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With Our Own Eyes and Lungs: The Benefits of Reduced Motor Traffic

Guest blog by Doug Kelley, Associate Professor, University of Rochester.

In my first few long bike rides this spring, I’ve been bowled over by the beautiful views. And it’s not like I’m visiting new places. I pedaled these same routes last summer, when I first came to Copenhagen for a yearlong sabbatical and was eager to explore. But never were the vistas like this! Now, the hills and buildings of Sweden, 10 miles across the waters of Øresund, are not just blurry shapes, but clear and distinct and colorful. Now, looking southwest from the gorgeous seaside bike path in Naturpark Amager, I can see the towns of Køge and Strøby across the bay, nearly 20 miles distant and never visible before. First noticing these fantastic vistas, I gave thanks for the end of the dark and rainy Danish winter. Then I remembered that visibility was never this good last August or September. Something else must be happening. That something is probably covid-19.

The coast of Sweden, bright and clearly visible across Øresund from a marina north of Copenhagen. Clearer air, improved respiratory health, and lower carbon emissions all come when motor traffic is reduced, as the pandemic is showing us. 

The pandemic is causing profound suffering worldwide, through death and sickness, through separation and hardship. I would not wish it upon anyone. The pandemic is also giving humankind a unique opportunity to see — firsthand — what our lives look like when motor traffic is significantly reduced. Few are driving, which means less air pollution, and we can see the improvement with our own eyes. It’s visible all over, not just on my weekend bike routes but in places like London, Delhi, Wuhan, and Los Angeles. My wife tells me her lungs feel better now as she strolls along formerly-busy roads. Back home, nitrogen dioxide emissions in Rochester are down 30%. NASA data shows similar trends all over the world. Social media is awash in before-and-after photos picturing how much better our views have gotten thanks to reduced motor traffic. Mount Kenya is spectacular. 

“The pandemic is giving humankind a unique opportunity to see — firsthand — what our lives look like when motor traffic is significantly reduced.

With those views come other important benefits. The micron-scale airborne particles that mar our vistas also wreak havoc on our health. They are the most harmful form of air pollution, penetrating deep into the lungs and blood to cause heart attacks and respiratory disease. One study found that for particles with diameters smaller than 2.5 microns, every airborne concentration decrease of 10 micrograms per cubic meter comes with a 36% decrease in lung cancer. Another study estimated that reducing particle pollution by just 1 microgram per cubic meter would prevent 34,000 premature deaths per year in the United States. So ironically, reduced motor traffic due to the pandemic may actually save as many lives as are lost to covid-19. That’s a speculation, but given what we know, entirely plausible. 

Moreover, the health benefits of reduced traffic tend to be greatest for the very people who are suffering most in the covid-19 pandemic. Air pollution links to higher covid-19 death rates and almost certainly plays a role in black Americans dying of covid-19 at higher rates than white Americans. Even aside from the virus, low-income people suffer disproportionately from respiratory diseases, including asthma. Substantially reduced particle pollution is good for everybody — and especially good for those with the most urgent health needs. 

Substantially reduced particle pollution is good for everybody — and especially good for those with the most urgent health needs.

Reducing motor traffic also comes with the obvious benefits of reducing carbon emissions and slowing climate change. The International Energy Agency estimates that greenhouse gas emissions will be 8% lower worldwide in 2020 than in 2019, mainly due to reduced motor traffic and airline travel. Climate change is a long-established scientific fact, and its extreme weather and eerily warm winters are now nearly as evident in firsthand experience as the vistas on my bike rides. A one-year, 8% drop isn’t enough to solve the world’s climate change problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.

A one-year, 8% drop [in greenhouse gas emissions] isn’t enough to solve the world’s climate change problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Clear views of the coast of Sweden, in the distance across Øresund, on a sunny May afternoon at the beach in Denmark. Holding onto our reduced-motor-traffic lifestyles would mean better health, lower carbon emissions, and more beautiful days like this.

Living through this historic moment, when we literally see the good of reduced motor traffic with our own eyes, I can’t help but wonder: What if we hold on to the good, and hold on tight? As social distancing eases and we venture out of our homes more often, what if we do it without so much motor traffic? What if we reboot our economy and jobs and schooling without ruining our own vistas and attacking our own lungs?

As social distancing eases and we venture out of our homes more often, what if we do it without so much motor traffic?”

