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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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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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When Streets Were Equitable

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

“Dude, get out of the road,” you yell in an enraged state fueled by someone’s blatant disregard for the fact that you woke up late and are traveling 10mph over the speed limit only to encounter a man “jaywalking” across the road in front of you. Your displaced anger bubbles over as you find yourself inconvenienced for a whole 9 seconds.

We’ve all been there… getting behind a car that’s traveling 10mph under the speed limit, trying to pass a cyclist with no shoulder, or yelling at a pedestrian who crosses the road outside of a crosswalk with no regard for your time.

Let’s step back in time to 1906. Jaywalking, or the illegal crossing of a street in a non-designated crosswalk, was 20 years from being a thing. The automobile was just beginning to assert itself as a semi-regular addition to city streets that accommodated a multi-modal construct. Can’t imagine what this looks like? Let’s look at this amazing digitally remastered video of a 1906 San Francisco street car ride.

The most important thing to note in this video is how diverse the street traffic is. Horse and buggy, trolley, automobile, bicycle, pedestrian… they all move at approximately the same speed. The well-to-do owner of the car travels at a speed that is similar to the pedestrian and cyclist. While the driver may be able to enjoy an independent, stress-free commute, he or she is subject to the street congestion caused by many different forms of mobility. And while this low-speed chaos would likely be psychologically catastrophic to the car commuter today, it presents some incredibly meaningful lessons with regard to our streets and their effect on society.

Multiple Modes of Mobility

Trolleys, carriages, bikes, cars and pedestrians… count the number of different forms of mobility in this video. The streets were truly for everyone, regardless of speed, size or socioeconomic status.

Similar Speed

Equitable transportation is rooted in the idea that anyone can access jobs and resources equally, regardless of their socioeconomic status. In this piece of video, pedestrians, mass transit and cars move at a similar speed. The difference in velocity between the most exclusive form of transportation and the most humble form of transportation is negligible. Today, the average 15 minute commute by car is likely to be over an hour by bus. The prioritization of the automobile has completely eradicated equitable access to jobs and resources.

Density and Community

Slower, more equitable mobility leads to greater, more efficient urban density. Suburban sprawl has created an inequitable construct based on “pay-to-play” access of upwardly mobile resources. When multi-modal transportation is encouraged, more efficient and equitable communities are possible.

In the video above, the fastest form of transportation, the cars, are moving about 2-3 times the speed of pedestrians. Sure, that difference might be a great deal more on an open road, but the top speed of between 30 and 50 miles per hour for the average Ford… not to mention you needed oil every 250 miles, and the fact that highways were just a glimmer in the hopeful eye of an urban enemy. A humorous note, just two years earlier, a driver was given the first speeding ticket in Dayton Ohio for going 12mph in a 5mph zone.

At such low speeds, the prospect of “sprawl” was horribly impractical. As a result, cities remained unquestionable centers of equity, efficiency and productivity. Because cars were just a slightly faster mode of transportation in a sea of other mobility options, 15-20 mile car commutes were simply not possible.

But cars became faster. Car and oil companies became the dominant lobbyists in the United States. Highways were built to allow for greater sprawl, all subsidizing people’s desire to create exclusive communities outside their city centers.

In Conclusion

I shared this video with a number of friends. The comments back marveled at the clothing, the trolleys, the horses, the man sweeping horse droppings, and the maddening chaos of multi-modal traffic. But when I look at videos like this, I see what cities were like when mobility was far more equitable. Sure, our cities were dirty, crowded, smelly and sometimes scary. Sanitary amenities, cleaner energy and a host of other legal and environmental issues were still hurdles for cities 1906.

But the power of the city as the social, economic and equitable hub of humanity was far greater than it is in the U.S. today. Architecture hasn’t changed all that much, save the skyscraper. Street layout is pretty much the same. The big difference is the fact that the formally diverse streets featuring slow traffic have been replaced with exclusive automobile access, allowing those who own cars to speed to their destinations while those who must rely on public transit are subject to maddeningly underfunded networks, long wait times and inefficient commutes.

The video above shows what streets were meant to be. They were havens for diverse mobility instead of space that is solely dedicated to speed and exclusivity. Our cities have paid the price for this massive mistake, and as a result, equity and upward mobility continue to lag compared to much of the rest of the industrialized world.


