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.
by Jesse Peers, Cycling Coordinator at Reconnect Rochester
When I saw the trailer for Why We Cycle years ago, I instantly knew how special this film was. Finally someone had made a gorgeous film about the myriad of reasons why people all over the world choose to traverse their communities by bike. I’m glad we were able to screen the documentary for a Rochester Street Films event in September 2020 and use it as a springboard to discuss local values and goals.
If you haven’t seen the film or weren’t able to take part in our panel discussion, watch them here.
As our moderator, Mona Seghatoleslami, wrapped up the great discussion that evening, she said, rightly so, that “this is just the beginning of a lot of things.” Let’s examine several takeaways from the film itself, the chat amongst viewers, and our panel discussion, and where we go from here.
Culture at Large
Some participants felt our screening of this Dutch film was too lofty and dreamy. In terms of culture-at-large, we agree. Comparing the Netherlands and ROC is apples to oranges. Dutch culture is indeed vastly different! The Netherlands prides itself on having an egalitarian society, in which they strive for everyone to be shown respect. If you haven’t noticed, the U.S. has much room to improve in this regard to say the least. But that doesn’t mean we have to overturn societal values before we can become a more equitable community in terms of mobility, though that won’t keep us from trying. Other cities of all sizes surpassing Rochester in the national bike rankings proves this.
Being Vigilant and Showing Up
Our panelists made clear that to attain better bike infrastructure, it takes being involved in the process, showing up at meetings (even virtual ones these days) and organizing ourselves. As the old adage goes, “if you don’t do politics, politics will do you.” If the bike community was under the impression that after the adoption of the 2034 Plan, which encourages implementation of “complete streets” designs that accommodate ALL modes of travel, that this would happen overnight with no need for continued advocacy, we were mistaken (see State Street).
One of the words that was spoken over and over during our panel discussion, particularly from Brighton’s Robin Wilt, was “demand.” Just as the Dutch rose up in the 1970s to demand safer road conditions and greater accountability, the active mobility community is going to have to demand safer streets that are designed for all modes of travel, not just cars. We have to keep our leaders accountable to the 2034 Plan, remind them of their values and goals, and when opportunities arise, vote for leaders who stand behind this progressive, multimodal vision.
The Rochester Cycling Alliance (RCA) does our best to get the word out about public input sessions and other advocacy opportunities. Please make sure you’re on our mailing list and take those opportunities to provide input.
Rochester’s not a bad biking city!
There were varying opinions held by viewers about Rochester’s bikeability — some negative, some positive. Let’s look at the bright side first and identify some of Rochester’s advantages participants took note of in the chat: We are blessed to have the Genesee Riverway Trail, Erie Canal Trail, and an abundance of water and stellar public parks in our community. People pay a lot of money to come from all over the world to Cycle the Erie and we have free access nearby! Overall Rochester is pretty flat, which makes getting somewhere by bike less arduous. And the average city resident has a 4.1-mile commute to work, a journey that can be done by bike at a casual pace in less than 25 minutes.
As several people pointed out in the chat, Rochester has an impressive bike culture for a city of our size. There’s a wide variety of groups with different riding styles, and open-invite group rides take place most evenings during the riding season.
Rochester was awarded a bronze level status as a Bike-Friendly City by the League of American Bicyclists in 2012, 2016 and 2020. That’s not bad! A bronze status means we’re on the right track. Yes, there is a lot to be improved if we want to reach silver or gold, but we are a decent biking city already. In fact, I firmly believe Rochester could become the best biking city in the Great Lakes. It’s more within reach for us than other cities due to the advantages noted above. I know many people who are already of the opinion that Rochester is one of the #BikeLife’s greatest secrets. There are affordable neighborhoods within a 15-minute ride of downtown where car-free living is absolutely attainable. If biking on busy, main thoroughfares isn’t your thing (we don’t blame you!), often there are parallel side streets through residential neighborhoods that will get you to your destination in a timely, less stressful way. If you want to get more comfortable on your bike, consider signing up for one of our on-bike classes sometime.
Our Biggest Weakness: Not Zooming Out
Yes, Rochester is making progress in expanding our bike infrastructure. But there was a consensus on participants in the chat that the current process doesn’t work. As it is now, bike infrastructure is installed “where possible” along small, segment-by-segment stretches. Each self-contained project is overseen by a different design firm and it’s apparent there is no overall network vision guiding this process along predetermined priority routes. Because of this, we get a piecemeal, patchwork result where you can bike on one street for several miles and encounter bike lanes, sharrows or nothing at all.
