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Stuck in a Bus Rut, But We Still Believe

Reconnect Rochester meets with the team at RTS on a regular basis. We listen and ask questions. We share feedback from transit riders and offer ideas. We seek to understand and strive to be a good community partner.

Many of you might be wondering what’s going on with all the service changes over the last few years. We want to share our latest understanding with the general riding public, and anyone else who cares about having reliable public transportation in our community. Read on for our take on what happened, what’s happening, and what to expect.

As an advocacy organization, it’s important for us to collect input and channel it to the ears of RTS leadership so they can better understand the impact of their decisions on transit users. To that end, we’ve constructed a survey to find out from RTS riders how your experience has changed (for better or worse) since the implementation of the Reimagine RTS system redesign last spring. We also want to hear from former RTS riders about why you have stopped riding and what it would take to get you back.

We’ll be collecting this input through the month of August online and in-person, and then we’ll collate it and pass it on to RTS leadership. Please help us out by sharing this survey with your friends!

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What’s the current situation and what can we expect?

We’ll give it to you straight first with no sugar added, and then add a dash of hope and sweetness later.

RTS ridership is still hovering around 65-70% of pre-pandemic levels with no sign of an upturn.

On-demand service in the mobility zones is exceeding demand, resulting in a service denial rate of 30-35%. The service management platform has been problematic. This combination has made service in the towns and suburbs of Monroe County often frustrating and unreliable.

Five (5) of the seven (7) 15-minute frequency routes in the core service area – the big promise of the Reimagine RTS system redesign – reverted back to 30-minute frequency. The result is worse service for some riders than they had before.

RTS doesn’t expect any of this to change or improve until at least January 2023, when new buses and vans arrive, enough drivers are hired, and a new on-demand technology platform is put in place. 

Who is impacted most?

The unfulfilled promise of Reimagine RTS of more frequent and robust service is a burden that falls squarely on transit dependent people in our community. It stands to reason that transit dependent folks make up most of the 70% of riders who are still on the bus. Unlike “choice riders” who were able to choose another way to get around, this group of folks don’t have another option than to rely on the bus. 

Bus Stop

With the system as it is, a commute time that was already long, is made longer. Those who live or need to get to work in the mobility zones are especially hard hit. Because demand is far outpacing service capacity, there is a new unreliability that is arguably worse than the service that existed before. At least then you knew a fixed route bus would be coming along at a set time, even if only every 60 minutes.

How did we get here?

The pandemic took a huge toll on RTS. In June 2020, the long-awaited Reimagine RTS system redesign launch was postponed as RTS focused on pandemic response, health safety on buses, and pitching in to meet emergency transportation needs. Reimagine RTS finally launched almost a year later in May 2021.

A few months later (Sept 2021), a shortage of private contract bus drivers created a crisis with RCSD school bus transportation. RTS stepped in and provided service so that kids could get to school. However, to free up buses and drivers, they rolled back the 15-minute frequent service that had been the hallmark of Reimagine RTS.

For the last year, RTS has been struggling to get the buses and drivers in place so they can add back the frequency in regular service and meet the unexpectedly high demand for on-demand service in the mobility zones. The good folks at RTS want to restore the frequent service as much as anyone and are working overtime to problem-solve the situation.

There are two things standing in the way: 1) Supply chain issues have prevented vans and buses, ordered more than a year ago, from arriving. 2) Steep competition in the labor market has made it more challenging to hire RTS drivers. In April 2022, due to ongoing equipment and staffing shortages, RTS announced service changes that included “pausing” the new Rt 42 crosstown, another rollback of the Reimagine RTS system redesign.

It’s little comfort, but we are not alone in this. Transit ridership is down everywhere in the wake of the pandemic. Equipment and bus driver shortages are plaguing transit systems across the country, and have led to even more severe service cuts in neighboring Buffalo and Syracuse over the past year. 

Bus Ridership
Dec 29 2019 – July 30 2022 National Data (APTA Ridership Trends dashboard)

Is there any good news?

Yes, there is plenty. 

A host of Reimagine RTS service improvements were successfully implemented and have made a big difference for many riders. Things like increased weekend service hours and frequency, the Rt 40 & 41 crosstown routes, newly added 30-minute frequency routes, and two 15-minute frequency routes (E. Main & Dewey Ave) that were reinstated.

This spring, the RGRTA Board approved a new service management platform in the mobility zones to replace the problematic one, so that fix is on its way.

Ridership data collected from the 15-minute routes has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that frequency = increased ridership. Unexpectedly high ridership in the mobility zones shows there’s a strong demand for public transit in the towns and suburbs. What’s the takeaway? When we can restore the promises of Reimagine RTS, we will see huge gains in ridership.

Thanks to advocacy efforts led statewide by NYPTA and locally by Reconnect Rochester, as well as our Albany delegation’s support for public transportation, State Transit Operating Assistance funding for RGRTA will be increased by 15.17%. This removes funding as a barrier to service expansion & restoration (the problem is that money can’t solve the immediate problem of staffing and equipment shortages).

Many would say the Transit App has been a bright spot. Anyone who uses it can attest to the awesome design and functionality to guide transit riders in moving around.

RTS is leading New York State in the conversion to electric buses and also just got State funding to add hydrogen fuel cell buses to its fleet in the coming years. That’s a great thing for the environment and the quality of the air we breathe.

Finally, there’s also hope for expansion of bus amenities to improve the riding experience. Reconnect Rochester just got 23 more bus stop cubes on the ground, bringing the total to 54 bus stops around the city. Even more exciting, the City of Rochester with support from RTS, is applying for a $2M State funding grant to make a sweeping investment in bus stop amenities. This could mean shelters, benches, and bus stop cubes installed at hundreds of stops in the city that currently have no seating. Keep your fingers and toes crossed!

Rochester Bus

What can RTS do?

We wouldn’t be a very worthwhile advocacy organization if we didn’t point out some ways that RTS can do better even under the current constraints.

We challenge RTS to acknowledge what its customers are really experiencing minus any positive spin. Be transparent and communicate what’s happening. As transit riders, we’d like to know what’s going on. Share ridership statistics and denial rates with the community and explain why. Tell us what you’re doing to resolve the service issues. How many drivers are in the pipeline? How many buses are on order? What’s the timeline for the new user management system for the mobility zones? You get the idea.

What can we/YOU do?

Fill out our survey to share your experience.

Whether you’re a current rider or a former rider that has stopped riding the bus, we want to hear from you. We promise to deliver your thoughts to RTS leadership in the hope that your voice will impact future decision making.

If you ride RTS regularly, keep sending them your feedback.

They might not be able to make major changes happen, but they have been responsive to small improvements when they hear a sensible adjustment that can be made. Positive feedback is important, too. If RTS does something that improves your situation, let them know! Also, driving a bus can be a difficult and stressful job. A friendly greeting to the driver when you enter the bus, and thanking them for getting you to your destination safely can make a difference. You can play a part in driver retention!

Ditch the car and ride RTS whenever it works for your schedule.

Mary at Reconnect talking here. My own personal commute improved significantly thanks to the new Route 41 crosstown, which gets me to the office in 17 minutes door-to-door. In those 17 minutes, I get to enjoy some fresh air and a little exercise, check my inbox, give and take smiles (even if only with the eyes) with fellow passengers, and save gas money leaving the car at home.

Bus Arriving

Wondering what your bus commute would look like? Visit myrts.com or download the Transit App to find out!

We still believe

Reconnect Rochester has long advocated for a public transit system that delivers frequency. We still believe that the Reimagine RTS plan – when fully implemented – will set us on a path to a more frequent and robust system. There are tradeoffs, yes, but it will be a net positive overall.

At Reconnect Rochester, we look forward to when we will see the full promise of the new system fulfilled, and can truly welcome in a new day for public transportation in Rochester. We look forward to bringing back our Roc Transit Day event to showcase the changes and attract busloads of new choice riders – because choice ridership enriches the whole system, making it better for everyone. We look forward to the day when public transportation can serve as an integrating, rather than segregating, force in our community.

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Rolling Out the Changes: A Transit Ambassador’s View on the New RTS System

Guest blog by Nicholas Russo; an RIT graduate, civil engineer, & passionate urbanist

On May 17, 2021, a re-imagined Regional Transit Service kicked off in Rochester. As a hired Transit Ambassador for the first week of the rollout, I had a firsthand view of how the new bus routes and infrastructure were set up and how they functioned, and also got to hear the thoughts and experiences from transit users. In this post, I’ll recount my time visiting three of the new Mobility Hubs around the metro area, as well as my car-free week in Rochester! I am currently living in Massachusetts, so I was excited to have an excuse to visit my old college town, and get paid for it!

For those who may be unfamiliar, the Reimagine RTS initiative began several years ago, with the ultimate result of more efficient bus routes, including three new Crosstown lines (which I made extensive use of during the week), and an all-new On Demand service. The On Demand service is like micro-mass-transit, with shared vans that can be called for pickups and drop-offs anywhere inside specific On Demand zones. There are no fixed routes or bus stops in the On Demand zones. 

The existing fixed-route bus service is named RTS Connect. The RTS Connect fixed-route services that run to On Demand zones now terminate at Mobility Hubs. These are more formalized bus connection points that are all served by an On Demand zone, as well. Here’s the map to help you visualize the new system.