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Rochester wants to get more residents on bikes

by Jesse Peers, cycling coordinator at Reconnect Rochester

“The bicycle is in many ways the easiest solution to a multitude of problems.” – Anna Brones in Hello, Bicycle

As a bicycle instructor, I love teaching bike classes and presentations in our area. (If you want to book a lunch n’ learn presentation for your workplace, library or community group, let me know at cycling@reconnectrochester.org). Before going in depth on any subject, I spend a few slides at the beginning highlighting the benefits of biking. It’s not enough just to tell people how to bike safely. You have to inspire them to bike in the first place. There are powerful financial, health and environmental benefits that accrue from biking. And although it only takes one of these reasons to get on a bike, you and society will benefit in a variety of ways for doing so.

My hope with this blog is not only to “preach the cycling gospel,” but to familiarize readers with Rochester’s goals and policies, particularly its groundbreaking Rochester 2034 Plan. As I’ve gravitated towards bike advocacy in recent years, I was pleased to discover that my hometown also sees the benefits of getting more citizens on bikes. The City of Rochester has many plans in motion to better our city and many of those plans incorporate getting more people on bikes.

Choice, equity & “complete streets”

In line with New York State, Rochester adopted its own Complete Streets Policy in 2011, in which it “recognizes that our streets should accommodate a wide range of transportation modes…Our streets are a reflection of our community…” According to the most recent US Census Bureau American Community Survey five-year estimates (2017), 25.3% of all households in the City of Rochester do not have access to a private vehicle. In some neighborhoods like JOSANA, over 46% of households do not own automobiles (Source: JOSANA Study). 

The City defines a complete street as one that “accommodates all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and persons with disabilities.” Moreover the recent 2034 Plan expresses clear concern for “an overly car-dependent culture” and acknowledges that residents want choice when it comes to transportation.  “The City’s statement of support for these values helps set the bike community up to advocate for specific projects and improvements.

‘Justicia Urbana’ by Fabian Todorovic

Household & Society Finances

Each fall, the American Automobile Association (AAA) puts out an updated estimate of the average annual cost of car ownership. As anyone who’s ever owned a car knows, this cost goes beyond just paying for the vehicle itself: interest, insurance, gas, maintenance, registration and depreciation add up considerably. Though we can expect Rochesterians to spend less than the average ($9,282 a year for a new car), in a city where the per capita income is well below the national average, $6,000 or more a year to spend on a car is too big a piece of the household financial pie. By biking for some trips, Rochesterians can save serious money.

In addition to the financial burden cars impose on households, we also need to recognize that society loses money from prioritizing and incentivizing car travel. As our friend Arian Horbovetz points out so well, every form of transportation is subsidized. No form of transportation pays for itself. It stands to reason then that municipalities, especially those with limited funds in hard times, ought to prioritize infrastructure funding for modes of travel that are available to everyone, not just those who can afford to own a personal vehicle.

“It is pure poetry that a 19th-century invention is capable of solving complicated 21st-century issues.” – Mikael Colville-Andersen in Copenhagenize

As Lynn Richards, the President & CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, told us last year in her Reshaping Rochester talk for the Community Design Center, downtowns with abundant, cheap parking have city halls that struggle to pay the bills. A frequent line from those administrations is “Yeah, [your idea] is great but we don’t have the money.” Vibrant downtowns use valuable urban real estate to make money, put a price on parking and incentivize other modes of travel. Next time you hear someone say good bike infrastructure is too expensive, remind them that “One mile of a protected bike lane is 100x cheaper than one mile of roadway” and that by prioritizing cars, they are prioritizing the mode too many residents can’t afford.

City documents and plans that support these values:

  • The 2034 plan asserts that “increasing the ability of residents to bike will provide residents who don’t own cars with an alternative to get to work or the store.” 
  • Rochester Bicycle Master Plan: “Improving bicycling conditions is a cost effective way of optimizing existing public infrastructure.”
  • Bike Rochester webpage: Increased disposable income can result in increased spending in the local marketplace, which would boost the local economy.
  • 2034: Vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods with strong economies “limit auto-oriented uses and design.”

