternatives.

We’re working closely with RGRTA to encourage the use of public transit with programs like “ROC Transit Day” this past June. And we also work to support the improvement of regional pedestrian, bicycle, and rail facilities.

One easy way you can help, is to ask yourself before you get in your car, “Do I need to drive today? Or can I walk, ride my bike, or hop on a bus?”

It’s your choice. You can hang the Rochester Subway map on your wall, and fantasize about what might have been.

Or you can start showing your elected officials that it’s time to trade in our WACKO LIBERAL AUTOMOBILE-ONLY PROJECTS, for a more balanced approach to transportation in Rochester.

Thank you.

• • •

Credits:

Many of the great Rochester photos in this presentation were shot by local photographer Rick U. You can see more of his amazing work at RocPX.com external link.
Other graphics, illustrations, and video were created by the fine people at RochesterSubway.com external link.
Much appreciation for the ongoing service and support from:
Thanks to all the volunteers at Reconnect Rochester external link for doing the all the hard work – the stuff no one else will do. Please, ask them how YOU can get involved external link.
Thanks to Tony Karakashian, Gary Jacobs, Amanda Doherty, and Jen Indovina at TEDxRochester external link for helping to make Rochester a better place – and for all the support.

And the biggest thanks of all goes to my family (they know who they are) for putting up with chronic negligence of family duties and my raging geekness.

— 5 Comments —

  1. Hello Mike, I just stumbled upon your blog. Both Rochester and Fort Worth share one common, almost shameful trait: They both made the mistake of closing and detroying their nascent downtown subways. Of course, in 1956 such a mistake is more-or-less understandale, but we closed ours in 2002.
    Rochester is a beautiful city and still has a lot going for it. Best of luck!

  2. Please tell me that youre going to keep this up! Its so good and so important. I cant wait to read more from you. I just feel like you know so much and know how to make people listen to what you have to say. This blog is just too cool to be missed. Great stuff, really. Please, PLEASE keep it up

  3. Its a shame that Rochester is not of sufficient size to support the subway because quite frankly it would be very cool to jump on the subway and take it to “wherever i need to be” rather than always hopping in the car..and the street car to Charlotte..how great would that be.

    What really has me steaming is that we are probably going to pay someone a ton of money to remove the cool retro bus stops in lieu of converting them to retail outlets or ticket outlets or outlet outlets..damn shame

    Gary

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