Even the gorgeous cycletrack along Union Street got knocked pretty hard during our chat: It sure is pretty, but what’s it supposed to do? It doesn’t go anywhere and, as bidirectional cycletracks on one side of the street often do, it creates awkward transitions for those on bike.
“There’s a consensus emerging in the bike world that it’s more about quality of bike infrastructure than quantity (how many miles of bike lanes doesn’t matter as much as how safe & stress-free those miles are).” ~Brent Toderian
Furthermore, though the City is chipping away at its Bike Master Plan, albeit in small, often disconnected pieces, the suburbs for the most part have yet to get on board. Cyclists might be somewhat comfortable on some city streets with bike infrastructure and lower speed limits, but once they cross the city line into surrounding towns, that infrastructure disappears too much of the time.
Instead of a city full of bike lanes which are uncomfortable for most residents, we need to focus on less mileage but higher quality (protected!) bike lanes along strategic routes. Rochester and Monroe County could also use a more top-down “let it be!” approach when it comes to a usable bike network.
“The fast implementation of projects proved to be far more effective than the traditional model of attempting to achieve near unanimity on projects even when you already have consensus that the status quo doesn’t work. Efforts to reach an idealized consensus have resulted in years of indecision, inaction, and paralysis-by-analysis.” ~Streetfight (Sadik-Khan and Solomonow)
Getting local leaders out of their cars
This next topic brought up by participants is probably unrealistic, but holy moly would it move the needle like nothing else! (And it was discussed on September 12th): Getting elected officials, engineers and planners out of their cars. I suspect that many people in our governments and design firms who design and approve bike infrastructure, may never use that bike infrastructure themselves. If officials had to bike solo in rush hour through every segment of infrastructure they approved, we’d likely see very different bike infrastructure.
“In my perfect world, anyone working on bicycle infrastructure or planning should be handed a bicycle and told to ride it in their city for a month…That would certainly force the issue in the minds of the inexperienced or skeptical. We have been thinking car-first for decades, and that worked out pretty well for motorists and the engineers who cater to them. Now it’s time to switch it up.” ~Copenhagenize (Colville-Andersen)
“When I look around the world at the growing list of cities that are once again taking the bicycle seriously, I can identify one primary factor: political leadership. Advocates and activists continue to do their part, pushing from the bottom upward. At the end of the day, though, it seems that policymakers exercising top-down leadership are the catalysts for real change…Politicians may notice…a personal brand boost when they take matters to the next level.” ~Copenhagenize (Colville-Andersen)
Finally, panelist Mitch Gruber urged Rochester’s active mobility and bike community to do a better job of outreach to neighborhoods that don’t look like us – of listening to people who use their bikes in different ways than we do. This is something Reconnect Rochester is committed to working on. Our recent signing of the Greater Rochester Black Agenda Group’s statement that Racism is a Public Health Crisis was only a start.
Going into 2021, join us in being vocal about the benefits of biking to elected officials, stay tuned for advocacy opportunities, and join us for one of our workshops and cyclist gatherings in 2021.
As you are probably aware, RGRTA is exploring changes to the RTS fixed-route transit system in an effort to “better meet the evolving needs of the region.” The project, called Reimagine RTS, aims to improve transit service in Monroe County, including the City of Rochester. Over 11,000 individuals have participated in the process by sharing ideas with RTS via an online survey and many public meetings and the first draft was released last month.
After reviewing the draft and hearing input from many of you, Reconnect Rochester would like to formally share our assessment – including the parts we like, and a few things we’d like to see improved upon…Read more
If you recall, last fall RTS asked for the community’s help to reimagine our public transit system. Reconnect Rochester shared many of our recommendations and over 11,000 of you participated by sharing your own ideas with RTS via online survey or at one of countless public meetings. Well, today we’re dizzy with excitement as the first “Draft” proposal has finally been revealed…
The American Society of Civil Engineers grades the condition and performance of America’s transportation infrastructure as a ‘D’ or worse. Our roads and bridges are crumbling; Over 35,000 people are killed on our highways every year; Our transit systems are unable to keep up with demand. And the U.S. lags behind the rest of the developed world in infrastructure investment.
This week Reconnect Rochester hosted a screening of Be Prepared To Stop, a documentary film that talks about these challenges from the perspective of the freight transportation industry. We asked a panel of local experts in infrastructure policy and sustainability for their views on what America needs to do to put ourselves on the road to sustainability.
Story by: David Riley
A Rochester resident and a former journalist, David is completing a master’s degree in urban planning at the University at Buffalo…
For tens of thousands of Monroe County residents, a sidewalk isn’t just a convenience. It’s a vital connection to the world.