Health

As Peter Walker points out in How Cycling Can Save The World, “the health incentives for cycling massively outweigh the perils…Every year about 700 Americans die on bikes, a figure that could and should be significantly lower. But over the same period at least 200,000 of their compatriots die from conditions linked to a lack of physical activity.” And don’t forget that “more Americans have died in car crashes since 2000 than in both World Wars.” 

Moderate biking “has been found to have an almost miraculous effect” on health, “in part because it is so easy to incorporate into everyday life…Cyclists don’t just get extra life years, they’re more likely to remain mobile and independent into older age.” A recent UK study found that bike commuters had a 46% lower risk of developing heart disease and a 45% lower risk of developing cancer.

City documents and plans that support these values:

  • Evaluation of Trail Entry Conditions and Recommendations for Improvements: The City of Rochester proudly promotes healthy communities and lifestyles. 
  • 2034:  Residents bicycling instead of driving incorporate exercise into their daily routine, which increases overall health.
  • 2034: The City wants to improve public health by making Rochester more walkable and bikeable
  • 2034: On-street bike networks allow residents to access to recreation, world-class trails and parks improves public health

Climate Crisis

UC Davis found that if only 14% of urban trips worldwide were taken on bikes, we’d reduce emissions enough to meet the Paris Climate Goals. This is so doable! If people used their cars for when the weather was bad, when the distances are too long and when there’s more than one occupant in the car, we’d live in a different world. If you only hopped on a bike for short solo trips in good weather, it’d make a massive difference.

By the way, any idea where the most polluted air is concentrated? Where the unhealthiest air is to breathe? It’s around our schools every morning and every afternoon. “Pick-up and drop-off times create clouds of invisible yet toxic diesel fumes” as buses idle.

City documents and plans that support these values:

  • In its Climate Action Plan, the City acknowledges the urgent need to “reduce vehicle miles traveled” along with “single occupant vehicle trips.” 
    • Transportation currently accounts for about a quarter of GHG emissions in Rochester. Policies and actions that make it easier to make trips by foot, bicycle, and transit, can help the community reduce transportation-related GHG emissions.
  • 2034: Installation of various bicycle infrastructure elements (bike lanes, protected lanes, bike boulevards, bike share system, bike parking/storage, bike maintenance stations) to encourage this cleaner, healthier mode of transportation.
  • 2034: Single-occupancy vehicles are detrimental to the environment…Motor vehicles are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, alternate modes of transportation, such as walking, biking, riding the bus, or carpooling can greatly cut down on the environmental impact of traveling.
  • 2034: The more trips made by bicycle means fewer motor vehicles on the road, which decreases congestion on our streets, lowers the demand for parking, and decreases the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere. 
  • 2034: Bike infrastructure encourages cleaner modes of transportation
  • 2034: The more trips made by bicycle means fewer vehicles on the road, which decreases the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere. 
  • 2034: The City Department of Environmental Services is a bringing more green infrastructure to the city and is pursuing an aggressive plan to reduce Rochester’s carbon footprint.

Anytime we advocate for safer, more equitable streets and better bike infrastructure, we need to point to Rochester’s goals and plans and how the whole community will benefit from encouraging bicycling. And when City Hall delivers, let them know your appreciation!


Join Us!

Join us for a virtual screening of the inspirational Dutch film Why We Cycle on Thursday, September 10, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. on Zoom. Following the film, there will be a live panel discussion with community leaders and advocates. We’ll use the film as a springboard to reflect on how we can get more Rochesterians on bikes. See event details and register at www.ReconnectRochester.org/streetfilms.

“The Dutch and their bikes are inseparable. It’s not a form of transportation, it’s a way of living.”Holland.com guide for visiting the Netherlands

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The American Automobile And Racial Exclusivity

The “Pay To Play” cost of the automobile might be the most racially exclusive component of American society.

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

I saw something today that blew my mind. The average new road vehicle retails for $37,876. Can we say that again? Americans are purchasing cars, trucks and SUVs to the tune of $38,000. In a time when we are asking questions of equity and “pay-to-play” constructs in our American culture, is there anything more exclusive than the automobile?

