Hop off the New York State Thruway at Syracuse, head South on the I-81 expressway and you will understand. Cruising above the city’s downtown, you see the urban streetscape as if you’re flying over it, past it, like it’s something you want to avoid on your way to another more rural destination. Lost on most who travel this vehicular express route is the truth that bypassing cities with above or below-grade highways was a principle element in the demise of American cities. Indeed, the worst thing that happened to our urban culture was creating the expectation that you, the driver, can speed through it, past it and around it.
From expressways to 4-lane one way streets, we have fostered a belief that any urban corridor should be traversable by car quickly and easily, even if the result is an erosion of walkable streets and small business interests. Fast cars mean less street level activity, simply because we as humans are averse to environments that are loud and dangerous… even if we aren’t always aware of it.
Today, I was almost hit by a car while legally riding my electric scooter on a city street. The driver accelerated around a slower car into the bike lane, and missed me by a foot as he sped away in his 2-ton pickup truck. The street in question has multiple lanes of traffic in either direction, giving the driver the sense that he is in control, and that this environment is built for speed. Anyone who stands in the way of this construct should be dismissed, even if it means the potential injury or loss of human life. This kind of street design doesn’t just empower drivers like this one to drive fast, it justifies it. The design of urban right-of-ways sends a clear message to everyone about what’s important, who is prioritized, and more importantly, who isn’t. Speed limit signs mean little when we create environments where the potential for speed is high and the risk of speeding FOR THE DRIVER is extremely low.
Our insanely overbuilt American roadways have created an expectation of automobile speed, while the byproduct is far too often severe injury or loss of life for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Nearly as costly is the effect that the expectation of automobile speed and convenience has on cities, communities and the way we prioritize space. When forty-four foot wide roads create a loud and uncomfortable pedestrian experience, the shops, storefronts, parks and street level amenities that rely on pedestrian prioritization fail as well.
The expectation of automobile speed, convenience and prioritization must be challenged as we begin to realize the nauseating metrics of car-centered communities. The importance of seeing cars as dangerous, exclusive and community-killing vehicles has never been so important.
Not a day goes by that I don’t see someone 35+ on social media feeds gripe about how the smartphone has ruined the fabric of communication and togetherness in our country. The irony, of course, is that 95% of these posts are from someone using a smartphone app. And while mobile technology has certainly changed the way we engage with information, as well as one another, the catalyst of disconnection and isolationism in this country began long before cell phones were a twinkle in someone’s creative eye.
As we move farther away from jobs and resources, and as the amount of time we spend in our cars increases, the opportunities to spontaneously connect with strangers is significantly lessened. In a country where individualistic transportation is subsidized and prioritized above all else, Americans are incentivized to take up residence farther away from jobs and resources than ever before. By default, more people must rely on single-occupancy car travel as a means of daily mobility.
In his book Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg states that in 1950, U.S. houses averaged 985 square feet of space, while in 2000 that number exploded to 2,200 square feet. This astonishing shift toward more square footage, combined with the fact that the American family is shrinking in size while the number of bedrooms per household is increasing, sets the tone for a disconnected, individualistic narrative where personal space is king and a sense of community within the home is negated.
I distinctly remember a conversation I had with an old friend in which she told me that, when she was a teenager, her family moved from a small house in the city to a large, cookie-cutter suburban house. Her parents thought that more space for everyone to sprawl would mean a happier and more comfortable future. But, she recalled, the opposite became true. Where the family was forced to share space in their former small home, the new and larger home allowed everyone in the family to come home from work and school and go their separate ways. Walks became car trips, and family nights on the couch became a thing of the past. While individual family members had a far greater opportunity to pacify their desire for personal space, the family cohesion created by the constant need to share ones own space with others quickly eroded. The family drifted, conflicts arose, and the parents eventually filed for divorce. To this day, my friend largely blames this disillusionment of her family on the move to a bigger house.
While this is just one anecdotal example, it speaks to the notion that increased square footage rarely equates to the greater sense of happiness and stability that we think it does. Far more often, true contentment and a feeling of togetherness is created when we are forced to share and manage space with others.