Nearly 12,000 people here walk to their jobs, U.S. Census data shows. Another 13,000 walk to and from bus stops in order to take public transportation to work, including as many as 1 in 3 workers in some city neighborhoods. Many people also rely on sidewalks to get to and from school, medical appointments or grocery stores, much less to go for a jog or walk the dog.
So for many people, it isn’t simply an annoyance if part of a sidewalk turns into a snowdrift during the winter. It’s a disruption that forces people going about daily routines to wade through snow or take a dangerous chance and walk in the street. For people with disabilities, a snowy sidewalk can make a usually simple outing impossible.
Yet keeping sidewalks clear is not always a priority for municipalities in the Northeast and Midwest. The City of Rochester does more than many other Snow Belt cities. While property owners here are responsible for clearing adjacent sidewalks of snow and ice, the city also provides supplemental sidewalk plowing anytime it snows at least 4 inches. The program has drawn some interest in recent years from Buffalo and Syracuse, neither of which generally plow sidewalks beyond public buildings. A handful of local suburbs also provide some municipal sidewalk plowing, including Greece and Irondequoit. Read more
Tonight’s screening of Beyond the Motor City at the Dryden Theater was, in my opinion, a phenomenal event for Rochester. After the film, seven panelists discussed local transportation issues and took questions on the subject from the nearly full audience. Of course, in the allotted timeframe we were only able to scratch the surface, but this is a conversation that we will carry on in the months, and years ahead. If you’re not already, now would be a good time to make sure you’re following Reconnect Rochester on Facebook . And, in case you missed tonight’s event, here is Beyond the Motor City in its entirety. Enjoy…
To view this site, you need to have Flash Player 9
or later installed. Click here to get the latest Flash player.
On Monday June 28 at 7:00pm you are invited to a FREE screening of PBS’s eye-opening film, BLUEPRINT AMERICA: BEYOND THE MOTOR CITY at the Dryden Theater. The documentary is touring cities across America to raise questions—and seek answers—about the future of transportation in America. Can we build the “infrastructure of tomorrow” today? Can the cash-strapped and car-dependent cities of the so-called Rust Belt become new models for fast, clean, public transit? The links and similarities between Rochester NY and Detroit MI are glaringly obvious—and I think you owe it to yourself to see this film.
New hopes for accessible, clean, and modern mass transit in America
The role of cities, and consumers, in shaping the next generation of transportation systems
A roadmap for revitalizing the way we move through our cities and neighborhoods
This will surely be a thought-provoking FREE event and a great opportunity for you to take part in a very important FREE conversation for our community. So mark your calendar and bring some friends. Did I mention this is FREE?!
More About the Film:
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: BEYOND THE MOTOR CITY examines how Detroit, a grim symbol of America’s diminishing status in the world, may come to represent the future of transportation and progress in America. Narrated by Miles O’Brien, the film explores Detroit’s historic investments in infrastructure—from early 19th- century canals to the urban freeways that gave The Motor City its name and made America’s transportation system the envy of the world.
But over the last 30 years, much of the world has left Detroit—and America—behind, choosing faster, cleaner, more modern transportation. In a journey that takes us into the neighborhoods of Detroit and then beyond to Spain, California, and our nation’s capital, BLUEPRINT AMERICA: BEYOND THE MOTOR CITY urges us to ask how we might finally push America’s transportation system into the 21st century.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: BEYOND THE MOTOR CITY is part of Blueprint America, a national, multi-platform initiative examining the state of America’s transportation infrastructure. Blueprint America was created and produced by Thirteen for WNET.ORG and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Surdna Foundation.
The following article was published at RochesterSubway.com on 2010/02/16. Two weeks later 6 citizens got together and Reconnect Rocheseter was born.
America seems to have taken a renewed interest in mobility. Maybe due to President Obama’s recent commitment to high speed rail—or perhaps the positive results seen in towns like Portland and Denver have caught our collective attention. Whatever the reason, from the top down, people are rethinking our automobile-oriented culture—and getting excited about the possibilities.
There’s also good reason to focus on transportation as a way of jump-starting economic development. Industry requires access to people. And people need to have easy access to centers of employment. Continually improving access makes further development possible. Interrupting access will have the opposite effect. Likewise, doing nothing or simply maintaining existing infrastructure for an extended period of time will also hinder development.
For 30+ years Rochester has relied on the infrastructure choices it made in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. At that time we made development choices that encouraged our population to emigrate from the downtown core. We scrapped our extensive streetcar system, choked off downtown with the construction of the inner-loop, and paved super highways to take us from the city to the NY State Thruway and beyond. Since then that’s exactly where our money, our workforce, and our future have gone—down I-490 and out of state.