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Rochester Bicyclism: 2020 vision in hindsight.

Guest blog by Jon Schull, Reconnect Rochester Advisor

In 2009, I came across an online article that changed my life.

It described an enclosed cycleway envisioned for a network of cycleways to run above and through Toronto, Canada.  Not only did it promise year-round human-powered access to the entire city, but because each tunnel was one-way, your ride in each direction would be downwind, thanks to the breeze created by your fellow travelers.

It was (and is) a beautiful vision, but untested and unlikely to be implemented. It occurred to me that Rochester, NY could be a great testbed for a simplified version.  As a professor of innovation at RIT, I have always been mystified by our neglect of the potential North-South corridor that runs from RIT to UofR, crosses the Erie Canal, continues to Downtown, High Falls, Turning Point Park, and Lake Ontario.  An enclosed cycleway from RIT to High Falls could reintegrate town, gown, and city, could highlight the nation’s preeminent urban waterfall, and could reframe Rochester’s wintry weather as inspiration for ecological innovation. It would “create a revolutionary all-weather alternative energy transitway for bikes, e-vehicles, joggers, and skaters that will reduce road traffic and parking pressures on our campuses, create a year-round recreational attraction for locals and visitors from around the world, and put us at the forefront of the new energy economy.” (Rochester Greenway Whitepaper)

It was a no-brainer! I dubbed this the “Rochester Greenway” before I understood that the Genesee Valley Greenway was a pre-existing natural extension pointing South.  I created postcards and a website to promote the idea.  I presented a model and a poster at RIT’s innovation festival. I was all in.

After meeting with the Genesee Valley Greenway people, former Rochester Mayor Tom Frey, Frank Regan of the Rochester Environment newsletter, and City engineers, I wrote a whitepaper.  On the one hand, it shows that I wasn’t completely out of touch with reality.

“By merely endeavoring to pursue this vision, we can help revitalize Rochester’s reputation for technological and social innovation, stimulate collaboration and synergy between our urban and academic communities, create jobs, and attract funds to the region.

On the other hand, I was pretty far out there.  For example, the whitepaper’s aspirational “Brief History of the Rochester Greenway” told the fictional but heroic story of how, in a few short years, the Greenway became a reality, concluding…

“….the Greenway grew, and helped make Rochester  a world leader in sustainable technology consulting, a leading exporter of ultralight e-vehicles, and a hotbed of economic development.  The Rochester Renaissance was driven, in part, by the entrepreneurial young that the Greenway initiative attracted, inspired, and nurtured.   Grey haired,  energetic, and fit, the pioneers still ride the Greenway and the Erie Canal Crossway, accompanied by e-boarding grandchildren.  Even now, they wear Greenway Transit Tokens as badges of honor.

As if!  In reality, everyone responded with politeness, good-humor, and (I now realize) forbearance.  They understood, as at first I hadn’t, that Rochester’s cycling community was small, that cycling here was generally unappreciated, and that the city didn’t do anything radical.  It would take a culture change for something like this to happen.   

Which is how I became a cycling advocate, and co-founded the Rochester Cycling Alliance with Richard DeSarra.  

At our first meeting, Frank Regan introduced Richard as Rochester’s go-to cycling guy, a principal of the Rochester Bicycling Club, and the hero who made bike racks a fixture on Rochester buses(!).   However, when I suggested that there should be a Rochester Cycling Alliance to advocate for cycling culture, Richard was not enthusiastic: “been there, tried that.”

I couldn’t let the idea go.  On the 2009 International Day of Climate Action, a cadre of biking enthusiasts rode from the Downtown Library along the river to UR, traversed the Lehigh Valley North Trail  and converged on a Rochester Cycle Summit at RIT’s new Center for Student Innovation, where an ultra-wide screen video summarized everything I had learned about Rochester’s potential as a world capital of biking. (I urge you to watch the video.  In my humble opinion, it’s still a mind-expanding review of what we could do here!)

At the end of the meeting, I asked people to comment on “possible next steps.” To my surprise, Richard stepped up:  “I’m joining the Rochester Cycling Alliance.”  And so it began.

Postscript.