While this might surprise hoards of suburban-dwellers who champion the fact that their hour-plus round trip car commute means they can live a happier life apart from urban environments, market-rate housing prices in major employment sectors tell the real story of the value of commute times. In major metros like New York City, Washington DC, Boston, LA, Seattle and San Francisco, it is nearly impossible for the average worker to find affordable housing within a 2-hour round-trip commute radius. If you’re a fan of “market rate” pricing as a means of economic and societal value, look no further than the metric of housing cost in relation to employment accessibility in major metros to tell you that commute times are a capitalistic variable.
The smartphone certainly has its place in the sea of human disconnection. But it is a symptom, rather than the cause, of community erosion that we, as Americans, have been fostering for decades. The blatant desire to isolate the variables of human interaction by creating our own spaces and realities that negate the outside world is nothing new.
Through racially driven land use, and suburban sprawl, the prioritization of car culture, the glorification of big box stores and eventually online retail, and a million other movements away from street-level community involvement, America (specifically white America) has gone all-in on individualism and exclusivity. The smart phone is but a symptom of a social shift that has been gaining momentum for over a century. Before we go blaming the smartphone for the end of real human interaction, perhaps we need to look at the history of the American desire to separate, isolate and divide.
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).
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.
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.
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.
I’m pleasantly surprised with the amount of trail creation that is occurring across the United States. Urban paths, trails from former railroad beds, and neighborhood connectors… people are hungrier than ever to explore a new pedestrian or cycling experience. And for those like me, the ever-growing network of trails that can potentially remove us from the dangers of automobile encounters is so incredibly vital.
But as always, I’m going to challenge our townships, counties and cities to think bigger. I’m not spitting in the face of real progress, I’m asking everyone, especially in our denser communities, to consider two standards with regard to trail creation, use and maintenance going forward.
Pave Your Trails
I am so proud of my home city of Rochester and the surrounding towns for making trail creation a priority. There are so many new trails that have popped up in our area, and it’s truly a testament to a handful of amazing people with great vision for healthy recreational use and sustainable transportation. But most of these new trails are unpaved “cinder paths.” While cheaper to construct, they are far less convenient for thin-tire bikes such as road bikes and fix-geared bikes. Furthermore, the new rage of electric micro-mobility (e-scooters, e-skateboards, etc.) has the potential to change the way we move about our communities. But most of these vehicles have small, hard, unforgiving wheels that perform poorly on unpaved surfaces.
For many who are reading this, the response to the sentence above may very well be “GOOD!” The pushback against electric micro-mobility is substantial. But my take is that anything that gets Americans out of their cars is positive. If you want to retain young people in your community, allow for the recreational and practical proliferation of electric micro-mobility. Build for a community that welcomes as many forms of transportation as possible. Only then will a mobility-progressive future be possible.
Plow Your Trails
This is a message specifically directed at northern states that receive significant snowfall. Creating trails that are unusable for 4-5 months during a year is, frankly, a denial of the potential for trails to be year-round public resources for transportation and community health.
Paved trails can be plowed easily, providing local residents a year-round outlet for exercise and safe mobility. In the Greater Rochester New York area, the Empire State Trail (Erie Canalway Trail) is partially paved, but goes unplowed during the harsh winters that can see upwards of 100 inches of snow. The brand new Highland Crossing Trail, which I happily take every day to get to work, is unpaved and unplowed, forcing me onto the busy streets on my bike during the winter months. Again, I appreciate my local governments for being proactive in creating a community resource. I do, however, blame a century of one-dimensional transportation prioritization in the United States that has created the belief that the only way to practically access jobs and resources in our community is via the automobile, the most exclusive, unsustainable and individualistic form of transportation available.
If we truly acknowledged the importance of inclusive mobility, we would readily pave and plow all of our trails, new and old. But as of now, we as a culture would rather see trail creation as a seasonal recreational nicety instead of a legitimate year-round alternative transportation solution. This must change with regard to the future of mobility in our country.