The Week Begins

My journey started at the Albany-Rensselaer train station, where I finally got to try the roll-on bicycle storage service. I packed a week’s worth of supplies into my camping backpack, and climbed on board the train. Once I arrived in Rochester, it felt great to throw my backpack on, hop on my own bike, and get myself over to my host’s house for the week. No waiting for an Uber or walking to the Transit Center. I was very grateful to also make it to the Flower Pedal Populaire Sunday bike ride to kick off my week. It was great to catch up with so many people, and see how the city has grown over the past few years!

On-board bike storage on the Empire Service

My RTS Transit Ambassador schedule for the week was one for the early birds: 5:00am-1:00pm for Monday and Tuesday, then 6:00am-9:00am the remainder of the week. Reporting for 5:00am at the Hylan Drive Mobility Hub meant that I needed to plan my alarm time for the 45-minute bike ride to Henrietta with a little buffer time, and time to get out of bed and get ready for the day. 3:30am it was. My bike rides took me mostly on a straight line along Winton Road, which was eerily quiet at 4:00 in the morning.

The standard Ambassador uniform for the week was a blue RTS-branded apron, black RTS-branded mask, and a lime green RTS-branded visor. Hopefully it was clear that I wasn’t someone just loitering all day at the bus stop. Each Ambassador also received a small swag-bag with sunscreen (thank you!!), sanitizer, and information about the new bus lines and On Demand zones.

Showtime

Monday morning started quiet, dark, and empty at the Henrietta Transit Hub on Hylan Drive, where I was assigned. The Hub consists of two metal and plexiglass shelters facing each other across the street at the Wegmans driveway entrance. The shelters are enclosed on three sides, with the side that faces the street open except for a center plexiglass slat. 

For being on a suburban arterial, it was incredibly quiet and peaceful watching the sunrise and listening to the hundreds of seagulls and geese making their morning rounds. As the way went on, though, the traffic and noise levels became dangerously high at times as cargo trucks zoomed by at 40 miles per hour no more than twenty feet away from my seat. I would honestly suggest flipping the shelters around and having the opening face away from the street. Keeping the noise and fumes out would create a much better ride experience.

My home base for the first half of the week

The first customer of the morning was a recent graduate from RIT, and an even bigger fan of transit than I was. He informed me as he walked up to the bus shelter at 5:50am that he wanted to be the first customer to try the new On Demand service. The On Demand hours begin at 6:00am, and at that hour two RTS-branded passenger vans drove up and staged at the far edge of the Wegmans parking lot. The customer boarded and went off to continue riding the new bus system for the day.

I was also happy to be joined by fellow Ambassadors across the street, and an RTS supervisor who was on duty for the day at the Hub to make sure things ran smoothly. As the morning progressed, I was extremely grateful that he was there and had direct access to dispatch communications, as I’ll explain.

Connection Hub-Bub

Many of us are used to having first-day jitters, bugs, and hitches with new programs and initiatives, and Reimagine was no exception. Being a completely new service, On Demand had a quiet start on Monday morning. Those who did try out the passenger vans sometimes found themselves waiting at the Hub long beyond their scheduled pickup time, but with no clear reason why. When someone called customer service, the representative found that they were indeed scheduled to be picked up at the Hylan Connection Hub at their specified time. But the On Demand vehicle was nowhere to be seen. 

Luckily, RTS’s supervisor who was assisting us that day was able to speak directly with dispatch and the operators. It turned out that the location of the Connection Hub was incorrectly placed on the vans’ GPS units as being at the terminus of the bus routes (at Walmart on Clay Road), and not at the Hylan Drive shelters. So, operators were driving to Walmart when instructed to pick up a passenger at the Hylan Connection Hub. This was ironed out as the week went on.

Another change that was unexpected by some passengers was RTS Connect bypassing the Marketplace Mall entrance, which was where the fixed-route buses previously would pass through. The new routes were laid out to run directly down West Henrietta Road to Hylan Drive, without diverting into the mall property. While this was more efficient from a bus scheduling standpoint, the change proved to be less efficient for many passengers who were taking the bus to the mall. They now had to walk from the Hylan Drive Hub, and then halfway around the outside of the mall, to get inside. This feedback was passed along to operators who then updated the route by Tuesday morning to once again pass through the mall entrance.

Hopping Around Hubs

I offered my flexibility to the Ambassador supervisors during the week, and they took me up on the offer. Besides Henrietta, I helped to staff the Connection Hubs at Dewey Ave & Ridge Road, and Irondequoit Plaza. Each offered their own unique logistics that show just how diverse the neighborhoods around Rochester are. 

On Wednesday and Thursday morning, Dewey Ave proved to be an important Connection Hub for commuters who work at the industrial centers on the west side of the city. This hub really served as a stress-test for the On Demand service, which had an On Demand zone comprised of all of the industry on the west side between Ridge Road and Lyell Ave. The flexibility of the On Demand service meant that pick up and drop-off times were not guaranteed, and it became apparent early in the week (before I was at that hub) that passengers would need to book additional “buffer” time for pick-ups and drop-offs to be on time for work. It was an evolving situation as the week went on. 

Another piece of the puzzle involved the “long” and “short” fixed-route lines that served the Dewey Connection Hub. The long and short lines are basically overlapping bus lines, with one line running all the way to the far end of Dewey Ave at Northgate Plaza, and another stopping short at the Dewey Ave Connection Hub at Ridge Road.

My bike at a bus stop with a Reconnect Bus Cube

Irondequoit Plaza was the quietest hub of the week in my opinion, mostly since I was stationed there on a Saturday morning. There were not any commuters to speak of in this bedroom neighborhood, and a smattering of early-morning Wegmans shoppers did alight from the fixed-route buses that terminated here. It was a good opportunity to chat with some of the bus operators as they laid over at the hub.

Finally, I ended my week on Sunday morning back where I began, at the Hylan Drive Connection Hub in Henrietta. 

As I reflected on the week during the sunny and quiet Sunday morning, I was grateful to be on the ground to see how this system worked in the real world. As someone from a city so small that our buses only run once an hour, it was so much fun to get fully immersed in a city-wide bus system serving thousands of passengers a day. I’m looking forward to my next return visit, when I can be a full-time passenger on the RTS buses, and remember how vital our public transit is for a healthy and strong city.

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Automobile Evolution and Suburban Sprawl

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog

The first car I recall riding in as a child was my mother’s Chevette Scooter, a horribly made car for the family on a budget. Poor quality, no comfort, no AC, a heater that took half an hour to kick in and a crappy radio.

The Ford Escort that followed was honestly not much of an upgrade, and neither was the car that ended up being my first to drive, the Plymouth Colt (which didn’t even have a radio).

1993 Plymouth Colt Interior, Consumer Guide Automotive

Yes, these were bargain basement rides built for my mother’s extremely tight self-employed-music-teacher budget. There were far more luxurious cars in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. But none of these were anywhere near our price range. Thus, we were stuck with cars that just weren’t great to be in for more than short stints at a time. Commutes were a struggle, especially in bad weather. Comfort was something we simply could not afford.

In contrast, let’s look at the 2021 Toyota Corolla. Features include AC, power everything, a touch-screen audio control system with “Amazon Alexa Compatibility” as well as “Android Auto” and “Apple Car Play” standard. You can even get “Sirius XM” satellite radio. The look and feel of the interior resembles something from the future, with painstaking detail to ensure comfort and convenience. Top that off with the fact that the new Corolla has 139 horsepower, nearly double that of the popular Escort mentioned above. And let’s remember, the Corolla is the base-model of Toyota’s fleet. This is the new entry-level car of the budget-minded American today.

When we talk about the “driving forces” (forgive the pun) of American population sprawl away from urban centers and even job clusters, we often cite wider roads, more highways, cheaper rural property, crime rates, employment redistribution and other factors as motivators and facilitators. We rarely talk about the fact that being in a car for long periods of time isn’t quite as awful anymore.

An example of luxurious cars today

The upgrades with regard to comfort, power, tech, audio, safety, all-weather handling, and a host of other creature comforts have made the prospect of a longer commute much more palatable… even inviting. Cars have shifted from uncomfortable, unsafe and unappealing to flashy, exciting and luxurious, even at the base-model-level.

And Americans are willing to spend a greater percentage of their income on this luxury. If you were the average American and wanted to purchase the most popular car in the United States in 1985, you would commit 26% of your annual income to that purchase. If you wanted to do the same today (and purchase the Toyota Camry) you would have to spend 35% of your income.

Car companies have had their finger on the pulse of American psychology for some time. A decade ago, when car sales began to drastically slip with young Americans, the auto industry knew they needed to make a change. Gone would be the days of selling a car based on boring traits like vehicle quality and longevity… instead, a new era of vehicular manufacturing and marketing was built around something young people can’t get enough of: Tech.

From computer-monitored climate control systems to Bluetooth and voice-command applications that tie in with your phone, tech advances in cars have ushered in a new dimension of appeal to the young American motorist. Car interiors have been fitted with futuristic cockpits featuring screens, cameras, colorful lights and flashy graphics. Very few commercials speak to the construction of the vehicle with regard to crash safety anymore… instead they tout the automatic braking systems and auto-piloting features as tech that keep passengers from crashing in the first place.

