Last weekend my wife and I enjoyed a quick overnight trip to one of our favorite cities, Philadelphia, PA. In an effort to avoid toll roads, we took Route 15 for much of the way through the Keystone State, marveling at the beautiful rolling hills while skirting the Susquehanna River.
But in many places along the way, Route 15 transitions into Big Box Store Islands. One such place is in Shamokin Dam, home to massive parking lots servicing Best Buys and AutoZones, featuring every restaurant chain from McDonalds and Burger King to Pizza Hut, Chipotle, Denny’s, Red Robin, Applebee’s and more. What caught my eye on this particular journey through the minimum-wage wasteland was the total lack of sidewalks.
Let’s unpack this for a moment. We have a sea of low paying retail jobs that literally cannot be reached on foot or by bike. If you can’t afford a car, you don’t get a job here and you don’t get to shop here, plain and simple.
Furthermore, and this is my favorite… not only do they not have sidewalks, the local signage actually forbids pedestrians!
And beyond that, I tried to see if there might be a public transit option so that residents of nearby Selinsgrove, for example, might be able to access this area without owning a car. Spoiler alert, there is no public transit option.
A similar collection of big box retailers and chain restaurants exists south of Rochester, New York in the suburb of Henrietta. And while the land use and development strategies in this area are hideously car-centric and exclusive, at least it has sidewalks on both sides of the road and regular transit access.
Shamokin Dam, on the other hand, is an island of minimum wage jobs that is only accessible by the most expensive form of transportation. Pennsylvania’s citizens living in this area must own a car and all the incredible costs that come with it in order to access these retail opportunities, either as an employee or as a customer. This is a perfect example of how flawed and shortsighted our U.S. development patterns and land use constructs truly are.
Remember when you learned how to drive? You learned about the blind spots to the left and right of your vehicle, those spots where another car might be, hidden even from all your mirrors. That there might be things there you aren’t seeing.
There’s another blind spot putting us at risk here in car-centric America: the one that prevents us from thinking beyond the automobile as we strive for climate solutions and a truly sustainable society.
The rise in concern about climate change in society and industry is encouraging, and happening not a second too soon. But the well-intentioned efforts run the risk of falling way short because of our perilously persistent belief that we can achieve a climate-safe, sustainable future simply by running our cars on something besides fossil fuels.
Transportation accounts for 40% of our climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, and converting vehicles from fossil-fuels to more cleanly-generated electricity surely can reduce those vehicles’ emissions. But the way they are fueled is just one of many environmental, economic, and equity problems caused by our cars — and just one of the problems inherent in our prevailing transportation model and mindset.
Thus, there is an inconvenient truth hidden in our blind spot: as we seek transportation modes and systems that are better for the environment, for the economy, and for equity, electric vehicles are the next-worst option to the fossil-fueled ones.
Why Electric Vehicles Aren’t Enough
The switch to electric cars as a solution to climate change depends simultaneously on a massive transition to renewable energy, such as wind and solar, happening at an unprecedented speed. If we don’t transition to renewables as fast as we transition to electric cars, electric vehicles won’t produce any real progress on climate change. The switch also means a massive increase in demand on our already-strained electric grid; in addition to the cost of putting up that much renewable energy, we then have to upgrade the grid to carry it all.
And electric cars are still cars — machines that produce environmental impacts such as water pollution from tire and brake residues, and leaks of toxic materials from millions upon millions of compromised vehicles; pollution from extraction of materials needed and energy needed to make them; gargantuan fossil-fuel expenditures needed to transport them from manufacturer to individual buyer. In addition, the massive road and storage infrastructure (parking lots) needed to accommodate individual cars as a primary transport choice has titanic environmental impact: polluted runoff, biodiversity loss and roadkill from fractured habitat, etc. Having to maintain all this outsized, inefficient infrastructure forever also creates enormous financial challenges for governments, and prevents resources from being used more wisely.
The Cost of Personal Vehicles
Speaking of roadkill — cars also kill a lot of people too, upwards of 60,000 annually in our country from crashes and illness from fossil-fueled air pollution. And many people killed by cars are low-income and people of color, forced into walking or cycling in car-centric communities without adequate provisions for pedestrians or cyclists; and/or forced into living in places with the worst auto-borne air pollution.
Car-culture also creates and perpetuates more inequity like this. Cars are already expensive to own, maintain, insure, and fuel. Low-income people without the means to own cars are shut out from many needs and opportunities (jobs, education, recreation, culture) that are accessible only by car. In addition, most low-income people rent instead of own their housing, and even if they were able to access electric vehicles, they likely wouldn’t have easy access to charging. If the shift to electric vehicles makes car ownership even more out of reach for low-income people, the equity gap exacerbated by car-culture will grow even wider.
Building a Multi-Modal Future
We must start seeing what’s in the blind spot–the fact that a switch from gas-powered to electric vehicles cannot be the primary push as we strive for sustainability. Instead, we must understand that the best car trip for climate and sustainability is not an electricity-powered car trip, but the absence of a car trip.