Over the years, Richard chaired the Rochester Cycling Alliance’s monthly meetings, and we became the City’s leading advocates for Richard’s signature phrase: “Bicycling as Transportation.”  Rochester now has bicycle lanes, bicycle boulevards, and bicycle advocates.  The Southern edge of the Inner Loop is gone, and in its place we have protected bike lanes and greenspace.  The Northern Loop may go soon.  The Roc the Riverway initiative is underway.  A new Skatepark is nearing completion.  That’s all terrific news and significant progress.

I know Richard DeSarra would be proud of our development.  Just a couple months after his passing in September 2019, the Rochester Cycling Alliance joined forces with Reconnect Rochester, our local active mobility organization.  The RCA gets better every year at increasing accessibility to biking and the local push for complete streets is strengthening.

But we still don’t do anything radical.  We still haven’t embraced a systemic vision of a human-centric, active-transportation, family-recreation network.  We still haven’t faced up to the urgent need for climate action, even though the climate crisis is now upon us.  Instead, we continue to make worthwhile incremental roadway improvements on a site-by-site basis.  

Just last week I saw a preview of the City’s plans for reconstructing State Street.  Good news: bike lanes will connect the Riverway trail to the Gateway to High Falls under the Inner Loop.  Bad news: the proposed bike lanes are mere markings between parked cars and busy traffic.  Parents and children who can bike 5 miles along our beautiful Riverway, will be turned back at the very threshold to the nation’s most substantial urban waterfall and (potential recreation area!).

It’s not too late.  Bold visions help create new realities (even if the realities differ from the vision).  We are in a moment of societal flux when change is possible, and desperately needed.  Let’s make the most of it!

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The Bus Cubes Have Landed!

Next time you walk, ride or roll along Parsells, Lyell or Monroe Avenues, you’ll notice a bright new addition to the streetscape. This month, cubes made from fiberglass were installed at 5 bus stops along each of these corridors, offering RTS riders a respectable place to sit while they wait.

The City of Rochester and RTS have been tremendous partners on this project. Thanks especially to DES Commissioner Norm Jones and City Councilmember Mitch Gruber for championing the effort, along with City staff across many departments who worked hand-in-hand with us to see this to fruition. We also couldn’t have done it without our neighborhood partners in Beechwood, Lyell-Otis and Upper Monroe, or the funders that stepped up to contribute.

Cubes for Your Community

This is just the beginning! We hope the pilot project will lead to bus stop cubes in more Rochester neighborhoods and beyond. Reconnect Rochester will continue to work with RTS, local municipalities and community organizations throughout Monroe County to identify bus stops in the system that are well utilized but lack seating. 

Would you like to see cubes at bus stops in YOUR neighborhood or community? Contact us and we’ll do our best to work with you to secure funding and make it happen. 

Are you from outside the Monroe County area and interested in purchasing bus stop cubes for your town or city? Contact us and we’ll put you in touch with the manufacturer. Reconnect Rochester receives a sales commission that helps fuel our effort to put more bus stop cubes on the ground locally.

Why Are We Doing This Anyway?

Anyone who has ever used public transportation in Rochester is painfully aware of two things:  At some point you will have to wait for your bus, and when you do, you will probably be standing. 

For senior citizens, people with disabilities, and parents with young children, being made to stand for any length of time can be less than ideal. Even for those passengers who are physically capable of standing, having no place to sit while waiting on the side of a busy roadway can cause anxiety and discomfort.

Our bus system is the only transportation mode that requires its passengers to stand while waiting for the service. Not an ideal situation if we're trying to encourage folks to use public transit.

Why is our bus system the only transportation mode that requires its passengers to stand while waiting for the service? The single biggest issue is the sheer scale of the system. There are thousands of bus stops in the RTS network, and the resources of the transit authority are already spread thin. 

If this issue could be remedied, not only would we make the lives of current riders a little easier, but we might also encourage more people to use public transportation. This is why Reconnect Rochester has decided to make bus stop seating a priority for our community.

How Did This Project Come About?

In 2017, after 3 years piloting seasonal bus stop cubes made from high-pressured wood, Reconnect Rochester set out to find a permanent, year-round amenity for bus riders. In our research, we came upon a local manufacturer of fiberglass — a nearly indestructible, weather resistant material that was perfect for the job! It took about three years of stops-and-starts to design and manufacture the fiberglass model that you see today.

To go further back in history and learn more about how the bus cube concept came to be, check out the Bus Cube Birth Story on our website.

RTS rider enjoys our temporary, seasonal solution to the dearth of seating at local bus stops.
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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.