The ability for a car to sync with a smartphone via voice command is particularly vital. The shifting symbol of freedom in the U.S. is important to note here, as more and more young Americans favor digital rather than (or at least in steep competition with) physical connectivity. Before recent advances in car tech, the automobile was a place where people were legally prohibited any interaction with tech while driving. Taking a bus or a train, however, left the traveler the chance to immerse herself/himself in the digital world while moving about. It is at least somewhat likely that the uptick in transit usage and the downturn in miles driven a decade ago was motivated by the fact that transit allows users to continue their smartphone connectivity throughout their local and regional travels, while cars do not.

Travelers immersed in the digital world, taking advantage of the freedom of public transit

Even prior to Covid, this trend had been steadily reversing. As cars added ways for Americans to stay digitally connected and feel surrounded by luxurious tech, public transit, in most cases, failed to adapt by building on their modest gains. Now that Covid has dealt a cataclysmic blow to transit ridership, the auto industry has never been more vigilant in marketing their product as a vehicle that keeps you connected while giving you a space that is “safe,” warm, comforting and above all, fun.

Pay close attention to car ads today. How many of them really talk about old-school measures like how long the car will last or how the car drives? Instead, look at the attention to tech additives and creature comforts. Today’s cars aren’t being marketed as transportation solutions… they are being branded as blissful islands of escape, with technology and serenity at the center of a newfound automobile obsession.

As urbanists battle against community design that prioritizes automobile utilization above all else, we should all be mindful of the fact that these aren’t the only factors that motivate car sales today. The fact is, cars today are more fun than they ever have been. Even entry-level models boast tech, audio and comfort that bathe the driver in a world apart from the anxiety-inducing reality we live in today.

As we look toward a light at the end of a dark tunnel, we must start planning for the public transportation of tomorrow. One of the considerations we must have is how to compete with the serenity-inducing experience of the car. Public transit’s next step needs to not only focus on how to efficiently move people, but how to do it in a way that pacifies our desire for comfort and need for space in a world that continues to overwhelm us all.

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When Streets Were Equitable

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog.

“Dude, get out of the road,” you yell in an enraged state fueled by someone’s blatant disregard for the fact that you woke up late and are traveling 10mph over the speed limit only to encounter a man “jaywalking” across the road in front of you. Your displaced anger bubbles over as you find yourself inconvenienced for a whole 9 seconds.

We’ve all been there… getting behind a car that’s traveling 10mph under the speed limit, trying to pass a cyclist with no shoulder, or yelling at a pedestrian who crosses the road outside of a crosswalk with no regard for your time.

Let’s step back in time to 1906. Jaywalking, or the illegal crossing of a street in a non-designated crosswalk, was 20 years from being a thing. The automobile was just beginning to assert itself as a semi-regular addition to city streets that accommodated a multi-modal construct. Can’t imagine what this looks like? Let’s look at this amazing digitally remastered video of a 1906 San Francisco street car ride.

The most important thing to note in this video is how diverse the street traffic is. Horse and buggy, trolley, automobile, bicycle, pedestrian… they all move at approximately the same speed. The well-to-do owner of the car travels at a speed that is similar to the pedestrian and cyclist. While the driver may be able to enjoy an independent, stress-free commute, he or she is subject to the street congestion caused by many different forms of mobility. And while this low-speed chaos would likely be psychologically catastrophic to the car commuter today, it presents some incredibly meaningful lessons with regard to our streets and their effect on society.

Multiple Modes of Mobility

Trolleys, carriages, bikes, cars and pedestrians… count the number of different forms of mobility in this video. The streets were truly for everyone, regardless of speed, size or socioeconomic status.

Similar Speed

Equitable transportation is rooted in the idea that anyone can access jobs and resources equally, regardless of their socioeconomic status. In this piece of video, pedestrians, mass transit and cars move at a similar speed. The difference in velocity between the most exclusive form of transportation and the most humble form of transportation is negligible. Today, the average 15 minute commute by car is likely to be over an hour by bus. The prioritization of the automobile has completely eradicated equitable access to jobs and resources.

Density and Community

Slower, more equitable mobility leads to greater, more efficient urban density. Suburban sprawl has created an inequitable construct based on “pay-to-play” access of upwardly mobile resources. When multi-modal transportation is encouraged, more efficient and equitable communities are possible.

In the video above, the fastest form of transportation, the cars, are moving about 2-3 times the speed of pedestrians. Sure, that difference might be a great deal more on an open road, but the top speed of between 30 and 50 miles per hour for the average Ford… not to mention you needed oil every 250 miles, and the fact that highways were just a glimmer in the hopeful eye of an urban enemy. A humorous note, just two years earlier, a driver was given the first speeding ticket in Dayton Ohio for going 12mph in a 5mph zone.

At such low speeds, the prospect of “sprawl” was horribly impractical. As a result, cities remained unquestionable centers of equity, efficiency and productivity. Because cars were just a slightly faster mode of transportation in a sea of other mobility options, 15-20 mile car commutes were simply not possible.

But cars became faster. Car and oil companies became the dominant lobbyists in the United States. Highways were built to allow for greater sprawl, all subsidizing people’s desire to create exclusive communities outside their city centers.

In Conclusion

I shared this video with a number of friends. The comments back marveled at the clothing, the trolleys, the horses, the man sweeping horse droppings, and the maddening chaos of multi-modal traffic. But when I look at videos like this, I see what cities were like when mobility was far more equitable. Sure, our cities were dirty, crowded, smelly and sometimes scary. Sanitary amenities, cleaner energy and a host of other legal and environmental issues were still hurdles for cities 1906.

But the power of the city as the social, economic and equitable hub of humanity was far greater than it is in the U.S. today. Architecture hasn’t changed all that much, save the skyscraper. Street layout is pretty much the same. The big difference is the fact that the formally diverse streets featuring slow traffic have been replaced with exclusive automobile access, allowing those who own cars to speed to their destinations while those who must rely on public transit are subject to maddeningly underfunded networks, long wait times and inefficient commutes.

The video above shows what streets were meant to be. They were havens for diverse mobility instead of space that is solely dedicated to speed and exclusivity. Our cities have paid the price for this massive mistake, and as a result, equity and upward mobility continue to lag compared to much of the rest of the industrialized world.


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The American Automobile And Racial Exclusivity

The “Pay To Play” cost of the automobile might be the most racially exclusive component of American society.

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog.

I saw something today that blew my mind. The average new road vehicle retails for $37,876. Can we say that again? Americans are purchasing cars, trucks and SUVs to the tune of $38,000. In a time when we are asking questions of equity and “pay-to-play” constructs in our American culture, is there anything more exclusive than the automobile?

Most of our focus in life revolves around three basic things… our home, our work and how we connect the two. After World War II, the Federal Government subsidized the construction and purchase of homes outside of city limits in areas now referred to as “the suburbs.” But that wasn’t enough… with major employers still entrenched in urban cores as a matter of practical business, the same administrations facilitated the creation of automobile expressways that allowed white Americans, who could afford cars to access jobs while living in racially exclusive suburbs, to commute efficiently to their employment epicenters. And as no surprise, these highways doubled as a way of demolishing “blighted” black neighborhoods, segregating white from black, and rich from poor in our cities.

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.

Redlining and racial property covenants (among a host of other elements of institutionalized racism) ensured that people of color could not transcend their circumstance, creating an un-traversable economic fissure between wealthy white and struggling black citizens in highly polarized and segregated counties.

Car, oil and rubber companies furthered the plight of inner city America by lobbying for wider roads, campaigning for “jay-walking” to become a public offense and famously purchasing the private city street car companies, only to immediately disband them. All this to ensure that the most expensive and exclusive mode of transportation was virtually the only mode of transportation. And of course, this was all done to the tune of billions of dollars in subsidies for auto-related manufacturers and the building of automobile infrastructure that a huge percentage of the country simply could not afford.

How do you disenfranchise an entire group of people? Simple. Tell them they can only live in one place, (which we as a country did) then incentivize everyone else (and thus American jobs) to move away from that place… and for the final touch, make it too expensive for the disenfranchised population to access good jobs, public resources and any hope of upward mobility. The perfect purposeful recipe for racial, cultural, economic and social isolation.

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.

Let’s go back to the cost of the average new vehicle, $37,876. The average Black household in the U.S. earns $41,511 (2018), less than $4,000 more than the cost of the average American automobile.

Can Americans purchase a used car for much cheaper? Absolutely. But a huge percentage of disenfranchised communities still struggle with high interest rates and all the “extras” that go along with car ownership (insurance, fuel, maintenance, registration fees, etc.). When the process of conveniently commuting requires 40% of your income, something is seriously wrong.

“The financial burden that the car-centric American narrative places on our families is stifling. … Those who can purchase and maintain a car win…everyone else loses.

As someone who purchased a used car 6 years ago for $7,500 and still occasionally uses that car today, I am in absolute awe of the amount of money my friends spend on cars, trucks and SUVs that I would consider “luxurious.” The financial burden that the car-centric American narrative places on our families is stifling. The amount that middle class American families are willing to spend for the convenience of two SUVs is staggering. But the myth that this choice is a necessity is one of the most racially and socially exclusive economic and psychological constructs in American culture. I would argue that the toxic level of “pay to play” exclusivity in this country is and always has been the veiled mirage of the automobile as the only means of convenient transportation. Those who can purchase and maintain a car win… everyone else loses.