Most of our focus in life revolves around three basic things… our home, our work and how we connect the two. After World War II, the Federal Government subsidized the construction and purchase of homes outside of city limits in areas now referred to as “the suburbs.” But that wasn’t enough… with major employers still entrenched in urban cores as a matter of practical business, the same administrations facilitated the creation of automobile expressways that allowed white Americans, who could afford cars to access jobs while living in racially exclusive suburbs, to commute efficiently to their employment epicenters. And as no surprise, these highways doubled as a way of demolishing “blighted” black neighborhoods, segregating white from black, and rich from poor in our cities.

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.

Redlining and racial property covenants (among a host of other elements of institutionalized racism) ensured that people of color could not transcend their circumstance, creating an un-traversable economic fissure between wealthy white and struggling black citizens in highly polarized and segregated counties.

Car, oil and rubber companies furthered the plight of inner city America by lobbying for wider roads, campaigning for “jay-walking” to become a public offense and famously purchasing the private city street car companies, only to immediately disband them. All this to ensure that the most expensive and exclusive mode of transportation was virtually the only mode of transportation. And of course, this was all done to the tune of billions of dollars in subsidies for auto-related manufacturers and the building of automobile infrastructure that a huge percentage of the country simply could not afford.

How do you disenfranchise an entire group of people? Simple. Tell them they can only live in one place, (which we as a country did) then incentivize everyone else (and thus American jobs) to move away from that place… and for the final touch, make it too expensive for the disenfranchised population to access good jobs, public resources and any hope of upward mobility. The perfect purposeful recipe for racial, cultural, economic and social isolation.

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.

Let’s go back to the cost of the average new vehicle, $37,876. The average Black household in the U.S. earns $41,511 (2018), less than $4,000 more than the cost of the average American automobile.

Can Americans purchase a used car for much cheaper? Absolutely. But a huge percentage of disenfranchised communities still struggle with high interest rates and all the “extras” that go along with car ownership (insurance, fuel, maintenance, registration fees, etc.). When the process of conveniently commuting requires 40% of your income, something is seriously wrong.

“The financial burden that the car-centric American narrative places on our families is stifling. … Those who can purchase and maintain a car win…everyone else loses.

As someone who purchased a used car 6 years ago for $7,500 and still occasionally uses that car today, I am in absolute awe of the amount of money my friends spend on cars, trucks and SUVs that I would consider “luxurious.” The financial burden that the car-centric American narrative places on our families is stifling. The amount that middle class American families are willing to spend for the convenience of two SUVs is staggering. But the myth that this choice is a necessity is one of the most racially and socially exclusive economic and psychological constructs in American culture. I would argue that the toxic level of “pay to play” exclusivity in this country is and always has been the veiled mirage of the automobile as the only means of convenient transportation. Those who can purchase and maintain a car win… everyone else loses.

When the average cars costs $38,000, equity is not possible. When the average commute of 23 minutes by car is an hour and twenty minutes by bus, equity is not possible. In a nation where Black Americans were disallowed to thrive in our urban cores, this same social and economic rift occurs today with regard to transportation and the convenient access of jobs and services.

Redlining derailed black neighborhoods by placing a financial ceiling on their communities. Property covenants and other restrictions disallowed people of color from moving to other neighborhoods. The war on drugs targeted black males in a conscious effort to disrupt black families. Today, in a world where mobility is such a strong determinant for success, the century-long subsidization of the most expensive and exclusive form of transportation continues to add yet another wrinkle in the fabric of blatantly racist agendas that our country has supported.

“Want to make the United States more equitable? Support public transit that serves everyone.”

It’s time to realize that the American automobile, and the immense infrastructure that facilitates its transportation dominance, might be one of the most toxically racial tools this country has ever seen. Want to make the United States more equitable? Support public transit that serves everyone. Support walkability and infrastructure projects that limit automobile speed and prioritize pedestrians, especially in traditionally minority-based neighborhoods. Support urban density that considers the needs and desires of Black Americans. The American car/truck/SUV has pummeled the core of U.S. urban density… let’s realize this as a mistake and get aggressive about building a more equitable future of mobility in our urban centers!


A few related notes and resources from Reconnect Rochester. . .