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.
Blog by Arian Horbovetz. Arian is a Reconnect board member and the creator of The Urban Phoenix, a blog focused on conversations around the elements that create healthy cities, neighborhoods and communities today. Arian covers walkability, public transit, financial solvency, bike infrastructure, smart development, public space, public pride and ownership of our futures. While he discusses issues of public policy, legislation, statistics and money, The UP specializes in addressing public perceptions and how they affect the way we see our cities.
Your heart sinks when you see that orange symbol of uncertainty. You grip the wheel tighter, curse, and check your watch to see if the impending redirection will inevitably make you late to your destination. We’ve all experienced this frustrating dilemma, brought about by that never-welcomed sign that reads “DETOUR.”
While detours encountered on the road may be frustrating, fear not! The Department of Transportation has outlined the most convenient alternative navigation for you to traverse instead. Abundant signage will guide your new direction, showing you exactly where to go in order to continue along your new route. Your safety on this detour has been considered. The new route will accommodate all vehicles, from small cars to big trucks. While inconvenienced, a tremendous amount of thought has gone into ensuring that your detour will be as impact-free as possible.
But what happens when you’re walking down a city sidewalk and you see a sign like the one below?
What happens when you’re rolling down an urban bike trail and you encounter a piece of construction equipment blocking your path?
This piece of machinery was blocking a trail in Buffalo, NY while the operators were on a lunch break. “Oh sorry, I was about to move that” one of the workers said as I snapped a photo…
Or maybe you’re making the trek home from the bar on foot, only to encounter this blocking your path…
Finally, you and your family are taking a winter evening stroll in your neighborhood. While the street you’re on is perfectly plowed, you can’t help but notice that your children are struggling to stay on their feet while traversing the icy sidewalk.
Walkability is something we talk about with regard to healthy communities and neighborhoods these days. And for good reason… areas that are more walkable have higher property value, and have shown to be better for business growth and proliferation. But even with all the positives that come from strong pedestrian connectivity, construction projects, infrastructure maintenance and good old fashioned Mother Nature can lead to sidewalk closures and/or unsafe walking environments. Most of these can be remedied with proper planning and foresight, but that foresight is often lacking. Developers and workers don’t always understand the importance of pedestrian prioritization, and this is, to some extent, understandable. It is only just now that we are beginning to realize the importance of giving pedestrians welcoming, connected, comfortable and safe environments to traverse neighborhoods on foot.
When sidewalks are closed due to nearby construction, pedestrians must find a way around. This either means backtracking to the last crosswalk, or worse, venturing out into the a potentially busy street in order to cross, or walk in the road along the blocked sidewalk until they pass the construction area. It is important for everyone to understand that people on foot, like drivers, will often choose the most convenient option, even if it is not the best or safest.
This cement truck was not only parked in a crosswalk leading from Rochester’s Genesee Riverway Trail, it completely blinded pedestrians from being able to see oncoming traffic on South Avenue
Construction companies should do everything in their power to ensure that a pedestrian right-of-way is not impeded by their work. Actions should be taken to ensure that pedestrians don’t have to find an alternate route. Sidewalk sheds and scaffolding, much like the ones we see in larger cities, should be built to keep the sidewalk functional and protect those on foot.
Furthermore, construction site and maintenance workers should be trained to ensure that equipment, machinery and other barriers never block a sidewalk or path. Workers may not realize that blocking a sidewalk, even for a short while, could put pedestrians in an inconvenient, or even dangerous situation.
Even plow companies need to appreciate the negative impact of moving snow out of our streets and into the direct path of our pedestrians.
Failing to mind these amenities is even more detrimental to the safety of persons with disabilities. A closed sidewalk can make for a precarious situation for those in our community with mobility issues, and/or folks in wheelchairs or motorized scooters.
Finally, blocking sidewalks is not just inconvenient and unsafe for pedestrians, it sends a message that this vital piece of infrastructure is not important. When car traffic is moving smoothly while the adjacent sidewalk has been blocked, torn up or interrupted, it clearly signals that those who choose to walk or have to walk are not welcome, and seen as less important.