When the average cars costs $38,000, equity is not possible. When the average commute of 23 minutes by car is an hour and twenty minutes by bus, equity is not possible. In a nation where Black Americans were disallowed to thrive in our urban cores, this same social and economic rift occurs today with regard to transportation and the convenient access of jobs and services.

Redlining derailed black neighborhoods by placing a financial ceiling on their communities. Property covenants and other restrictions disallowed people of color from moving to other neighborhoods. The war on drugs targeted black males in a conscious effort to disrupt black families. Today, in a world where mobility is such a strong determinant for success, the century-long subsidization of the most expensive and exclusive form of transportation continues to add yet another wrinkle in the fabric of blatantly racist agendas that our country has supported.

“Want to make the United States more equitable? Support public transit that serves everyone.”

It’s time to realize that the American automobile, and the immense infrastructure that facilitates its transportation dominance, might be one of the most toxically racial tools this country has ever seen. Want to make the United States more equitable? Support public transit that serves everyone. Support walkability and infrastructure projects that limit automobile speed and prioritize pedestrians, especially in traditionally minority-based neighborhoods. Support urban density that considers the needs and desires of Black Americans. The American car/truck/SUV has pummeled the core of U.S. urban density… let’s realize this as a mistake and get aggressive about building a more equitable future of mobility in our urban centers!


A few related notes and resources from Reconnect Rochester. . .

We appreciate this excellent piece by Arian at The Urban Phoenix that makes new and insightful connections between mobility and racial & economic justice.

Over the past five years, Reconnect Rochester has been part of an effort to examine the relationship between transportation and poverty in our community, to better understand the problem so we can identify possible solutions, and act on them. Resources this effort has generated can be found here on Reconnect’s website and include:

Our efforts continue through the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI)’s transportation work group. In collaboration with many community partners around the table, we work to translate the report learnings into systemic policy recommendations and actions that can create real change.

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Bike Share Will Rise Again in ROC

by Arian Horbovetz, Reconnect Rochester Board Member and author of The Urban Phoenix blog

If you’re like me, a firm believer that public transit, walkability and bike Infrastructure can make our city better, the last few months have been grueling.  Empty buses, the encouragement of single-passenger automobile ridership, and the loss of Zagster’s Pace bike share here in Rochester have us all wondering about the future of multi-dimensional mobility in our city.

Zagster’s abrupt departure from Rochester’s landscape earlier this year was a shock to many who believed that bike share made The Flower City a better place.  The freedom of grabbing a couple bikes while enjoying an evening downtown, or filling the last mile gap on your daily commute is suddenly absent.  

The hope had been that 2020 would bring a fresh new season of bike share, and possibly scooter share to the Rochester transportation network, but the pandemic that is upon us had other plans.  Shortly after it was announced that the start of the Pace bike share season would be delayed, Zagster abruptly pulled the plug on the program altogether, stating that the company was “reassessing its business model.”  While Rochester actively searches for a new bike share vendor, here are some key points to understand about the Zagster/Pace departure.

It’s Not Our Fault

Zagster is a venture capital company, which is a business model that can quickly rocket a good idea to soaring heights.  The downside is an increased level of volatility, which can lead to these kinds of aforementioned “reassessments,” or even closures without warning.  The unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 crisis has caused a massive ripple in our nation’s economy, one that has caused every business to make drastic changes and hard decisions.  This was noted as a key reason for Zagster’s departure from Rochester, as well as ceasing operations in other mid-sized cities like Norfolk, VA. On May 27, Zagster formally announced its closure as a company.

Rochester’s Ridership Was Remarkable

Over the past three years, Pace bikes settled into our local culture as an easy, convenient way to get around. Over 22,000 Rochester residents activated accounts over the three years Zagster was operating in our city, and those customers took a remarkable 116,951 trips.  

At Zagster’s end-of-season report in November 2019, it was reported that “Pace Rochester continues to be Zagster’s most utilized bike share fleet in the country, with 189 trips taken daily!”  Rochester riders totaled more than 40,000 trips in 2019 alone. Company representatives often described Rochester as Zagster’s “flagship” mid-sized city for our ridership numbers.

An end of year user survey in 2019 revealed that “half of all trips replaced the use of a personal or shared vehicle,” highlighting just how important the service was to the transportation landscape in the City of Rochester. And ridership mapping suggests that many Rochesterians heavily used the bike share to get to suburban job locations, like Marketplace Mall in Henrietta.

Bike Share Theft Happens Everywhere

Midway through the 2019 season, empty bike racks and “ghost bikes” (bikes that appeared on the Pace App but were not physically present) revealed a rash of rampant bicycle theft.  Nearly two-thirds of Pace’s Rochester fleet was stolen, leading to a sea of bad press and public doubt.  

While the stories of significant theft, followed by Zagster’s subsequent departure caused many Rochester residents to believe the two were related, it’s important to remember that bike share theft happens everywhere.  Wherever there is something of public value, there will always be a select few in any community who will try to pilfer it.  While the theft of Pace bikes in Rochester was difficult, it was not at all uncommon.  The onus is on the bike share provider to anticipate this construct and design their equipment with safeguards.  But the lack of a GPS tracking device on Pace bikes made solving the problem through recovery and prosecution of theft nearly impossible. The next vendor will need to have more anti-theft technology built into their bikes.

We Will Have Bike Share Again

Fear not… Rochester will have bike share again.  And very likely, e-bikes and e-scooters will be added to the menu. The City Of Rochester is actively searching for a new operator with which to partner, and word on the street is that we may see a limited launch for a few months this fall, and a fully operational system in place by spring 2021.  

This Is Not Another Fast Ferry

While we may fall victim to the Fast Ferry narrative of “this is why we can’t have nice things,” we must realize that the challenges that walk hand in hand with bike share are not unique to our city.  Zagster’s departure should not be seen as a failure to retain a valued resource, but rather a chance to connect with a new brand that is better equipped to handle the nuances of bike share in mid-sized cities.  So before we internalize the loss of Pace bike share as a Flower City Failure, let’s remember the big picture that was three years of successful bike share utilization in our city.  

We know one thing for sure… Rochester’s stint with Zagster showed us all how vital a role bike share plays in the transportation fabric of the city.  While also serving as a tremendous recreational draw, bike share’s ability to connect residents and visitors to work, home, destinations and other modes of transit makes it a powerful piece of transportation infrastructure for Rochester. 

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With Our Own Eyes and Lungs: The Benefits of Reduced Motor Traffic

Guest blog by Doug Kelley, Associate Professor, University of Rochester.

In my first few long bike rides this spring, I’ve been bowled over by the beautiful views. And it’s not like I’m visiting new places. I pedaled these same routes last summer, when I first came to Copenhagen for a yearlong sabbatical and was eager to explore. But never were the vistas like this! Now, the hills and buildings of Sweden, 10 miles across the waters of Øresund, are not just blurry shapes, but clear and distinct and colorful. Now, looking southwest from the gorgeous seaside bike path in Naturpark Amager, I can see the towns of Køge and Strøby across the bay, nearly 20 miles distant and never visible before. First noticing these fantastic vistas, I gave thanks for the end of the dark and rainy Danish winter. Then I remembered that visibility was never this good last August or September. Something else must be happening. That something is probably covid-19.

The coast of Sweden, bright and clearly visible across Øresund from a marina north of Copenhagen. Clearer air, improved respiratory health, and lower carbon emissions all come when motor traffic is reduced, as the pandemic is showing us. 

The pandemic is causing profound suffering worldwide, through death and sickness, through separation and hardship. I would not wish it upon anyone. The pandemic is also giving humankind a unique opportunity to see — firsthand — what our lives look like when motor traffic is significantly reduced. Few are driving, which means less air pollution, and we can see the improvement with our own eyes. It’s visible all over, not just on my weekend bike routes but in places like London, Delhi, Wuhan, and Los Angeles. My wife tells me her lungs feel better now as she strolls along formerly-busy roads. Back home, nitrogen dioxide emissions in Rochester are down 30%. NASA data shows similar trends all over the world. Social media is awash in before-and-after photos picturing how much better our views have gotten thanks to reduced motor traffic. Mount Kenya is spectacular. 

“The pandemic is giving humankind a unique opportunity to see — firsthand — what our lives look like when motor traffic is significantly reduced.

With those views come other important benefits. The micron-scale airborne particles that mar our vistas also wreak havoc on our health. They are the most harmful form of air pollution, penetrating deep into the lungs and blood to cause heart attacks and respiratory disease. One study found that for particles with diameters smaller than 2.5 microns, every airborne concentration decrease of 10 micrograms per cubic meter comes with a 36% decrease in lung cancer. Another study estimated that reducing particle pollution by just 1 microgram per cubic meter would prevent 34,000 premature deaths per year in the United States. So ironically, reduced motor traffic due to the pandemic may actually save as many lives as are lost to covid-19. That’s a speculation, but given what we know, entirely plausible. 

Moreover, the health benefits of reduced traffic tend to be greatest for the very people who are suffering most in the covid-19 pandemic. Air pollution links to higher covid-19 death rates and almost certainly plays a role in black Americans dying of covid-19 at higher rates than white Americans. Even aside from the virus, low-income people suffer disproportionately from respiratory diseases, including asthma. Substantially reduced particle pollution is good for everybody — and especially good for those with the most urgent health needs. 