The pandemic has taught us that for many jobs and in many cases, we can work from home just fine. The pandemic has taught us that some travel is more trouble than it’s worth. What if, instead of using the pandemic as an excuse for more pollution, we enact laws and regulations that clean our air? What if we go more places by walking and biking and public transportation? What if we build on our momentum? It would mean new thinking about topics like achieving social distancing on buses and trains. It would mean living in a new way. But the lifestyle adjustments involved are far smaller and simpler than the ones we have already achieved, surviving this unprecedented pandemic together. 

We can get started right now.

Here are a few ways to build on great work already happening in our region: 

The benefits would be huge. Cleaner-feeling lungs, fewer respiratory diseases, better quality of life, reduced chance of climate change causing harder times even than the covid-19 pandemic. And big, clear, beautiful vistas. I think we can do it.

There are many more ways to take action. Leave comments below with your own suggestions.

Read more about the Kelley family’s Danish experience in an earlier blog post: Copenhagen transportation: A day in one family’s life.

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Join Our Team!

Part-time Cycling Coordinator Position Available

Do you get excited by the sight of cycle tracks and trails? Do abruptly ending bike lanes and hazardous intersections make you crazy? Are you organized, resourceful, self-motivated and flexible?

Your dream job awaits.

Reconnect Rochester is searching for an individual to spearhead all cycling related events, advocacy, education, and outreach activities for our organization. This person will work closely with our volunteer Cycling Work Group in running all aspects of our cycling efforts, and will work out of our office in the Hungerford building on E. Main St.

The job may be part-time, but the benefits are endless.

To apply, email a cover letter and resume to info@ReconnectRochester.org by March 15th.

 

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What we accomplished together in 2018

As we look back on 2018, we’re pretty darn proud of what we’ve accomplished together this year. The highlights below are just a snapshot of all the good work we’ve been able to do, thanks to the financial support of Reconnect members, the passionate volunteers that made our programs and initiatives run, and so many others that engaged in our work in countless ways. Thanks to each and every one of you.

If you haven’t yet made a membership donation, we hope you’ll consider doing so to help fuel our work in 2019!  View the membership levels and gift options here. And don’t forget, we have a matching gift in effect from Jason Partyka for NEW members that join by Dec 31st!

Things we’re most proud of in 2018:

Giving transit riders a respectable place to sit at 33 bus stops around the city. We were thrilled to see our bus stop cubes replicated by our neighbor to the west, and we made some progress exploring a permanent fiberglass cube design as a year-round solution… stay tuned in 2019!

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.

Releasing an in-depth report we commissioned on Transportation & Poverty in Monroe County, and working within the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative transportation work group to translate the data into proposed policy solutions.

Transforming an intersection in the Beechwood neighborhood through our Complete Streets Makeover project, and applying complete streets design to other trouble spots around the city to show how they could be made safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

Rochester's Bike Share

Raising funds to continue sponsoring our two bike share stations on Hudson Avenue & Adams Street. This fall, we hosted a live online presentation to give people a chance to hear from Pace about how Rochester’s 2018 bike share season went (watch a recording here).

Producing three (3) Street Films events that stimulated community conversation about transportation infrastructure investment, the era of highway construction, and designing streets for people. We added two original films to our growing collection (watch them on our YouTube channel).

Reconnect Rochester at Parcel 5

Engaging with the public every day via live events, community outreach tabling, speaking engagementsmedia interviews, social media sharing, and blog posts about things like sidewalk snow removal and transit-supportive development.

Reimagine RTS Community Outreach

Encouraging public engagement, lending support and giving input into local planning initiatives like Reimagine RTS system re-design, and the City of Rochester’s Comprehensive Access & Mobility Plan, Comprehensive Plan & Roc the Riverway.

Advocating for Better Public Transit

Fighting for the transit dependent in our community through countless advocacy actions, like traveling to Albany on Transit Awareness Day, hosting a joint press conference with Our Streets Transit Coalition partners, and joining the New Yorkers for Better Public Transit campaign.

And after two years of conceiving and planning with a powerful coalition of partnerswe helped launch the Drive 2B Better public awareness campaign to make our streets safer to walk and bike. Look out for a second phase of the campaign in 2019!

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Top 10 Things We’re Most Proud of in 2017

If you’ve recently made a contribution to Reconnect Rochester thank you for reaffirming your commitment to our mission. But even if you haven’t contributed dollars, we want to take a moment to thank you for all you’ve given this year in other ways.

Maybe you’ve given to one of our programs or another similar cause. Maybe you tried riding your bike or taking the bus to work for the first time and encouraged your friends to try it too. We know many of you have helped to educate others by writing, making phone calls, speaking out publicly and even running for public office. And some of you right now are leading efforts to improve people’s lives by serving from a position within local government or at RGRTA.