While Rochester’s Nathaniel Apartments were being constructed, pedestrian access was accommodated on the building’s north side with a pedestrian tunnel. The East side of the building, however, did not effectively accommodate foot traffic during construction.
Meaningful accommodations for pedestrians and cyclists are out there. In our most dense urban areas where walkability is more appreciated, these accommodations are plentiful. But even in our smaller cities, there are excellent examples of developers making every attempt to ensure sidewalk use is unaffected during construction.
This construction project not only accounts for pedestrians and cyclists, the circled signage clearly instructs both on the appropriate path to use while traversing this stretch
Sidewalks are the connective tissue in our urban communities. They are the final link between homes and public transit. They are the needle the weaves the fabric of our neighborhoods together. They are are the highway for those who cannot afford a car, or make the choice not to own one. In our cities, sidewalks have a level of importance that often goes unrealized and under appreciated in our car-centric world. Accommodating and maintaining their convenience, their appeal and their safety is of paramount importance to creating a healthy, walkable environment for all of our citizens.
We kicked off the new year and decade with our Annual Meeting the first week of January, where we welcomed three new board members — Victor Sanchez, Jackie Marchand and Arian Horbovetz.
Victor is a long-time volunteer for Reconnect Rochester, doing a lot of heavy lifting for our major events through the years. Jackie assisted our Reconnect Rochester/Rochester Cycling Alliance transition team with the Cycling Coordinator candidate search & interview process, and has volunteered on our membership committee. Arian has worked with our communications team to provide content for our blog, as well as provided invaluable background research on e-scooters that shaped our recommendations to the City of Rochester about smart, safe implementation.
Welcome, Jackie, Victor and Arian! Thank you for volunteering your time and talent to hop aboard our train.
Arian Horbovetz was born in Chicago Illinois, but has spent most of his life in the Greater Rochester Area. Aside from working in clinical trials for the University of Rochester, Arian has owned and operated a professional photography company, ArianDavidPhotography for over a decade. Five years ago, Arian’s love of urban living and passion for the revitalization of our Upstate New York cities led to the creation of his online urbanist publication, The Urban Phoenix. Spurring conversation about our cities today, the history behind why our cities are the way they are, the importance of public transit, walkability, and cycling infrastructure are just a few of the topics raised in the nationally-enjoyed blog and podcast. Nearly 40 of The Urban Phoenix’s posts have been republished by Strong Towns, a national leader in the New Urban conversation. Calling himself an “Urban Influencer,” Arian takes pride in challenging the long-held misconceptions about cities, how we live, and why our urban cores face the hurdles they do in a changing world.
Jackie Marchand received an undergraduate degree from the University of Albany and an MBA from the UR Simon School. After working in nonprofit development and then a decade of making bikes and biking apparel for women at Terry Bicycles, she knew she wanted to help make cycling more accessible to more women and purchased WomanTours in 2004. Since then, she has quadrupled the size of the company. In all, Jackie has worked in the Rochester bicycle community for 25 years. When not biking to the office, she’s on the road planning and designing new tours to share her love for cycling with more and more women every year. Jackie travels quite extensively, in fact, having visited all seven continents and at least 45 countries. She’s witnessed how multimodal transportation can transform cities around the world, bring people together, and create more vibrant communities. Jackie wants to help bring the successes from other places to our very own region.
Victor Sanchez is a Virtual Design and Construction Administrator for Wegmans Food Markets. Victor was born in Mexico and later moved to White Plains, New York. He graduated from RIT with a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering Technology. Victor is the immediate past Chair of RocCity Coalition, an organization focused on young Rochesterians. He has represented the Coalition in the Regional Economic Council, Roc-The-Riverway Management Entity Committee, and Re-imagine RTS Advisory Committee. Victor volunteers on several committees with the Out Alliance, Human Rights Campaign, and Genesee Land Trust. Victor also serves on the Boards at Trillium Health, New Pride Agenda, and Rochester People’s Climate Coalition.