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Car Lite Rochester: Family Style

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Car Lite Rochester is a blog series that highlights the stories of Rochesterians living a car-lite lifestyle. The term “car lite” encompasses a variety of multimodal transportation lifestyles, featuring little dependence (but not NO dependence) on a car.  It typically looks like sharing one car within a household or only using a car when absolutely necessary.

So, we hope you’ll continue to follow along.  Maybe you will be inspired to join our bloggers in living a car-lite lifestyle!

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Car Lite Rochester: Family Style

By: Doug Kelley

Doug Kelly smiles in a helmet next to the Genesee River

It was early 2015 when my transportation lifestyle hit rock-bottom. Rochester’s winter had been especially cold and snowy that year. I was still bitter over the cancellation of the RTS route that had shuttled me, all through the prior winter, directly from my own block to my job at the University of Rochester (anybody else have fond memories of the 52 line?). With my children in elementary school and my wife and I both working new jobs, busy-ness and frustration led me to break my routine by buying a parking pass and commuting in a car all winter. It seemed logical enough, especially since my wife and I happened to own two cars for the first time since our daughters had been babies.

But by March, it was clear that car commuting had been a terrible blunder. I found myself much more grumpy, fussing over traffic and parking and gas prices. I was out of shape and feeling lethargic. Canceling the built-in exercise of walking to the bus or biking to the office, and eliminating the routine that gave me quiet outdoor moments for reflection twice a day, had made me miserable — both physically and emotionally. The writing was on the wall: I crave exercise and the joys of active transportation more than I hate the cold. I swore I’d never buy another winter parking pass, and I never have. We soon got rid of that second car.

Once we did, the benefits piled up. For starters, living a car-lite lifestyle can be a big financial help for a young family. Driving less meant we spent less on gas, of course — and today’s high gas prices would increase the impact. Dropping my parking pass saved us a few hundred bucks a year. (Shout out to the University’s free Occasional Parking Program!) But the real financial payoff came with getting rid of that car altogether: no car payments, no insurance, no oil changes, no brake jobs or belt jobs or worries about what would break next. Our car-lite lifestyle continues to save us thousands of dollars each year.

Cost of a car diagram
Diagram from EPA

Other benefits are less tangible, but for a family, maybe more important. Exercise is one of the best things anybody can do for physical and mental health, so building exercise into daily transportation routines is great for parents and kids alike. Biking and walking make my family and me happier, more focused at school and work, and ready to enjoy time together more fully. Burning less fossil fuel and emitting less carbon make my wife and me feel better about our climate impacts, not only for our own sake but also for our two teenage daughters. After all, they will live through more repercussions of climate change than us, and going car-lite now will empower them to be more adaptable and less dependent on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, strolling and rolling around the neighborhood weaves all of us more tightly into our community. The kids bump into classmates; my wife and I see friends and neighbors.

Maybe the best perk for families who go car-lite is one we hadn’t anticipated back in 2015: it has made parenting easier for us. Teaching our kids to walk to elementary school saved us countless hours idling in carpool traffic jams. More importantly, living car-lite lets children gain freedom and learn responsibility in baby steps, as appropriate for their age. In second grade, our girls were big enough to walk by themselves to the playground across the street. In third grade, they could walk to a friend’s house down the block, or another around the corner. Soon, they could bike to see more friends or walk to music lessons. By the time our daughters reached middle school, we found ourselves living a year in Copenhagen. There, great public transportation, world-beating bike infrastructure, and negligible crime rates meant the girls could go nearly anywhere in the city without setting foot in a car. We didn’t own one there anyway. Back in Rochester, though the infrastructure doesn’t match Copenhagen’s, our daughters have the skills and confidence to go many of the places they need, walking to school and work, biking to the pet store and thrift stores. Restricting their childhood transportation to cars alone would have robbed them of the chance to gain agency and independence, steadily and surely, through all those years. Our older daughter will get her driver’s license this fall, and I shudder to think what would have happened if she’d been handed car keys and set loose to drive two tons of high-speed steel without first having learned how to find her way around the world, independently, on foot and on bikes and on buses and trains.