Substantially reduced particle pollution is good for everybody — and especially good for those with the most urgent health needs.

Reducing motor traffic also comes with the obvious benefits of reducing carbon emissions and slowing climate change. The International Energy Agency estimates that greenhouse gas emissions will be 8% lower worldwide in 2020 than in 2019, mainly due to reduced motor traffic and airline travel. Climate change is a long-established scientific fact, and its extreme weather and eerily warm winters are now nearly as evident in firsthand experience as the vistas on my bike rides. A one-year, 8% drop isn’t enough to solve the world’s climate change problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.

A one-year, 8% drop [in greenhouse gas emissions] isn’t enough to solve the world’s climate change problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Clear views of the coast of Sweden, in the distance across Øresund, on a sunny May afternoon at the beach in Denmark. Holding onto our reduced-motor-traffic lifestyles would mean better health, lower carbon emissions, and more beautiful days like this.

Living through this historic moment, when we literally see the good of reduced motor traffic with our own eyes, I can’t help but wonder: What if we hold on to the good, and hold on tight? As social distancing eases and we venture out of our homes more often, what if we do it without so much motor traffic? What if we reboot our economy and jobs and schooling without ruining our own vistas and attacking our own lungs?

As social distancing eases and we venture out of our homes more often, what if we do it without so much motor traffic?”

The pandemic has taught us that for many jobs and in many cases, we can work from home just fine. The pandemic has taught us that some travel is more trouble than it’s worth. What if, instead of using the pandemic as an excuse for more pollution, we enact laws and regulations that clean our air? What if we go more places by walking and biking and public transportation? What if we build on our momentum? It would mean new thinking about topics like achieving social distancing on buses and trains. It would mean living in a new way. But the lifestyle adjustments involved are far smaller and simpler than the ones we have already achieved, surviving this unprecedented pandemic together. 

We can get started right now.

Here are a few ways to build on great work already happening in our region: 

The benefits would be huge. Cleaner-feeling lungs, fewer respiratory diseases, better quality of life, reduced chance of climate change causing harder times even than the covid-19 pandemic. And big, clear, beautiful vistas. I think we can do it.

There are many more ways to take action. Leave comments below with your own suggestions.

Read more about the Kelley family’s Danish experience in an earlier blog post: Copenhagen transportation: A day in one family’s life.

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Can Public Transit Survive COVID-19?

Authored by Arian Horbovetz, Reconnect Rochester Board Member

In these suddenly uncertain times, the urbanist virtues of density and public transit are negated by the public responsibility of social distancing.  The idea that our cities are cooperative centers of shared innovation, inspiration and collective efficiency has suddenly given way to the real and justifiable fears of physical proximity and viral transmission.  Suddenly, many of the qualities that make cities amazing places are the very things that can also promote the spread of the Coronavirus.

Estimates for transit are grim.  Transit agencies across the country are likely seeing an estimated 50%- 90% decrease in ridership.  And this is after a 20-year increase in transit utilization suddenly took a dive around 2015, largely due to the popularity of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.  This viral gut-punch will likely be another blow to the vital community resource that is public transportation.

Last week, however, the Federal Government passed a $2-trillion COVID-19 economic stabilization plan, including $25-billion in assistance for public transit.  The initial draft of this bill did not include any funding for transit, but staunch and persistent outcry from agencies and advocates across the country led to this tremendous victory in the final version.  While not alleviating the economic impact completely, this stimulus will likely keep public transit in most cities from running aground.

Why Is This Important?

Experts estimate that transit agencies will lose $26-$38 billion in revenue as a result of the necessary steps of social distancing, remote work and the closing of non-essential businesses.  While this is a monumental blow to the already-strained budgets of nearly every transit system in the nation, it would likely be one that many small-to-midsized cities simply could not overcome.  Without the aforementioned assistance from the Federal Government, transit agencies across the nation would have to discontinue important routes and services.

An estimated 36% of transit riders are workers in essential industries such as health care.  In a time when our hospital capacities are being pushed to their limits and the presence of essential staff is critical, the importance of reliable public transportation cannot be overstated.

What About Long Term?

The seamless functionality of public transit during this period of uncertainty is tremendously important for public health.  But when we finally mitigate the spread of this virus and begin the return to societal normalcy, we will need public transit to help facilitate the economic recovery of our communities.  Getting people back to work, back to more frequent trips to stores and fun nights out with friends will all be partially dependent on public transit to help sew the fabric of cities like Rochester back together.  A high-functioning RTS bus network here in our community will be a critical safety net, softening the horrific economic impact the coronavirus has already inflicted on our city. Transit can help families do what they need to do now, so that when this time passes, those same families are more likely to fully recover and regenerate our local economy.  

Speaking Of RTS

RTS was expected to roll out their long-awaited Reimagine RTS system re-design plan on June 29th of this year, with revised routes, increased frequency on popular routes and “mobility zones” in outlying areas.  In a statement last week, RTS CEO Bill Carpenter announced that the rollout of this new plan would be delayed indefinitely.

RTS has, however, remained dedicated to providing riders with regular service while adding more frequent and thorough cleanings of buses and facilities while temporarily waiving fares on all routes.

Pace Bike Share

On March 26, Pace Bike Share announced it would be suspending all rental services for the foreseeable future, and further news reports delivered worse news that Pace will be pulling out of the Rochester market altogether. This development removes another piece of active transportation and connectivity in our city for the time being.  

Public Transit’s Recovery

Just when cities like Rochester were beginning to have meaningful conversations about the tremendous social and economic benefits of public transportation, the pandemic we now face will likely have a lasting impact on how we view and interact with public spaces.  Since the nature of public transit is physically shared mobility, with close seats, handrails and pull-cords, the understandable long-term stigma generated by the pandemic may mean that riders who can afford to choose more individualized transportation will do so, at least in the short term.  In the future, public transit agencies may have to feature newer, cleaner buses, trains and facilities to mitigate what is likely to be a lasting psychological aversion to touching and interacting with public surfaces. And while this aversion will lessen with time, how we, the rider, approach the choice to take public transit from the perspective of our personal health, may never be the same.

We Need Public Transportation

The $25 billion emergency public transit infusion from the federal government that will help to lessen the blow during this difficult period was made possible only by staunch advocacy from organizations and individuals who know the importance of transit in our communities.  Those of us who understand transit’s inherent ability to promote equity and mobility options for Rochester and beyond must continue to advocate politically, socially and personally for a robust commitment to public transportation.

Finally, in this time, it is important to remember that many of the folks who are on the front lines, keeping us safe, healthy, and well fed, are the people who rely on public transportation for their everyday commute.  And when this difficult time passes, public transit will, as it always has, play in an integral role in Rochester’s economic recovery, connecting people to jobs and resources.

Our city will always be stronger and more adaptable when we have an abundance of mobility options.  When our diverse community of citizens are empowered with transportation choices, our Rochester will always be more successful, more equitable and more resilient. We will get through this… and when we do, we will need public transit to do what it has always done, and more.

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.
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Copenhagen transportation: A day in one family’s life

Guest blog by Doug Kelley.

A family in Copenhagen–mine.

Copenhagen is famous for having the world’s best bike infrastructure and highest rates of bike transportation. (OK Amsterdam, you’re not bad, either.) Transit nerds love to extol the engineering details, celebrate the signage, and explain the traffic patterns in excruciating detail. While I admit getting excited by those nerd-outs — I’m an engineering professor and a lifelong cyclist, after all — the real point is the beautiful lifestyle enabled when communities “Copenhagenize.” So here’s a snapshot, one typical day of the lifestyle, as lived by my family and me during our sabbatical year away from Rochester.

The bike lane on busy Lyngbyvej is wide and separated from motor traffic. At rush hour, all the lanes fill, but cycling is safe and pleasant anyway.

After a Danish breakfast of pastries, yogurt, and coffee, I hop on my bike for the morning commute. Neighborhood roads bring me to Lyngbyvej (pronounced “loong boo vye”), busy at rush hour with more car traffic than almost any road in central Copenhagen. Still, it’s a pleasant place to cycle, because its wide bike lanes are separated from the cars by curbs, and because automotive traffic is held to reasonable speeds by stoplight timing and posted limits. At rush hour, Copenhagen’s roads carry more bikes than cars, so I feel like part of the crowd. Some cyclists ride slower, and some ride faster, passing on the left, often after ringing their bells to avoid surprises. (Impatient commuters sometimes ring excessively.) As I head south, motorists turning right wait at the intersection for a gap in the long line of cyclists passing in their own lane.

From experience I know that the stoplight at Tagensvej (pronounced “tah gens vye”) is slow, so seeing its pedestrian signal turn green up ahead, I pedal harder. A green bike signal comes next, then a green signal for motorists. I sail through as the bike signal turns yellow. Arriving at work in under 10 minutes after a 1.5-mile ride, I’m invigorated and just starting to warm up. Bike parking is ample, with spots in the open by the nearby entrance, covered spots further away, and beyond them, an underground bike-only parking deck for bad weather and expensive bikes. Most folks ride commuter bikes, akin to what Americans might call hybrids, neither flashy nor expensive, just practical. I pull into a covered spot.