We appreciate this excellent piece by Arian at The Urban Phoenix that makes new and insightful connections between mobility and racial & economic justice.

Over the past five years, Reconnect Rochester has been part of an effort to examine the relationship between transportation and poverty in our community, to better understand the problem so we can identify possible solutions, and act on them. Resources this effort has generated can be found here on Reconnect’s website and include:

Our efforts continue through the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI)’s transportation work group. In collaboration with many community partners around the table, we work to translate the report learnings into systemic policy recommendations and actions that can create real change.

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.

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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. 

Bike Education Classes

Get the confidence you need to enjoy cycling more by taking a 2.5-hour Smart Cycling class held at the Rochester Public Market! Classes are being offered on two upcoming dates:

Thursday, August 13, 6:00 – 8:30pm

Wednesday, September 2, 6:00 – 8:30pm

Many people like the idea of biking more, but they don’t feel safe mixing it up with cars. In this class, students will learn the rules of the road and proper roadway position. We’ll examine safe cycling techniques and ways to make cycling easier and more enjoyable. The class will incorporate classroom learning, parking lot maneuvering drills and a short group ride navigating different traffic scenarios.

Cost:  $25 per person

SPACE IS LIMITED — RESERVE YOUR SPOT TODAY!

IMPORTANT NOTES:

  • These classes are for folks who already know how to balance and ride a bike. For more information on private learn-to-ride classes, contact cycling@ReconnectRochester.org.
  • Participants must come with their own (tuned-up) bike.
  • Participants must wear a mask & helmet.
  • The class will go on rain or shine. In the event of rain, the classroom portion will be extended to cover more Smart Cycling curriculum.

QUESTIONS?

Contact Jesse Peers at jesse@ReconnectRochester.org or 585-270-1095.

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Blocking Walking: When Pedestrians are Forced to Find Another Way

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?

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What happens when you’re rolling down an urban bike trail and you encounter a piece of construction equipment blocking your path?

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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…

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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.

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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.

This sidewalk leading to Rochester’s new Amtrak station is completely blocked by
plowed snow

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.  

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Women and Biking

Story By Susan Levin.  Susan is a cycling advocate, board member at Reconnect Rochester and chair of the Rochester Cycling Alliance workgroup.

The Rochester Women’s Bike Festival is back for its second year in Corn Hill!  The Festival will be at Adams Street Recreation Center, 85 Adams St. on Saturday, June 15 from 9 AM to 3 PM. The event is free!  Registration is available here.  Watch for updates at facebook.com/rochesterwomenbike

Why are we creating a bicycling-event focused on women? Studies have shown that women will use a bicycle for everyday transportation if it’s convenient, comfortable, and safe. When women ride, they teach and encourage their children to get around the same way. For some, it’s economical—for the cost of a few tanks of gas, she can have reliable two-wheeled transportation all the time. Cycling also promotes physical and mental health. In the end, her whole community is safer if she feels it’s safe to get around by bicycle at all.

Over 130 women (and a few men) attended the event last year as participants, speakers, vendors, and volunteers. Three bicycles, donated by R Community Bikes, were given away as attendance prizes at the end of the day, along with gift baskets, salon certificates and bicycle accessories. There were ten breakout sessions throughout the day, and in between sessions, a complimentary breakfast and lunch were served. Four women were chosen to learn, hands-on, how to repair a flat tire and dozens of women practiced loading and unloading a bicycle on an RTS bus.

The Festival is offering space for women to ask questions, learn, and try out bikes in an understanding and non-intimidating atmosphere. Men are welcome to attend, as long as they are also there to encourage women to bike, but be prepared to discuss women-centered topics.

This year, RWBF organizers, including Corn Hill business owner Karen Rogers of Exercise Express, are planning an even bigger and better event.

Additions to this year’s festival include: on-street practice rides led by LCIs (League Cycling Instructors, a certification program from the League of American Bicyclists), healthier food options, more vendors in the Expo area, and more speakers. The RTS bus and Pace Bikes will both be back. Also returning is the bike zoo, where women will be able to test ride different kinds of bikes, such as cargo and e-bikes. REI and Tryon Bike, along with Bianchi Dama representatives, are scheduled to present short maintenance clinics. Breakout sessions will include: How and where to buy a bike; How to bike with children; How to grocery shop by bike; How to find a group
ride and more.

