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Big Houses and Long Commutes, Not Smart Phones, Eroded Community

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

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.

Image Credit: Jen Doyle

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.

One of the most interesting determinants of personal contentment is closely related to commute times. Research clearly shows that longer commutes have a decidedly negative affect on mental and physical health. One study in England found that adding 20 minutes to ones commute equated to a 19% pay cut with regard to job satisfaction. Clearly, the time we must travel to reach our place of employment is a huge determinant of our overall health and happiness.

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.

Image Credit: Alekjes Bergmanis

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.

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Bike Safety: It’s more than just bike lanes

Guest blog by Rochester resident, Sarah Gerin

I bought my first bike at a local pawn shop when I was nine, after finding a fresh $100 bill on the floor of a K-Mart earlier that day. Obviously I “invested” the rest (i.e. putting it in the Garfield cup in my room that held my fortunes). As a kid, my experience with biking was minimal, taking short rides around my neighborhood and learning how to ride “no hands” because I thought it looked cool.

I didn’t ride bikes again until 2018, when I spontaneously decided that I wanted to “get into road bikes” as a hobby. I dove head-first into learning as much as I could about the biking world, including different bikes and the local “bike scene” in Rochester. Inevitably, that meant that I ended up visiting – I kid you not – every single bike shop in Rochester to learn from the experts and enthusiasts what bikes made the most sense for what endeavors, and I even got “fitted” for a bike, which at the time felt like the most legitimate thing you could do as a cyclist, especially a novice one.

During my three-week escapade of research, I learned that the local cycling scene in Rochester was robust and the community here is not only knowledgeable, but welcoming and genuinely amazing. People really love to bike, and I think I grew to love it simply from my conversations with people about everything from the best gear to the best trails and the local meetups that happen each weekend.


“I biked for leisure, I biked to work (most of the time), I biked to see the city I’ve lived in for over a decade with fresh eyes.”


I eventually landed on my “entry level” road bike, with plans to work my way up in expertise. Once I made my purchase, my commitment to hitting the road remained consistent and spirited. Biking around Rochester became my official summer activity. I biked for leisure, I biked to work (most of the time), I biked to see the city I’ve lived in for over a decade with fresh eyes. During that time, I had never really considered the gaps in safety for cyclists that exist here because, frankly, the fear for my own safety didn’t ever cross my mind. I felt so free on the road and I took the necessary safety precautions as a cyclist, so what could go wrong?

In September 2019, the occasional thoughts regarding safety suddenly became very real and necessary, when a casual ride down East Ave turned into a not-so-casual ride to the ER after getting clipped and catching my fall with my face, which was thankfully protected by a helmet (wear your helmets, people!!). I honestly don’t recall many details of the incident before I found myself monologuing for hours on end in the ER and entertaining the nurses on the night shift. (Unfortunately there is no evidence of what could have been a GREAT Netflix comedy special, but there is evidence of me trying to walk to my friend’s car like a newborn deer.

What I do know is that the crash happened on the busy stretch of East Ave that doesn’t have a bike lane, which forces bicyclists to cozy up to the curb in order to avoid cars passing by on the road. *Note to cyclists and non-cyclists alike – this is NOT the “right” way to ride in the road, and was not typically my riding behavior. Call it a perfect storm, call it fate. Either way, my face smashed into the pavement and it has changed the way I think about riding and cyclist visibility/ awareness. Along with some semi-permanent changes to my physiology…but that’s a whole other blog post entirely.


“Call it a perfect storm, call it fate. Either way, my face smashed into the pavement and it has changed the way I think about riding and cyclist visibility/ awareness.”


Here’s the thing: My experience with biking in Rochester had always felt quite safe and unhindered despite the sometimes noticeable limited infrastructure in and around the city. Despite these gaps, I never felt concerned, namely because of my own safety measures and the fact that my cycling habits were usually during “off hours” and thus lower commute times. That being said, my crash happened on the one strip of East Ave that of course DOESN’T have a bike lane, during a high traffic time – a Friday night during a summer festival. In other words, a time of mayhem.

I have yet to really know how my own cycling behaviors will be influenced by my crash on the road, but I don’t have any intention of stopping. That is, once I build up the courage to get back on my bike (estimated Summer 2021 after nearly two years of recovery). Despite my unfortunate encounter with a giant moving metal object at rapid speed, I STILL think biking is a safe and enjoyable activity and method of transportation. We are a city of bike enthusiasts and have low-to-no road rage here compared to many other cities! I call that a win.


“We are a city of bike enthusiasts and have low-to-no road rage here compared to many other cities! I call that a win.”