Cyclists and pedestrians in Copenhagen can be confident that their safe routes won’t dead-end, even when construction in booming Nordhavn gets in the way.

Meanwhile my younger daughter, age 12, sets out for school, also biking. She soon turns left from Lyngbyvej, using the usual jug-handle method: ride across the intersecting street, stop until the signals change, then ride left across Lyngbyvej and on toward school. That keeps her in the bike lanes all the time, so she doesn’t have to change lanes and cut across motor traffic. Like the Danes, she gives a hand signal beforehand. A few blocks later, road signs direct her through a slight detour. Construction is blocking the usual bike lane, so the motor-vehicle lanes have been narrowed to make room for bikes and pedestrians, protected by a steel barrier. Construction is no excuse to block important bike and pedestrian thoroughfares.

Copenahgen may have the world’s highest rates of bike transportation, but it doesn’t have the world’s best weather. Today it’s drizzling, so my daughter is wearing a shell jacket, boots, and her new waterproof pants. Danes like to say there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. Sure enough, rain hardly changes the number of cyclists on the road, and today the nearby cyclists wear clothing varying from Gore-Tex to full-body ponchos to soggy blue jeans. Most of their bikes have fenders, and lights are required by law–winter nights in Denmark are long.

My daughters turn left here on their way to school. Cars, bikes, and pedestrians all have separate lanes and separate traffic signals. Cyclists can lean on the railing above the curb, and the timer (circle of white lights) tells when their signal will change. Also: Danes dress well, regardless of whether they are pedaling!

Having stuff to carry doesn’t keep people from cycling, either. I take my laptop and lunch to work in waterproof saddle bags. My daughter carries a backpack, like many of the riders around her. Nearly all their bikes have racks on the back, often bearing loads held with bungee cords. Mail, football equipment, take-out, Ikea furniture, and all manner of things get carted around on sturdy flatbed cargo bikes, sometimes with electrical assistance to make pedaling easier. Danish parents commonly carry their kids to school in cargo bikes with boxed compartments on the front. Older kids sit on tag-along bikes attached to mom’s or dad’s. Most have learned to ride solo by age 3 or 4, and are getting to school on their own bikes by age 6 or 7.

My older daughter, age 13, isn’t a morning person and leaves later, finishing her 2.2-mile commute and parking her bike just in time for class. After school, the clouds persist but the rain has quit, so she decides to bike with classmates to Stroget, one of the largest pedestrian-only market streets in Europe, to window-shop and buy some candy to share. As her dinnertime curfew approaches, she considers the headwinds and decides not to bike all the way home, instead catching the S-train, which allows bikes anytime. Metro trains also allow bikes, though not at rush hour, and only with an extra ticket. But she might be tempted to take the Metro anyway once the new Orientkaj stop opens–it’s next-door to her school.

The nearby Vibenshus Runddel metro station, which my daughters and I pass on our morning commutes.

While the rest of us are away, my wife shops for some hygge (cozy) furnishings at the neighborhood secondhand shop, then picks up groceries for dinner, including fresh-baked bread. She could bike both places, but decides to walk for exercise, and anyway the grocery store is only three blocks from our apartment. After working at home awhile, she rides the S-train to Klampenborg to jog in the woods. In summer, she might instead bike to the Nordhavn harbor for a swim, or cycle 25 miles to Helsingør, then ride the train home. Neither she nor I need to plan our day around driving our kids from place to place, since they can capably bike and navigate public transportation on their own.

Home together at the end of the day, the four of us light candles, start a fire in the wood stove, and sit down to dinner. My younger daughter is ravenous after biking home from football (pronounced “soccer”) practice. My older daughter is proud that her new fitness tracker logged 14,000 steps since the morning. We have lived another day of our full and busy lives, traveling to work and school and many other places without driving a car or wishing for one. Our daily travels have required nearly no fossil fuel and put nearly no carbon into the atmosphere. Outdoor exercise lifts our moods and keeps us fit. Alternative transportation gives the kids freedom to move about independently, making extra time for us parents. And in the summertime, when the days are long and the skies are clear, Copenhagen transportation is even more lovely.

Stroget, the pedestrian street where my older daughter goes with her friends. Cargo bikes like the one parked here can carry a couple of small kids or a lot of groceries.

Crucially, you don’t have to live in Copenhagen to enjoy this lifestyle. Ride RTS. Rent a Pace bike. Stroll to your neighborhood cafe. Bike to work and to the Public Market. Though Rochester’s bike infrastructure doesn’t match Copenhagen — nobody’s does — you can bike to many destinations without using big, ugly roads clogged with motorists. Pedal on the Canal Path, on the River Trail, on the cycle tracks along Union Street or Elmwood Avenue, on the network of Bike Boulevards, or simply on quiet streets that parallel the big thoroughfares. Teach your kids to bike, show them safe and effective routes, let them walk, and teach them to use public transportation. Tell community leaders about the importance of building alternative transportation infrastructure. And support organizations like Reconnect Rochester that are enlarging this lifestyle in Rochester. 

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The Great Things We Accomplished in 2019

As we look back on 2019, we’re amazed at what we’ve been able to accomplish together this year. The highlights below are just a snapshot of all the good work we’ve been able to do, thanks to the financial support of Reconnect members, the passionate volunteers that make our programs and initiatives run, and so many others that engaged in our work in countless ways. Thanks to each and every one of you.

Sponsored a Cornell University Design Connect project to help the Brighton community create a vision for Monroe Ave., with an improved street design and streetscape that is more vibrant and safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

For the third year in a row, we crowdsourced funds to sponsor two bike share stations on Hudson Avenue & Adams Street. Plus, this fall we broadcast a live presentation and Q&A with Pace to recap Rochester’s 2019 bike share season.

Hosted a packed Rochester Street Films screening of The Trolley that sparked community conversation about modern streetcars making a comeback in American life, and the history and future of streetcars in Rochester. 

Helped shape two transformational local planning initiatives by giving direct input and promoting public engagement:  the Reimagine RTS system re-design (coming to fruition in June 2020), and the transportation and mobility aspects of the City of Rochester’s 2034 Comprehensive Plan.

In collaboration with many neighborhood and community partners, we brought our Complete Streets Makeover to N. Clinton Ave., implementing temporary street design changes to make it safer, and building community in the process.

Weighed in on the prospect of e-scooters coming to Rochester by offering common sense, research-based input about how our community might integrate this new micro-mobility option it in a safe, smart way.

Fought for the transit dependent in our community by traveling to Albany with Our Streets Transit Coalition partners, spreading awareness of the New Yorkers for Better Public Transit campaign, and stepping into a leadership role on the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative transportation work group.

Continued working with a powerful coalition of partners on the Drive 2B Better public awareness campaign to make our streets safer to walk and bike. We collaborated with many of the same partners in the planning and implementation of this year’s Active Transportation Summit.

Gave transit riders a respectable place to sit at our 30+ seasonal bus stop cubes placed around the city. We also worked with a local fiberglass manufacturer to create a permanent cube design as a year-round solution, and have plans to get the first 15 cubes on the ground in spring 2020!

Joined forces with Rochester Cycling Alliance to work side-by-side as transportation alternative superheroes! We added power to our growing organization when we welcomed Jesse Peers as Cycling Coordinator.

Engaged with the public every day via live events, community outreach tabling, speaking engagements, media interviews, social media sharing, and blog posts about things like “sneckdowns”living car-free in ROC, and driving’s dehumanizing effect.

…And this doesn’t count the untold number of advocacy actions we take day in and day out to advocate for the things we all care about, like a robust public transportation system, streets that are safe for everyone, and a community that’s built to be multi-modal.

But now we’re just bragging.

Help Us Keep the Momentum Going in 2020!

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What I’ve Learned About Going Car-Free (And Why I Plan to Continue)

Guest blog by Calvin Eaton. Calvin is the founder of 540WMain Communiversity, a grassroots non-profit community based university. Calvin is a digital content creator, social entrepreneur, and educator whose area of expertise includes antiracism, diversity, inclusion, K-12 curriculum writing and teaching, gluten free plant based living, and higher education.

If you’ve followed my journey over the last couple of years you probably know that I sold my car in June 2018 and became a car-free professional. There are so many reasons why going car-free was the best decision for me and I want to share a few things I’ve learned over the past year and why I plan to continue my car-free lifestyle.

Like every typical American teen I couldn’t’ wait to get my drivers license so I could enter into grown up world of driving. Like most youth I had been indoctrinated to believe that getting my drivers license at the ripe old age of sixteen was the consummate mark of becoming an adult. American culture worships the car and the transition from child to pre-teen to adult is distinctly marked by getting a drivers license and soon after getting your first car. I admit that for me a drivers license (and by proxy a car) represented freedom, independence, and adulthood. At no point in my adolescence did I question this societal standard, ask why car ownership is idolized, or ask if youth in other cultures are cultivated to own a car at the stroke of sixteen like we are here in America.