Then, we must focus our planning and funding to make it easier for more people to transport themselves by bus, rail, bicycle, and foot. Note that an electric bus or train uses ten to twenty times less electricity per passenger mile than an electric car does — no matter how clean or dirty the electricity supply is, they are always that much better. And even if buses and trains aren’t electrified, they produce less overall impact than electric private vehicles as a whole, simply by transporting more people over less distance. Walking and bicycling for transportation — if done safely using adequate infrastructure provided for it — produces positive health benefits along with the environmental benefits.
Seeing what’s in the blind spot also means developing land and our communities more efficiently so that transit, bike, and pedestrian transportation modes are viable for a lot more people. Community design with this location efficiency in mind will also save energy, land, and natural resources, meaning that planning for car-free lives enables climate solutions well beyond the transportation modes themselves. This location efficiency also makes it more feasible for car sharing and carpooling — putting more people in each car is a super-sensible and affordable climate solution as well.
The hard truth is that climate solutions, sustainability, and equity cannot be achieved solely through intention, but rather through execution. And executing requires plugging all the key facts into our designs of policy and place. We cannot let this big blind spot — an overemphasis on electric cars — run us off the road to our destination: a cool, carbon neutral planet.
I bought my first bike at a local pawn shop when I was nine, after finding a fresh $100 bill on the floor of a K-Mart earlier that day. Obviously I “invested” the rest (i.e. putting it in the Garfield cup in my room that held my fortunes). As a kid, my experience with biking was minimal, taking short rides around my neighborhood and learning how to ride “no hands” because I thought it looked cool.
I didn’t ride bikes again until 2018, when I spontaneously decided that I wanted to “get into road bikes” as a hobby. I dove head-first into learning as much as I could about the biking world, including different bikes and the local “bike scene” in Rochester. Inevitably, that meant that I ended up visiting – I kid you not – every single bike shop in Rochester to learn from the experts and enthusiasts what bikes made the most sense for what endeavors, and I even got “fitted” for a bike, which at the time felt like the most legitimate thing you could do as a cyclist, especially a novice one.
During my three-week escapade of research, I learned that the local cycling scene in Rochester was robust and the community here is not only knowledgeable, but welcoming and genuinely amazing. People really love to bike, and I think I grew to love it simply from my conversations with people about everything from the best gear to the best trails and the local meetups that happen each weekend.
“I biked for leisure, I biked to work (most of the time), I biked to see the city I’ve lived in for over a decade with fresh eyes.”
I eventually landed on my “entry level” road bike, with plans to work my way up in expertise. Once I made my purchase, my commitment to hitting the road remained consistent and spirited. Biking around Rochester became my official summer activity. I biked for leisure, I biked to work (most of the time), I biked to see the city I’ve lived in for over a decade with fresh eyes. During that time, I had never really considered the gaps in safety for cyclists that exist here because, frankly, the fear for my own safety didn’t ever cross my mind. I felt so free on the road and I took the necessary safety precautions as a cyclist, so what could go wrong?
In September 2019, the occasional thoughts regarding safety suddenly became very real and necessary, when a casual ride down East Ave turned into a not-so-casual ride to the ER after getting clipped and catching my fall with my face, which was thankfully protected by a helmet (wear your helmets, people!!). I honestly don’t recall many details of the incident before I found myself monologuing for hours on end in the ER and entertaining the nurses on the night shift. (Unfortunately there is no evidence of what could have been a GREAT Netflix comedy special, but there is evidence of me trying to walk to my friend’s car like a newborn deer.
What I do know is that the crash happened on the busy stretch of East Ave that doesn’t have a bike lane, which forces bicyclists to cozy up to the curb in order to avoid cars passing by on the road. *Note to cyclists and non-cyclists alike – this is NOT the “right” way to ride in the road, and was not typically my riding behavior. Call it a perfect storm, call it fate. Either way, my face smashed into the pavement and it has changed the way I think about riding and cyclist visibility/ awareness. Along with some semi-permanent changes to my physiology…but that’s a whole other blog post entirely.
“Call it a perfect storm, call it fate. Either way, my face smashed into the pavement and it has changed the way I think about riding and cyclist visibility/ awareness.”
Here’s the thing: My experience with biking in Rochester had always felt quite safe and unhindered despite the sometimes noticeable limited infrastructure in and around the city. Despite these gaps, I never felt concerned, namely because of my own safety measures and the fact that my cycling habits were usually during “off hours” and thus lower commute times. That being said, my crash happened on the one strip of East Ave that of course DOESN’T have a bike lane, during a high traffic time – a Friday night during a summer festival. In other words, a time of mayhem.
I have yet to really know how my own cycling behaviors will be influenced by my crash on the road, but I don’t have any intention of stopping. That is, once I build up the courage to get back on my bike (estimated Summer 2021 after nearly two years of recovery). Despite my unfortunate encounter with a giant moving metal object at rapid speed, I STILL think biking is a safe and enjoyable activity and method of transportation. We are a city of bike enthusiasts and have low-to-no road rage here compared to many other cities! I call that a win.
“We are a city of bike enthusiasts and have low-to-no road rage here compared to many other cities! I call that a win.”