Do I think more bike lanes need to be strategically placed around the city? Perhaps. It couldn’t hurt. But “good cycling” on the road often means that you are in the street. My biggest issue as a cyclist is that the burden of safety is always placed on cyclists, the most vulnerable in a collision circumstance, just like in “rape culture” the burden of safety or responsibility is placed on women.

If you do a quick internet search on cycling safety, you will see important things like wearing brightly colored gear, lights, a helmet, riding with the flow of traffic, and traffic signals. However, if you were to survey a randomly selected group of drivers, how many of them know how to safely engage with a cyclist on the road? How many of them know what a straight arm out versus a bent arm means when you see a cyclist doing it? How many times have you seen drivers not looking both ways (with cyclists in mind) when turning onto a street? If the safety measures diligently taken and used by cyclists mean nothing to the drivers who share the road, there will always be disproportionately increased risk.

Might there be ways to increase visibility, and more importantly awareness about cyclists, that aren’t just about creating bike lanes?

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Pave and Plow: The Next Standard For American Trails

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

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.

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American Convenience Culture and the Effect of Exclusive Personal Mobility

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

In a 2017 piece, I wrote about the impact of “independent automobile transportation” on our community environments. To take it one step beyond the idea that we have built a nation around exclusive personal mobility, it’s important to acknowledge the devastating effects of our “convenience culture” here in the United States.

Let’s begin with the assumption that the most important lessons we learn, the most transformative journeys we take, and the most powerful experiences we have are rarely “convenient.” The things that make us better are usually the things that require us to dig a little deeper and find something in ourselves that makes us truly feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. While convenience is a welcomed privilege, what makes us who we are usually requires a modicum of effort, or self reliance, or shared effort. If this is not your experience, then this post may not be for you.

Comfortable Bus

For the rest of you that are still with me, let’s talk about the assumption mentioned above with regard to our communities. Do we make the hard choice to bike to work instead of drive in an effort to reduce pollution, make our community safer, and advocate for a more sustainable mode of transportation, or do we simply drive? Do we conveniently order from Amazon, or do we seek a similar purchase that might strengthen our local economy? Do we use Grubhub, or do we contact our favorite local establishment directly to ensure they get the most from every order? Do we use Uber or do we see if there is a public transit option that might get us to where we need to go?

European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen are notorious for prioritizing less “convenient” forms of transportation in favor of bikes and public transit, which empower us and expose us to sociocultural diversity. The lessons learned via anti-exclusive mobility are the true soul-resurrecting elements that we can all benefit from. In other words, if we truly support the definition of strength through adversity, we must embrace the less convenient avenues of mobility, commerce and lifestyle.

And yet, in a country of perpetual chest-thumping, relentlessly championing the illusion of toughness and grit, we look for the closest parking space at the gym. We curse the driver that takes an extra second to make a left turn, delaying us during our commute. We berate the local business that doesn’t have the “in-and-out” convenience parking we ravenously crave. This America of “strength” is suddenly brought to its knees when we can’t find a parking space within a few hundred feet from our destination.

This is the sociological construct that is created when we over-prioritize the most “convenient” (and most exclusive) form of transportation. For example, of the 37 OECD nations, the United States has the second lowest gas tax behind Mexico, which has no gas tax. In fact, the US gas tax is almost exactly one-quarter of the OECD average per gallon. The lack of significant fuel tax in the US is an under-realized financial lubricant for the proliferation of the automobile as an affordable choice instead of the exclusive one. In essence, we have made it financially easier for people to get around using the most inefficient, unsafe and environmentally unfriendly mode of transportation this planet has ever seen.

Couple this with more than a half century of urban demolition, residential displacement and racially-diving highway creation, and you get a mode of transportation that is so convenient AND exclusive that few other modalities have a chance.

And it’s not just cars. It’s mega stores like Walmart that, ironically, we welcome into our rural and suburban worlds on the promise of jobs and inexpensive merchandise, when the reality is a monopolistic machine that pays unlivable wages and makes it impossible for small businesses to compete. The end result is actually a loss of American jobs and a culture that is built around a one-stop-shop solution that is highly subsidized and simultaneously damaging to local economies.

Services like Grubhub make it easy for consumers to order from local restaurants. But these third-party food delivery services can take up to 30% of each sale, creating a no-win scenario for restaurants. Choose to use Grubhub and have your profit margins stripped, or go it alone and receive extremely limited exposure based on the public’s lack of desire to look beyond their favorite apps to fulfill their cravings. Grubhub has quietly become one of the most powerful “pay-to-play” constructs in our local economy.