We thank YOU!

Now is the perfect time of year to take pause and recognize our collective efforts (large and small) because frankly, the results have been nothing shy of astounding. And imagine, we still have next year to do even more!

Top 10 things we're most proud of in 2017

#10…

Fighting for our community through countless advocacy actions including: Traveling to Albany on Transit Awareness Day to help make a compelling case for local transportation funding; Rallying support for traffic calming measures (most recently on East Avenue); continuing to promote the Pace Car driver pledge program; Pushing for lower speed limits in City neighborhoods; Opposing Federal cuts to public transportation; AND lending support and input into local planning initiatives like Rochester’s Comprehensive Access & Mobility Plan, Climate Action Plan, Mobility & Enhancement Study, and the Shared Mobility Program. We also love engaging with the public EVERY DAY via live events, speaking opportunities, media interviews, social media and our blog… but that’s already like 11 things right there, so moving on…

#9…

Helping voters stay on top of the races for Rochester Mayor and City Council with our Transportation & Mobility Questionnaire which invited the candidates to communicate their position & understanding of mobility issues.

#8…

The loooong awaited opening of Rochester’s new train station which we celebrated with a “behind the scenes” tour guided by representatives from Amtrak and hosted by our Rail Transit Workgroup.

#7…

Our volunteers who built and placed 20 new Bus Stop “Cube” seats in and around Corn Hill, Union Street, Saint Paul Street and Monroe Avenue. Since 2016 we’ve more than doubled the number of cubes out there to give bus riders a respectable place to sit at 34 bus stops. And with plans underway for a permanent fiberglass cube, we’re also within reach of a year-round solution.

#6…

All of you who came out for SIX Rochester Snow Downs on commercial avenues in all four city quadrants, drawing attention to the need for clear sidewalks & bus stops.

#5…

Our Rochester Street Films which drew hundreds of people to The Little Theatre for inspiration and thought-provoking discussion on a broad range of topics including the relationship between transportation and poverty, getting around with a disability, “car culture”, sustainability and community design. These films will continue to inspire people online and at future neighborhood gatherings.

#4…

Our Complete Streets Workgroup team who participated in the planning of a Traffic Safety Public Education Campaign convened by Common Ground Health. Watch for the campaign in 2018!

#3…

The wild success of Rochester’s new bike share system and our partners at Zagster and the City of Rochester. And all of YOU who helped us raise over $18,000 to sponsor bike share stations in less affluent neighborhoods (on Hudson Avenue in Upper Falls and Adams Street in Corn Hill). We’re gearing up to do it again in 2018!

#2…

The launch of our Transportation & Poverty initiative to place focus on transportation as a key barrier for people living in poverty and to inform community action. We produced a 30 minute documentary film on the subject and recently commissioned an in-depth report by Center for Governmental Research which will feed into the Rochester and Monroe County Anti-Poverty Initiative. Look for that in early 2018.

And the #1 thing
we’re most proud of in 2017…

Helping our community to Reimagine RTS!
We don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that this may be a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to reposition our public transit system for a very bright future. If you haven’t already, we invite you to read our suggestions for a better transit system compiled by our Bus Innovation Workgroup. Reconnect Rochester is one of many groups serving on the project’s Community Advisory Committee and we’d like to remind you to share YOUR input on this important project. If you missed the public input session we co-hosted, there is still time for you to take the Reimagine RTS Survey.

But most of all,
we’re proud to be partners with YOU and all of our new members this year.

 

 

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You Can’t See This in a Car

For Rochester Street Films this year we asked local filmmakers and ordinary citizens to share their perspective on what it’s like to get around Rochester without a car. No rules; No restrictions; No filter.

Nate Butler grew up around cars. Learning to work on them with his dad as a kid, he just figured that cars were the only way to get around. Now a student at R.I.T., Nate has taken up cross-country running and he’s learning something new about his community with every step…

We’d like to ask for your help getting these films in front of as many people as we can. If you would like to host a mini screening of Rochester Street Films in your neighborhood, please contact us.

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Mapnificent, Meet Rochester.

Posted by: John Lam

Rochester is now on Mapnificent thanks to Reconnect Rochester!
Scoop one for Reconnect Rochester! Several days ago we noticed Mapnificent.net (a new site for visualizing transit reachability) hadn’t included Rochester among its cities. Clicking into its support forum led me to a post also seeking support for Rochester. A quick search told us our bus company had just announced the public availability of their General Transit Feed Specification, so in response we posted the location of this feed and within an hour Rochester debuted in Mapnificentexternal link.

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