Do I think more bike lanes need to be strategically placed around the city? Perhaps. It couldn’t hurt. But “good cycling” on the road often means that you are in the street. My biggest issue as a cyclist is that the burden of safety is always placed on cyclists, the most vulnerable in a collision circumstance, just like in “rape culture” the burden of safety or responsibility is placed on women.
If you do a quick internet search on cycling safety, you will see important things like wearing brightly colored gear, lights, a helmet, riding with the flow of traffic, and traffic signals. However, if you were to survey a randomly selected group of drivers, how many of them know how to safely engage with a cyclist on the road? How many of them know what a straight arm out versus a bent arm means when you see a cyclist doing it? How many times have you seen drivers not looking both ways (with cyclists in mind) when turning onto a street? If the safety measures diligently taken and used by cyclists mean nothing to the drivers who share the road, there will always be disproportionately increased risk.
Might there be ways to increase visibility, and more importantly awareness about cyclists, that aren’t just about creating bike lanes?
As a six year transplant to Rochester, I’ve had some time now to reflect on my experience cycling here versus other cities, and I’ve come to a pretty stark conclusion: Rochesterians seem to have no idea how good we have it here.
You see, I travel all over the world with my bike (or at least I did pre-COVID) for either my day job or night job. For the day job, I do computer stuff for decent money. For the night job, I sing opera professionally for not-as-decent money. I’ve gone back up from half-time to full-time for the former now that all of my performances for the latter are on hold due to the pandemic, and that’s given me the opportunity to bike ONLY in Rochester for the past year now. This has only further convinced me that it’s just plain unfortunate that we keep getting ranked lower in “bike friendly city” polls than many cities that, in my experience, are just not nearly as pleasant to bike in.
Aside from the bounty of beautiful nature just a short ride from the city, the thing that really makes the difference in Rochester is that people are actually friendly, and that includes when they’re behind the wheel of an automobile. They don’t have to deal with horrible traffic, they don’t seem to be in a terrible rush, and they don’t seem to be generally miserable — they seem to be happy and outgoing in a very “Canadian” way.
Of course you get a few jerks here and there, but they’re astoundingly few and far between. I was shocked when I first moved here at how friendly and non-confrontational drivers were to me by comparison with Boston, New York City, or even bike meccas like Portland, Oregon. It was months before a driver even so much as said a word to me, and when it finally happened, it was to express concern for my safety, not to curse me out. I’ve joked that I’ll take ten thousand miles on Rochester’s streets with friendly drivers and no bike lanes over ten miles on Boston’s streets with ubiquitous bike lanes and psychotic drivers.
“What Rochester lacks in bike-specific infrastructure or warm weather, it makes up for tenfold in its unusually low percentage of homicidal drivers.”
Now, this ain’t no Sanibel, Florida (if you don’t know, look it up!), so we can’t do anything about the weather, but the bike success of snowy cities like Minneapolis prove that’s not really an issue. Rochesterians are hardy folks, and dressing for the weather is second-nature to us. And the driver attitudes really do make all the difference.
I remember when I first moved here from Boston in 2014, that first, incredibly snowy winter, I saw a man sloshing up the bike lane on East Ave in the middle of a pounding snowstorm, towing his child in a baby trailer and running his dog on a leash. I remember looking over at my wife and saying, “I bet NOBODY has honked or yelled at that guy today, or told him he’s a bad father.” What Rochester lacks in bike-specific infrastructure or warm weather, it makes up for tenfold in its unusually low percentage of homicidal drivers.
Now, if we could only get our infrastructure to be as good as our drivers seem to be, we’d be over the top! But we’re not going to get there by courting die-hard year-round enthusiasts. There aren’t enough of those. And we’re not going to get there by courting people who have convinced themselves that anyone who rides a bike outside of a spin studio has a death wish. Those people are just too hard to win over, at least at the beginning.
We’re only going to get there by courting the vast numbers of people who are on the fence. Especially during the pandemic, these would-be cyclists are finally starting to consider their bike as an option for getting themselves outside, livening up their commute, or getting some exercise. And these are exactly the people who need to hear that cycling is safe — statistically safer than driving. They need to hear that there are enough warm months in the year to make biking worthwhile even if you pack it away for the cold. And they need to hear that the right clothing for cold weather is most likely stuff they already own. They need to hear that it’s easy to ride in the street, even without bike lanes, and that there are tons of riding groups here — including casual cycling groups like the Unity Rides and Slow Roll — where people can get used to it by riding together with others.
I think this is the key here — we need to normalize bicycling, fighting a cultural shift so powerful that it killed our own subway system. And the only way we normalize it is by constantly showing regular people that Rochester is a fantastic place to bike.
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.
Today, RTS will join with the Genesee Transportation Council, and local leaders and transportation partners to participate in the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) nationwide Stand Up 4 Transportation Day.
RTS CEO Bill Carpenter will be joined by Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, James D. Hoffman, Chairman of the Wayne County Board of Supervisors and Genesee Transportation Council, and representatives from the Rochester Cycling Alliance, Reconnect Rochester, and other organizations for a rally at the RTS Transit Center on Thursday, April 9 at 11 a.m…