Feel free to drop in and visit the vendor booths, the Bike Zoo and all the sessions. You can also sign up via that link to volunteer or request to host a vendor table. Volunteers will be needed for greeters, set up and break down, staffing info tables and general gophers. Vendors can be about bikes or any sort of organization who would be of interest to women who bike.

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Complete Streets Series (Part 3 of 3): Safer Rochester Streets, An Intersection at a Time

In this final installment of our Complete Streets Blog Series, guest author David Riley will highlight a sampling of intersections and trouble spots that were nominated for the Complete Streets Makeover project, and share his ideas for how they might be made safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

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Complete Streets Series (Part 2 of 3): Re-Designing Our “Finalist” Streets for People

 

Back in May, we launched our Complete Streets Makeover project by asking the general public to help identify the intersections and trouble-spots where you live, work and play that could be redesigned to make them safer for everyone. We received over 90 nominations, and after a careful process to examine each and every submission, we selected the following locations:

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Complete Streets Series (Part 1 of 3): A Neighborhood Intersection Transformed

In the U.S., pedestrian fatalities have skyrocketed, increasing by 46% from 2009-2016. According to our Crash Map, over 4,000 crashes in Monroe County from 2010-2017 involved bicyclists and pedestrians. Eight people die on our streets every year as a result of these crashes.

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The City of Rochester Public Market: An Important Example and Experiment in Our Community

Guest essay submitted by: Evan Lowenstein, Reconnect Rochester Member and Assistant Market Supervisor for Communications and Special Events/Projects, City of Rochester Public Market… 

Rochester Public MarketThe City of Rochester Public Market is an endearing, fascinating example of the many things planners value and work for:  successful public places and spaces; sense of place; mixed use; real and working diversity; pedestrian-focused; linkage of city, suburbs, and rural areas; supportive of the local economy.  

While the Market has made strides in multi-modal transportation access by creating a pedestrian, bicycle, and transit-friendly Market, there is a lot of work to do. The Market can and should be a true leader in moving the community forward in its transportation mindsets and methods.

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What Should Transit-Supportive Development Look Like in Rochester?

As part of its new Comprehensive Plan, Rochester 2034, the City of Rochester is studying which major streets have the best potential for “transit supportive development” in Rochester.  Transit supportive development encourages a mix of complementary activities and destinations (e.g., housing, work, shopping, services, and entertainment) along major streets and centers. This kind of development helps create compact, vibrant communities where it’s easier for people to walk, bike, and use public transit to get around. Read more

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Our Suggestions for a Reimagined RTS

[ Make your voice heard. Take the Reimagine RTS survey. ]

Last week RGRTA announced a plan to “Reimagine RTS.” Reconnect Rochester believes this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our community to get mass transportation right. We all have a stake in the success of our public transportation system and it is critical that RGRTA and its project team have access to thoughts and ideas from every demographic and every corner of our community. To help, we have compiled our ideas and recommendations, and we are asking you all to do the same.

But first, we need to understand how we got here.

Rochester’s public transportation network was originally designed to carry people between downtown and densely populated surrounding neighborhoods. As our residential population, commerce, and jobs spread outward with the adoption of the automobile, RGRTA attempted to follow this migration by extending service outward. With lower population densities in the suburbs, the stretched transit company found itself facing an impossible choice: expand service to reach fewer customers, or maintain its existing service area for a dwindling urban population.

After decades of attempting to do both, the quality of service in Monroe County has suffered. Those who rely on transit are underserved, and those who might choose to ride rather than drive do not. We hear complaints from riders about infrequent service, long trip times, perceived safety issues, and the need to walk great distances to reach their bus stop or final destination. Clearly, we need systemic changes to improve service and increase the viability of our public transit network.

RGRTA recognizes these issues and is now taking a bold step to design “a new transit system from the ground up.”

Our Top 5 Recommendations to Make Rochester Transit Great (again)

Reconnect Rochester has surveyed its members on how to improve Rochester’s public transit system to serve the greatest number of people. Our recommendations are prioritized below.