Family of four (two parents, two children) with bikes on a Copenhagen street
The Kelley Family in Copenhagen

Though living car-free in Copenhagen was a breeze, our family has never lived car-free in Rochester. Looking ahead to a time when all four of us will have driver’s licenses, we’re transitioning now from owning just one car to owning two — but certainly not four! The car-lite lifestyle is a pleasure we will continue.

Our chosen lifestyle is made more enjoyable by a few practicalities we’ve figured out along the way. First, we chose to live in a neighborhood with ubiquitous sidewalks and good bike routes to many places, especially our most common destinations, including my workplace, the kids’ schools, grocery stores, gyms, a bank, a pharmacy, a bakery, and a library. If you live near good routes to work and everyday destinations, by bike or bus or walk, transitioning to a car-lite lifestyle could be almost seamless. If you are among the millions working from home nowadays, going car-lite is even easier. If not, and if you’d like to commute by biking or walking, ask whether your employer has a shower. (Pro tip: U of R has many at the medical center, many at the gym, and at least two others on River Campus.) By providing a little extra power, an e-bike can be a key enabler of a pleasurable car-lite lifestyle, especially if you have health or mobility limitations, your commute is a little longer, or you frequently find yourself hauling young children and groceries. Cargo bikes and trailers are wonderful for families, not to mention backpacks and panniers. When children are old enough to pedal themselves but not yet old enough to navigate to school independently, a great solution is a bike train, in which just one or two parents bike along with a group of neighborhood classmates. Carpools are another great way to go car-lite, whether to school or to work. You can find great routes using RTS’s Transit app or browsing Rochester’s Bike Boulevards. When winter weather makes roads and sidewalks slick, you can pull on some microspikes on your way to the nearest bus.

Microspikes make car lite easier
Microspikes are a great way to make walking in the snow less treacherous!

Finally, you can help make a car-lite lifestyle more possible and more pleasurable for your own family and for everybody else by communicating its importance to public officials. A great way to start is by giving input for the City of Rochester’s new Active Transportation Plan and for Monroe County’s new Countywide Active Transportation Plan

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How should we grow Rochester’s bike infrastructure? Let’s ask the data.

Guest blog by Nate August (Data Scientist & Graduate, University of Rochester) and Doug Kelley (Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Rochester)

The year 2022 could be a watershed for active transportation in the Rochester region. The City of Rochester is writing a new Active Transportation Plan to update and extend its existing Bicycle Master Plan (completed in 2011). Meanwhile, Monroe County is writing its first-ever Countywide Active Transportation Plan. Both documents will lay out a vision and set priorities to guide transportation policy for years or decades. Their recommendations will literally be made concrete in communities’ sidewalks, bike paths, bus stops, and roads. Smart planning can improve equity and sustainability in everybody’s transportation – and can be empowered by data-driven insights.

Sharrows in Rochester

This spring, our team of graduate students and faculty at the University of Rochester’s Goergen Institute for Data Science, in partnership with the City of Rochester, set out to make data-driven recommendations for one key enabler of active transportation, the City’s bike infrastructure. We drew on a recent scientific study of bike networks in 62 other cities around the world, coauthored by researchers at the University of Rochester and the IT University of Copenhagen. We selected 86 points of interest around the City and calculated many thousands of routes among them, each along existing bikeways and streets, then located the street segments that currently lack bike infrastructure but frequently are part of the calculated routes. Those are places where new infrastructure would carry the most bike traffic and could most quickly improve users’ experiences of Rochester’s bike network. Here are the ten segments most important for bike transportation in Rochester, according to our analysis:

    • Monroe Avenue between Culver Road and Howell Street
    • Elmwood Avenue between Mount Hope Avenue and S. Goodman Street
    • Driving Park Avenue between La Grange Avenue and Saint Paul Street
    • Joseph Avenue between Cumberland Avenue and Norton Street
    • A connection between North Street and Central Park, either Davis and Scio Streets or Portland Avenue
    • State Street between Andrews Street and Smith Street
    • Smith Street between Lake Avenue and Saint Paul Street
    • South Clinton Avenue between Gregory Street and East Broad Street
    • Stone Street between East Broad Street and East Main Street
    • Saint Paul Street between East Main Street and Andrews Street

Our data-driven recommendations agree well with intuition and ongoing community conversation. Many of these street segments are also among the ten most obvious gaps in Rochester’s bike network, according to Reconnect Rochester’s Mind the Gap campaign. Many were recommended for upgraded bike infrastructure in the Rochester 2034 blueprint for growth and development, adopted by City Council in 2019. When different people using different methods tackle the same problem and find similar solutions, it’s a good sign that those could be the right solutions for the community – great minds think alike!

To learn more about the results and analysis that led to our recommendations, check out the interactive map below. It shows the data-driven recommendations along with existing bike infrastructure and the points of interest. You can pan, zoom, and toggle the layers. Altogether, these new segments span just eight miles (13 km) – short enough to be built rapidly and at low cost. As the map shows, they would link disjointed parts of Rochester’s existing bike network and connect it to more neighborhoods, bringing transportation equity to more residents.

Once these ten key segments have bike-friendly infrastructure, further construction would bring further improvements, and we used the same sort of analysis to ask what should come next. The animation below shows what the Rochester bike network could look like as infrastructure is added in 12-mile increments up to 60 miles. According to our analysis, communities are best served by prioritizing dense connections in the City center along with selected arterial connections to outlying areas.

Suggested bike connections in Rochester

There’s more good news when we rate the impacts of these recommendations in terms of directness. If you’re biking from, say, the Public Market to the downtown library, the directness of your route is the ratio of the actual distance you pedal to the distance as the crow flies. A more direct route is quicker and more efficient. By averaging over all the routes among all the points of interest, the directness of a whole bike network can be calculated. The scientific study found, surprisingly, that building new infrastructure during the early part of a bike network’s development can actually make directness worse because new neighborhoods are at first connected only by tortuous routes. But the good news for Rochester is that our strong foundation of roughly 75 miles of existing protected bikeways, bike boulevards and bike paths allows us to achieve steadily increasing directness. Here, bike routes will tend to get straighter and more direct with each new infrastructure project, as long as projects are chosen sensibly.

Our analysis is all about connecting points of interest, so the results depend strongly on how those points are chosen. We started with the City of Rochester Commercial Corridor Business Data, published as part of the 2034 Plan, which tabulates 1800 locations. By looking for clusters of nearby places, we reduced that long list to 86 points of interest, which constitute parks, museums, convenience stores, schools, and other businesses. We checked to be sure that the points didn’t unfairly favor any of the City’s four quadrants or areas with higher median income. In fact, we repeated our analysis with different points of interest, chosen with a preference for serving underprivileged neighborhoods and combined the results for our final recommendations. We’ve worked hard to make recommendations that promote equity and serve all residents.

Of course, recommendations alone aren’t enough. Concrete improvements to Rochester’s bike network will require, well, concrete – as well as public will. You can help make these recommendations reality. Use this interactive map to mark assets, opportunities, and concerns that should be considered in the Countywide Active Transportation Plan. Respond to the community survey for Rochester’s Active Transportation Plan. Encourage your community leaders to prioritize bike and pedestrian infrastructure, especially when they think about big projects like ROC the Riverway and the Inner Loop North Transformation.

Kids ride on a bike path in Rochester

You can also dig deeper into our analysis by reading the full report or adapt our tools and methods to other communities by downloading our analysis code. A similar study of Monroe County would be invaluable and would be easier now that we’ve added much of Rochester’s bike infrastructure to OpenStreetMap.

With more data and analytical processing power available now than humankind has ever before known, our society is in a position to devise and execute truly excellent plans for active transportation networks. Let’s make the most of the opportunity.