After years of driving and adulting; last year I came to the strong conclusion that I honestly do not enjoy driving. In actuality, I hate driving. Driving for me is a sometimes necessity to get from point A to point B or take care of very specific tasks in life. Generally speaking, for me the process and responsibility of driving and more importantly being a responsible driver is stressful. After years of being car payment free and then bucking to societal pressure and getting a lease for a new Honda in 2016, last year I came to a dramatic conclusion that none of it was worth it. Not the maintenance, not the insurance payments, not the monthly car payments. I realized that I do not enjoy driving enough to own my own car and it was this realization that served as my primary reason to get sell my car and become car- free.

What I’ve Learned

Since then public transportation has become my primary means of mobility throughout the City. For me, public transportation works great. I live on a main bus line, work remotely and spend most of my time in the inner city going between the east and west parts of the City via Main Street. Most of my deviation from this daily norm is my travel to area colleges for co-working and meetings. For these times I use Lyft. In addition to these methods of mobility, I walk and sometimes bike. Walking and biking would be more part of my daily regimen if I did not have to deal with the ill and daily effects of living fibromyalgia and chronic pain which sometimes make walking and exercise difficult. Still since ditching my car I am happy to get in more daily steps and see more of the City. When the weather is clear walking is so beautiful and it has been a great way to place myself in spaces and places that I would never enter into if I commuted by car.

I understand that my work and and life affords me privileges that make going car free much easier for me than others. Still I am glad that I am in the position to bring more awareness to public transit, biking, and even walking to get around the City. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that for many young professionals like myself it is really about having a repertoire of easy to access mobility options at the ready when I need them. For me, having a car every single day is just not necessary. However it is necessary for me to be able to have a roster of easily accessible mobility options at my beck and call when I need them. There are some days that I will take the bus in the morning and then take a Lyft back home. Sometimes I borrow a family member’s car when I need to transport something then I drop it off to them mid-day and walk to the bus stop to get to my next destination. Just today, I took the bus downtown, took two meetings, then walked back home. I had my mother drop me off at the public market and then hailed a Lyft to 540WMain. This type of multi-mobility has become just as common and seamless for me as jumping in a car was just a few years ago.

I’ll admit that sometimes planning out my transit in advance can be a minor annoyance and every now and then after a late night class at 540, I wish I didn’t have to wait for the next bus; but for me these moments are few and far between. Because I have designed a highly dense life where everything that I need is within close proximity a car is not only impractical for to get around Rochester but burdensome. I just do not need a car every day and when I do need one, I have the access for that specific occasion and once that is fulfilled my needs are met.

I recognize that going car-free is not the lifestyle nor an option for for everyone but for those that are able to ditch the car or use their cars less, tapping into the biking community is not only good for the earth but good for our City. The more folks that use RTS the more services and infrastructure that will be created to accommodate a more comprehensive system. This will normalize public transit as a viable and accessible mobility option. The more folks who bike for commute the more biking will be normalized on our City streets and force officials, planners, and policy makers to make spaces and communities that support intentional bike infrastructure and design. As we travel deeper into 21st century living we need to be less reliant on cars and more reliant on urbanscapes that make mobility easy and accessible for everyone. Owning a car should be a choice not a necessity to tap into all that our City has to offer.

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Announcing the Winner and Finalists of the 2019 Complete Streets Makeover

(Drumroll please…)

Announcing the Winner and Finalists of the 2019 Complete Streets Makeover

In March, we asked you to help identify the intersections and trouble-spots where you live, work and play that could be redesigned to make them safer for everyone.

The community response was tremendous, and we thank all those who took the time to submit nominations! We received a total of 159 nominations for 31 locations in Monroe County.

Click here to view in Google Maps

The Steering Committee had a tough task to choose from so many quality submissions and deserving locations! A set of established judging criteria helped guide us through the selection process. Here we are, hard at work examining each and every submission:

 

So What’s the Good Word?

In the end, we selected the following locations for this year’s project:

  • N. Clinton Ave. in the El Camino neighborhood – WINNER
  • S. Clinton, S. Goodman & Henrietta St. – FINALIST
  • Monroe Ave. & Sutherland St. (Village of Pittsford) – FINALIST
The block of N. Clinton Ave. between Hoeltzer St. & Sullivan St. will be the project focus area

The North Clinton Ave. location presented the right mix of community support, evidence of safety concerns, and potential for a street re-design that would create real, transformative change for the community through our project. A Complete Streets Makeover will also be perfectly timed to dovetail with plans already underway for this corridor.

We are eager to get to work with Ibero-American Development Corporation and other community partners in the El Camino neighborhood to be part of the exciting development of the International Plaza (see rendering below), which recently received funding from the City of Rochester that will drive the project forward.

What Happens Now?

The Complete Streets Makeover will kick off with a community input session in June (facilitated by the Community Design Center) to hear from the residents of the El Camino neighborhood about their experiences and ideas. No one understands what it’s like to use our streets better than those who walk, bike, roll and ride along them everyday.

Parsells Avenue Redesign Event, Beechwood Neighborhood
Last year’s community input session in the Beechwood neighborhood.

Based on feedback from this session, the complete streets design team at Stantec will draft conceptual design improvements of an improved streetscape. The design will be brought to life through a temporary on-street installation in September. We will rely on people power from the neighborhood community, and equipment from the Healthi Kids traffic calming library to lay down the temporary design on the street. Stay tuned for project updates as we go along!

What About the Finalists?

Our finalists won’t walk away empty-handed! The design team at Stantec will provide each of them with a conceptual drawing of street design improvements. The neighborhoods can use these illustrations as a launch pad for community discussion, and a tool to help advocate for changes that would make these streets safer for everyone

S. Clinton, S. Goodman & Henrietta St.
Monroe Ave. & Sutherland St. (Village of Pittsford)

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What we like about Reimagine RTS plan. And a few things we’d change.

As you are probably aware, RGRTA is exploring changes to the RTS fixed-route transit system in an effort to “better meet the evolving needs of the region.” The project, called Reimagine RTS, aims to improve transit service in Monroe County, including the City of Rochester. Over 11,000 individuals have participated in the process by sharing ideas with RTS via an online survey and many public meetings and the first draft was released last month.

[ Read the Draft Recommendations here. ]

After reviewing the draft and hearing input from many of you, Reconnect Rochester would like to formally share our assessment – including the parts we like, and a few things we’d like to see improved upon… Read more

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Reimagine RTS Draft Recommendations

If you recall, last fall RTS asked for the community’s help to reimagine our public transit system. Reconnect Rochester shared many of our recommendations and over 11,000 of you participated by sharing your own ideas with RTS via online survey or at one of countless public meetings. Well, today we’re dizzy with excitement as the first “Draft” proposal has finally been revealed…

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Be Prepared To Stop

The American Society of Civil Engineers grades the condition and performance of America’s transportation infrastructure as a ‘D’ or worse. Our roads and bridges are crumbling; Over 35,000 people are killed on our highways every year; Our transit systems are unable to keep up with demand. And the U.S. lags behind the rest of the developed world in infrastructure investment.

This week Reconnect Rochester hosted a screening of Be Prepared To Stop, a documentary film that talks about these challenges from the perspective of the freight transportation industry. We asked a panel of local experts in infrastructure policy and sustainability for their views on what America needs to do to put ourselves on the road to sustainability.

Watch the trailer and panel discussion below…

Moderator: 

Elissa Orlando
Senior VP for Television & News
WXXI Public Broadcasting

Panelists:

Enid Cardinal
Senior Sustainability Advisor
Rochester Institute of Technology

Jim Hofmann
Principal & Office Leader
Stantec

Richard Perrin
Director of Planning (eastern U.S.)
T.Y. Lin International

James Stack
Executive Director
Genesee Transportation Council

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The City of Rochester Public Market: An Important Example and Experiment in Our Community

Guest essay submitted by: Evan Lowenstein, Reconnect Rochester Member and Assistant Market Supervisor for Communications and Special Events/Projects, City of Rochester Public Market… 

Rochester Public MarketThe City of Rochester Public Market is an endearing, fascinating example of the many things planners value and work for:  successful public places and spaces; sense of place; mixed use; real and working diversity; pedestrian-focused; linkage of city, suburbs, and rural areas; supportive of the local economy.  

While the Market has made strides in multi-modal transportation access by creating a pedestrian, bicycle, and transit-friendly Market, there is a lot of work to do. The Market can and should be a true leader in moving the community forward in its transportation mindsets and methods.

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What Should Transit-Supportive Development Look Like in Rochester?

As part of its new Comprehensive Plan, Rochester 2034, the City of Rochester is studying which major streets have the best potential for “transit supportive development” in Rochester.  Transit supportive development encourages a mix of complementary activities and destinations (e.g., housing, work, shopping, services, and entertainment) along major streets and centers. This kind of development helps create compact, vibrant communities where it’s easier for people to walk, bike, and use public transit to get around. Read more

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How to Bike in Winter… with Mona Seghatoleslami

For Rochester Street Films this year we asked local filmmakers and ordinary citizens to share their perspective on what it’s like to get around Rochester without a car. No rules; No restrictions; No filter.

Rochester NY in February. It’s 19ºF and the ground is slick with snow and ice. But Mona Seghatoleslami, host of WXXI Classical 91.5 FM will brave the cold attempting to ride her bike from her home in Brighton to her job in downtown Rochester (about 4 miles). Afterwards, Mona heads to Tryon Bike shop to find out what type of gear she’ll need for serious winter cycling…

We’d like to ask for your help getting these films in front of as many people as we can. If you would like to host a mini screening of Rochester Street Films in your neighborhood, please contact us.