These are just a few examples of convenience culture and how this unsustainable model of commerce is slowly eliminating the chance for small businesses to thrive. The more we subscribe to the convenience economy, perpetuated first and foremost by the drastic over-prioritization of the automobile, the more we feed into our own undoing. Whether you’re a rural American who loves the convenience of Walmart, or an urban American who just wants to find the closest parking space in front of your favorite farm-to-table restaurant, remember that true patronization often takes effort. With this in mind, let’s be fine with parking a quarter mile away and getting some exercise on the way to our destination. Let’s pay a little extra to shop at our local market instead of lining the pockets of billionaires who are fleecing our small business cultures. Let’s look at the notion of what our American spirit really stands upon… the idea that if we all work a little harder and a little smarter, we can overcome the temptation of convenience culture and reclaim our community strength by doing what is more difficult.

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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.

Bus Stop Cubes: A place to rest while you wait

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.

A Solution

In 2014, Reconnect Rochester set out to find a solution. What we came up with was a design for a bus stop seat that is a simple 2’x2’x2’ cube. Our bus stop seating cube comes in 4 primary colors (red, green, yellow, and blue) that add beautification and brightness to the street landscape. The compact size allows the seat to fit easily within areas where space is at a premium – such as tree lawns or that little bit of space between the street curb and sidewalk. 

This woman says her legs have a tendency to give out on her, and the CUBE is the perfect height for her - not to low to the ground.
RTS riders enjoy our temporary, seasonal solution to the dearth of seating at local bus stops.

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!

In September 2020, Reconnect Rochester installed the first 15 fiberglass cubes on Parsells, Lyell and Monroe Avenues (read more in this blog post). Stay tuned to our blog and social media for updates on our current efforts.

Cubes for Your Community

Reconnect Rochester will continue to work with RTS, local municipalities and community organizations throughout Monroe County to add bus stop cubes at stops that are well utilized but lack seating. 

Would you like to see bus stop cubes at 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.


The Bus Cube Birth Story

The bus cube was born in 2014, when Reconnect Rochester set out to come up with a temporary solution to the dearth of seating at local bus stops. Here’s how we did it…

We could just chain a plastic patio chair to a bus stop sign, but to be honest, we're not fans of plastic furniture. And we really don't think the neighbors would appreciate this look very much.

We spent countless hours brainstorming. We scoured the internet. And we even met with a local furniture designer, Staach (we really admire the way those guys balance form, function, and sustainability). But we needed something that would be relatively inexpensive and easy for regular people like us to build and duplicate. It would also need to be compact, sturdy, and weather resistant.

We could have simply taken a page from the guerilla bus stop seating playbook and chained a plastic patio chair to a bus stop sign, but to be honest, we’re not fans of plastic furniture. And we really didn’t think the neighbors would appreciate this look very much.

Then one day, almost like it happens in the movies, the solution hit us like a lightning bolt…good old-fashioned children’s blocks!  It’s amazing how sometimes the best ideas are inspired by the simplest things. Children’s blocks. Durable, easy to use, easy to construct – and what could possibly be more fun? Quite fitting for Rochester, the home of the National Toy Hall of Fame!

Our bus stop CUBE seat was inspired by ordinary children's blocks.

We put pencil to paper and designed a simple 2’x2’x2’ cube. The compact size allows the seat to fit easily within areas where space is at a premium – such as tree lawns or that little bit of space between the street curb and sidewalk. Our prototype was constructed using pressure-treated lumber and decking materials for a total cost of about $100 per cube. 

We put pencil to paper and designed a simple 2’x2’x2’ cube to fit easily within areas where space is at a premium.

We tested the prototypes at two locations within the city of Rochester: The PriceRite at Dewey & Driving Park and N. Union St. at the Public Market. The results were very positive. Interviews with transit riders and passersby can be viewed in this video.

The idea quickly won community support as well as accolades from RTS which encouraged the effort. Over the next three years (2014 – 2017), in partnership with the City of Rochester, Flower City Habitat for Humanity and many neighborhood and community organizations, we built and placed a fleet of over 30 bus stop cubes at bus stops all around the city. 

The seasonal cubes go out on the street in May and are brought back in and stored in October. As the fleet grew, the job performed by Reconnect Rochester volunteers of placing, removing and storing the cubes each season, became harder to manage. That’s when we decided it was time for a permanent, year-round solution. 

It took about three years (2017 – 2020) of stops-and-starts to research, design and manufacture the fiberglass model that you see today. But we’ll save THAT story for another day.