1. Make service more frequent and consistent.

Reimagine RTS

Current routes and schedules are too complex and inconsistent. To build confidence and make people believe they will have a ride available when they need it:

  1. Vehicles should run every 30 minutes or less throughout the entire system.
  2. Vehicles should run every 15 minutes or less on key routes during peak hours.
  3. Routes, schedules and frequencies should be consistent throughout the weekday and on weekends.
  4. Vehicles should depart from the terminal on time.
  5. Even spacing should be maintained between buses.
  6. The number and placement of new bus stops should follow the recommendations outlined previously in the RTS Bus Stop Optimization Study (2014) to strike a balance between pedestrian accessibility and system performance.
  7. Outlying routes or segments that cannot support 30 minute frequency (either with ridership or private sector funding) may need to be eliminated, or serious consideration should be given to servicing these areas by other means.

2. Make routes more direct.

Bus Rapid Transit

Many routes currently have unnecessary turns and deviations, meaning most trips take much longer than they should. The current hub and spoke layout also makes it difficult to transfer between routes without going downtown. To improve efficiency and provide the fastest possible trip time:

  1. Routes should be designed to take the most direct path between major destinations. Twists, turns and “zig-zags” should be eliminated.
    • Buses should not run into and through office complexes and strip mall parking lots. Instead, municipalities need to work to make sure transit access is provided by direct and convenient pedestrian access through a site to the edge of the public right of way.
  2. It should be possible to switch (or transfer) between routes from any point in the network.
    • Adjacent routes should be placed within walking distance from each other and service staggered to make it easier for riders to switch from one bus to another on a nearby route.
    • Provisions should be made for other modes of travel at major bus stops or satellite hubs (i.e., ridesharing and bike share stations, safe and accessible pedestrian infrastructure, information/signage, etc.).
  3. It should be possible to travel between the county’s four quadrants without transferring downtown.
    • Crosstown or orbital routes should be added near the perimeter of the city where radial routes diverge.
    • Work with other transit providers to make existing crosstown routes (e.g., U of R’s Orange Line) available for riders.
  4. Work with the City and DOT to design streets that prioritize transit (as well as pedestrians and cyclists) over private motor vehicles.
    • Install curb extensions at transit stops (as opposed to curb cutouts) to eliminate time spent weaving in and out of traffic.
    • Optimize traffic signals to improve reliability by allowing buses to maintain a constant speed, and reducing time spent at red lights.
    • Utilize dedicated lanes to move buses more quickly through crowded streets.

3. Right-size the service.

Comfortable Bus

Many routes receive high ridership near the core of the network, resulting in overcrowded, slow moving buses there and nearly empty buses for the remainder of the routes. To relieve overcrowding and improve service in high demand areas:

  1. Some routes may require express and local access service.
  2. Consider eliminating outlying routes or segments where demand is low.
  3. Vehicles should be selected according to demand.
    • Heavily used routes within the core of Monroe County should be serviced by 40’ or larger vehicles, while lesser used routes could be serviced by vans or other systems altogether (i.e., ride-sharing).
  4. Where necessary, transit vehicles should be outfitted to accommodate more bicycles.

4. Make transit accessible and easy to use.

Bus Stop with real-time information

In recent years RGRTA has added several systems and technologies that have made it easier and more enjoyable to use transit. These include the fully enclosed RTS Transit Center, fare kiosks, Tap & Go fare cards, digital signage, and a mobile trip planning app. The following recommendations would make RTS even easier to use and more welcoming to new customers:

  1. Improve integration with other modes and transit systems.
    • Institute an integrated payment solution so that one “currency” can be used across a variety of transportation systems (i.e., one stored-value pass to pay for bus fare, rideshare, taxi, or bike share that could be replenished online or at a kiosk).
    • Include data from other transportation companies within the RTS mobile app.
    • Share data and synchronize service between other transit providers such as college bus systems, Amtrak, and intercity buses.
  2. Work with municipal staff and land use boards in development review and site design. Employment locations, services, retail, and higher density residential development should occur within a half mile of transit corridors. The details of site design such as building placement and internal pedestrian circulation networks are critical in supporting transit.
    • A dynamic transit frequency map should be published for municipalities to evaluate whether transit is a realistic mobility option for a given development or not. There’s a huge difference in a site served by buses every 2 hours versus one served by buses every 20 minutes. Frequency information is not captured on a typical system route map (see for example these maps by Reconnect Rochester and this article by Jarrett Walker).
  3. School routes (currently designated with an X) should not add complexity to the published schedules.
  4. Provide basic amenities for transit riders at all bus stops.
    • Safe and accessible sidewalk connection from curb pick-up
    • Route map and information
    • Seating
  5. Provide enhanced amenities for transit riders at heavily used stops and hubs.
    • Shelter
    • Trash receptacle
    • Bike rack
    • Heat
    • WiFi
  6. Work with municipalities to enact a maintenance plan for all bus stops.
    • Trash pickup
    • Snow removal
    • Accountability
  7. Provide riders with real-time information
    • Countdown clocks with real-time information should be installed at all major transit stops and hubs (i.e., URMC, colleges, Airport, Rochester Intermodal Station, Irondequoit Plaza, etc.).
    • Work with municipalities and property owners to display real-time information screens at highly visible locations such as schools, shopping centers, arenas, office and apartment buildings (i.e., TransitScreen).
  8. Provide additional off-board and cash-free fare payment methods (i.e., kiosks at major transit stops where passengers can buy Tap & Go cards, mobile ticketing via the RTS app or a 3rd party app such as Token Transit, etc.).
  9. Explore ways to allow boarding at both front and rear doors.

5. Stay competitive through innovation.

RTS Streetcar

A business succeeds by staying ahead of the competition. Beyond the recommendations outlined in sections 1-4, it will be imperative for RTS to:

  1. Continually monitor customer needs and local market conditions in order to identify areas for improvement, industry trends and opportunities to attract new customers.
    • Offer classes or seminars on “how to ride the bus.” Many people are reluctant to try the bus, in part, because they are unfamiliar with it.
    • Have a bike rack mock-up device so people can practice loading a bike into the rack without the pressure of a bus full of people watching.
  2. Expand offerings by studying the feasibility of new systems and upgrades such as:
    • Fixed guideway and/or bus rapid transit on core routes
    • Smaller self-driving vehicles for local or on-demand service
  3. Work with the City and County to manage land use in a way that complements service patterns. Future service can then be planned based on land use decisions.
  4. Work with municipalities, key neighborhood groups, and large employers to establish Transportation Demand Management entities and co-promote public transit as a solution to congestion and costly parking.
  5. Step up marketing efforts and always maintain a fresh image reflecting the unique selling points of RTS.
    • Develop example language/assistance for municipalities, event planners, retailers, employers etc. that highlight the ability to use transit to access the event. Too often events or meeting notices provide parking information without information about public transit. Rochester International Jazz Festival does a good job of this.

Share Your Suggestions

We hope our suggestions will give you a framework from which to craft your own thoughts for RTS. Please feel free to steal our list straight away. Or if you have ideas not mentioned above, we’d love to hear them in the comments section below.

We also urge you to attend the first public meeting for this project on October 25th from 6:00-7:30PM at the Brockport Metro Center. And don’t forget to visit www.myRTS.com/reimagine to submit your comments and stay updated on this important project over the next 12 months.

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Moments ago RGRTA announced plans to study sweeping changes to the RTS (Monroe County) transit system. The effort is being called Reimagine RTS and the goal is to develop a set of recommendations to address the community’s mobility needs, increase transit ridership, and position RTS for long-term financial sustainability.

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Road Rage Against Cyclist Nearly Turns Bad – What Can We Learn?

A local cyclist sent us a video of a road rage incident he experienced last weekend while riding his bike south on East Henrietta Road near the intersection at Westfall. Thankfully, no one was hurt – in the end, a good samaritan stepped in and called RPD. But there are clearly some important lessons to be learned. First a word of caution; this video contains some graphic language…

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Maybe Not So Uber for Everyone

Guest essay submitted by: Ericka Jones, Systems Advocate at Center for Disability Rights… 

Imagine you found out Uber was coming to your town. The typical response is to be really excited and relieved that a lower cost and convenient ride service was coming to your area. You no longer have to deal with the stress of how you will get to work on time or if a ride is even available!

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