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Our Suggestions for a Reimagined RTS

[ Make your voice heard. Take the Reimagine RTS survey. ]

Last week RGRTA announced a plan to “Reimagine RTS.” Reconnect Rochester believes this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our community to get mass transportation right. We all have a stake in the success of our public transportation system and it is critical that RGRTA and its project team have access to thoughts and ideas from every demographic and every corner of our community. To help, we have compiled our ideas and recommendations, and we are asking you all to do the same.

But first, we need to understand how we got here.

Rochester’s public transportation network was originally designed to carry people between downtown and densely populated surrounding neighborhoods. As our residential population, commerce, and jobs spread outward with the adoption of the automobile, RGRTA attempted to follow this migration by extending service outward. With lower population densities in the suburbs, the stretched transit company found itself facing an impossible choice: expand service to reach fewer customers, or maintain its existing service area for a dwindling urban population.

After decades of attempting to do both, the quality of service in Monroe County has suffered. Those who rely on transit are underserved, and those who might choose to ride rather than drive do not. We hear complaints from riders about infrequent service, long trip times, perceived safety issues, and the need to walk great distances to reach their bus stop or final destination. Clearly, we need systemic changes to improve service and increase the viability of our public transit network.

RGRTA recognizes these issues and is now taking a bold step to design “a new transit system from the ground up.”

Our Top 5 Recommendations to Make Rochester Transit Great (again)

Reconnect Rochester has surveyed its members on how to improve Rochester’s public transit system to serve the greatest number of people. Our recommendations are prioritized below.

1. Make service more frequent and consistent.

Reimagine RTS

Current routes and schedules are too complex and inconsistent. To build confidence and make people believe they will have a ride available when they need it:

  1. Vehicles should run every 30 minutes or less throughout the entire system.
  2. Vehicles should run every 15 minutes or less on key routes during peak hours.
  3. Routes, schedules and frequencies should be consistent throughout the weekday and on weekends.
  4. Vehicles should depart from the terminal on time.
  5. Even spacing should be maintained between buses.
  6. The number and placement of new bus stops should follow the recommendations outlined previously in the RTS Bus Stop Optimization Study (2014) to strike a balance between pedestrian accessibility and system performance.
  7. Outlying routes or segments that cannot support 30 minute frequency (either with ridership or private sector funding) may need to be eliminated, or serious consideration should be given to servicing these areas by other means.

2. Make routes more direct.

Bus Rapid Transit

Many routes currently have unnecessary turns and deviations, meaning most trips take much longer than they should. The current hub and spoke layout also makes it difficult to transfer between routes without going downtown. To improve efficiency and provide the fastest possible trip time:

  1. Routes should be designed to take the most direct path between major destinations. Twists, turns and “zig-zags” should be eliminated.
    • Buses should not run into and through office complexes and strip mall parking lots. Instead, municipalities need to work to make sure transit access is provided by direct and convenient pedestrian access through a site to the edge of the public right of way.
  2. It should be possible to switch (or transfer) between routes from any point in the network.
    • Adjacent routes should be placed within walking distance from each other and service staggered to make it easier for riders to switch from one bus to another on a nearby route.
    • Provisions should be made for other modes of travel at major bus stops or satellite hubs (i.e., ridesharing and bike share stations, safe and accessible pedestrian infrastructure, information/signage, etc.).
  3. It should be possible to travel between the county’s four quadrants without transferring downtown.
    • Crosstown or orbital routes should be added near the perimeter of the city where radial routes diverge.
    • Work with other transit providers to make existing crosstown routes (e.g., U of R’s Orange Line) available for riders.
  4. Work with the City and DOT to design streets that prioritize transit (as well as pedestrians and cyclists) over private motor vehicles.
    • Install curb extensions at transit stops (as opposed to curb cutouts) to eliminate time spent weaving in and out of traffic.
    • Optimize traffic signals to improve reliability by allowing buses to maintain a constant speed, and reducing time spent at red lights.
    • Utilize dedicated lanes to move buses more quickly through crowded streets.

3. Right-size the service.

Comfortable Bus

Many routes receive high ridership near the core of the network, resulting in overcrowded, slow moving buses there and nearly empty buses for the remainder of the routes. To relieve overcrowding and improve service in high demand areas:

  1. Some routes may require express and local access service.
  2. Consider eliminating outlying routes or segments where demand is low.
  3. Vehicles should be selected according to demand.
    • Heavily used routes within the core of Monroe County should be serviced by 40’ or larger vehicles, while lesser used routes could be serviced by vans or other systems altogether (i.e., ride-sharing).
  4. Where necessary, transit vehicles should be outfitted to accommodate more bicycles.

4. Make transit accessible and easy to use.

Bus Stop with real-time information

In recent years RGRTA has added several systems and technologies that have made it easier and more enjoyable to use transit. These include the fully enclosed RTS Transit Center, fare kiosks, Tap & Go fare cards, digital signage, and a mobile trip planning app. The following recommendations would make RTS even easier to use and more welcoming to new customers:

  1. Improve integration with other modes and transit systems.
    • Institute an integrated payment solution so that one “currency” can be used across a variety of transportation systems (i.e., one stored-value pass to pay for bus fare, rideshare, taxi, or bike share that could be replenished online or at a kiosk).
    • Include data from other transportation companies within the RTS mobile app.
    • Share data and synchronize service between other transit providers such as college bus systems, Amtrak, and intercity buses.
  2. Work with municipal staff and land use boards in development review and site design. Employment locations, services, retail, and higher density residential development should occur within a half mile of transit corridors. The details of site design such as building placement and internal pedestrian circulation networks are critical in supporting transit.
    • A dynamic transit frequency map should be published for municipalities to evaluate whether transit is a realistic mobility option for a given development or not. There’s a huge difference in a site served by buses every 2 hours versus one served by buses every 20 minutes. Frequency information is not captured on a typical system route map (see for example these maps by Reconnect Rochester and this article by Jarrett Walker).
  3. School routes (currently designated with an X) should not add complexity to the published schedules.
  4. Provide basic amenities for transit riders at all bus stops.
    • Safe and accessible sidewalk connection from curb pick-up
    • Route map and information
    • Seating
  5. Provide enhanced amenities for transit riders at heavily used stops and hubs.
    • Shelter
    • Trash receptacle
    • Bike rack
    • Heat
    • WiFi
  6. Work with municipalities to enact a maintenance plan for all bus stops.
    • Trash pickup
    • Snow removal
    • Accountability
  7. Provide riders with real-time information
    • Countdown clocks with real-time information should be installed at all major transit stops and hubs (i.e., URMC, colleges, Airport, Rochester Intermodal Station, Irondequoit Plaza, etc.).
    • Work with municipalities and property owners to display real-time information screens at highly visible locations such as schools, shopping centers, arenas, office and apartment buildings (i.e., TransitScreen).
  8. Provide additional off-board and cash-free fare payment methods (i.e., kiosks at major transit stops where passengers can buy Tap & Go cards, mobile ticketing via the RTS app or a 3rd party app such as Token Transit, etc.).
  9. Explore ways to allow boarding at both front and rear doors.

5. Stay competitive through innovation.

RTS Streetcar

A business succeeds by staying ahead of the competition. Beyond the recommendations outlined in sections 1-4, it will be imperative for RTS to:

  1. Continually monitor customer needs and local market conditions in order to identify areas for improvement, industry trends and opportunities to attract new customers.
    • Offer classes or seminars on “how to ride the bus.” Many people are reluctant to try the bus, in part, because they are unfamiliar with it.
    • Have a bike rack mock-up device so people can practice loading a bike into the rack without the pressure of a bus full of people watching.
  2. Expand offerings by studying the feasibility of new systems and upgrades such as:
    • Fixed guideway and/or bus rapid transit on core routes
    • Smaller self-driving vehicles for local or on-demand service
  3. Work with the City and County to manage land use in a way that complements service patterns. Future service can then be planned based on land use decisions.
  4. Work with municipalities, key neighborhood groups, and large employers to establish Transportation Demand Management entities and co-promote public transit as a solution to congestion and costly parking.
  5. Step up marketing efforts and always maintain a fresh image reflecting the unique selling points of RTS.
    • Develop example language/assistance for municipalities, event planners, retailers, employers etc. that highlight the ability to use transit to access the event. Too often events or meeting notices provide parking information without information about public transit. Rochester International Jazz Festival does a good job of this.

Share Your Suggestions

We hope our suggestions will give you a framework from which to craft your own thoughts for RTS. Please feel free to steal our list straight away. Or if you have ideas not mentioned above, we’d love to hear them in the comments section below.

We also urge you to attend the first public meeting for this project on October 25th from 6:00-7:30PM at the Brockport Metro Center. And don’t forget to visit www.myRTS.com/reimagine to submit your comments and stay updated on this important project over the next 12 months.

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“Reimagine RTS” – A fresh start for Rochester’s Transit System?

Moments ago RGRTA announced plans to study sweeping changes to the RTS (Monroe County) transit system. The effort is being called Reimagine RTS and the goal is to develop a set of recommendations to address the community’s mobility needs, increase transit ridership, and position RTS for long-term financial sustainability.

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