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Long Story Short: Slow down!














Buffalo’s school zone speed debacle

In an earlier story, LSS reported on Buffalo’s fourteen newly installed school zone cameras, now in use at select locations. We noted that there would be a one-month grace period, during which drivers exceeding the speed limit by eleven miles per hour or more would receive a warning in the mail. This would be followed by actual $50 fines after the grace period—a flat rate for being caught by the camera.


The grace period ended last Friday, but after receiving numerous complaints that the zones are inadequately marked, the Common Council unanimously approved a resolution urging the mayor to extend it. In addition, University council member Rasheed Wyatt pressed for reduced speeds to be in effect only during school arrival and dismissal times. The possibility of increasing the speed limit from fifteen mph was also raised. The Council hoped to evaluate data from the trial period, before moving forward, a seemingly prudent approach to any new technology. 


Mayor Brown says no

Mayor Byron Brown declined to allow the extension, saying, "The cameras are recording over 10,000 vehicles, on any given day, speeding through school zones throughout the city." Ironically, this fact alone suggests that there are problems with the effectiveness of the speed zones (more on that later), but the mayor declared his intent to forge ahead. Later, he modified this announcement, adding that flashing warning lights will be installed where the cameras are located to more effectively draw attention to the speed zones. Only then will the grace period end at each individual camera zone.


The motivation

This presents an interesting conundrum. If the city recognizes that flashing lights are necessary to alert drivers as they enter speed zones where cameras are present, wouldn’t the same attention-alerting devices be needed where there are no cameras? Do drivers in non-camera zones merit less warning?  


It comes down to who’s being protected by the flashing lights. Is it drivers who might otherwise be ticketed because they are genuinely unaware they’ve entered a camera speed zone, as has been suggested? Or is it the city, trying to insulate itself against criticism that unaware drivers are being ticketed? It should be neither. The whole point of speed zones is to protect children, which means that school zones without cameras should include the added protection of flashing lights. Clearly, the motivation for the warning lights isn’t the safety of students; it’s politics.


The real intent?

In a press conference, Mayor Brown made an interesting statement: "These kinds of [speeding] behaviors, almost forty percent of which are committed by individuals who don't live in the City of Buffalo, should worry all of us…” What does the residency of speeding drivers have to do with the safety of children? Suburban cars are no more lethal that city cars. Could it be that what the mayor has in mind is the opportunity the cameras present for bringing added revenue into the city? I can’t think of another reason to cite the non-city-dweller minority.


No grace period without cameras

Some drivers were unaware that the grace period didn’t apply to school zones without cameras. In my earlier article, I mentioned that I have seldom, if ever, seen police enforcing school speed zones, but in the two weeks since I made that observation, I’ve witnessed police with radar in front of schools three times. Remember that flat $50 fine you get when caught by the cameras? It doesn’t apply when you’re ticketed by actual police. WGRZ news reports that Sydney Meadows of Buffalo received a ticket for $388, which she was allowed to plea down to jaywalking for a cool $350.


Why allow a grace period to acclimate drivers to camera zones, but not to other school zones? If the rationale is that drivers are unaware of the newly enforceable speed zones where cameras exist, wouldn’t they be just as unaware where there are no cameras?


There’s one more problem with the school zones as they currently exist. Some have signs indicating where they end, and others do not, requiring drivers to engage in a guessing game as to when it’s safe to accelerate.


What the research says

There are reasons that drivers aren’t slowing down in Buffalo’s speed zones, while research on how to address this concern goes unheeded. First, a speed limit of fifteen mph is too slow for roadways engineered for thirty mph. ScienceDaily cites research indicating that speeds set five miles per hour below normal limits result in a statistically significant decrease in total fatal and injury crashes. "If (however) you lower the speed limit by ten, fifteen, twenty miles per hour, or more,” says Vikash Gayah, assistant professor of civil engineering, “drivers stop paying attention." They found that there was an increase in fatal and injury crashes at locations with posted speed limits set ten miles per hour or more below normal speed limits. Many states recommend limiting speed reductions on thirty mph roadways to no more than ten miles per hour.


The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) states, “Factual studies, reason, and sound engineering judgment, rather than emotion, should govern the final decision on the maximum deviation from the [regular] speed that will provide a reasonable and prudent school speed limit.” It seems unlikely Buffalo lawmakers considered anything beyond renewing the previously unenforceable recommended school zone speeds.


Real solutions

Most road safety organizations recommend that reduced speeds should be limited to the hours around the start and end of the school day. And numerous studies and organizations recommend a multi-pronged approach to reducing drivers’ speed in school zones. The ITE states, “Simply setting a reduced speed limit in a school zone is not likely to produce the entire desired speed reduction on its own.” Other measures include:

Engineering: physical improvements to the environment such as crosswalks, sidewalks and signals.
Education: teaching children, parents, and neighbors about appropriate walking, driving, and cycling behaviors to support safe travel in the school zone.
Encouragement: programs such as Walk to School Day, the Walking School Bus, contests, and other initiatives to entice children, parents, and others to walk or bicycle to school, cutting vehicle congestion.
Enforcement: incorporates law enforcement efforts to ensure drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians obey traffic laws and practice appropriate behaviors.
Evaluation: use measurements or indicators such as the number of children walking or bicycling to school and driver behavior to ascertain the success of any speed zone program.


Buffalo seems to be concerned only with the cash-generating enforcement measure.


The takeaway

Does the city care that it may be endangering children with a fifteen mph speed decrease? If the goal is lowering the risk of accident, the data doesn’t support such an extreme speed reduction. The potential for lawsuits over ill-considered traffic measures, with dubious intentions, are real. If the actual purpose is to raise funds for city coffers, they are on the right track, because the data shows drivers will not slow down that much (thus, Mayor Brown’s observations on the number of cars ignoring the reduced speeds). So, the cameras will be a cash cow for the city—at least until they are proven to be unreliable, as with other states and cities


The Virginia Department of Transportation has assembled an easy-to-understand summary detailing research-based methods of making school zones safer. City lawmakers should read it.



Trials and tribulations at Tesla

We previously reported on the problems at SolarCity, a subsidiary of Tesla Inc. With Tesla solar panel installations dropping rather than increasing, it didn’t look good for the company’s promise to meet a target of employing 1,460 workers at the Buffalo factory by mid-April, or pay a whopping $41.2 million penalty.


Tesla is tight-lipped about what’s going on inside the factory and its hiring practices, but it has been adding employees at a fast clip lately. Is this an indication that the company is finally ready to roll out its long-promised solar roof tiles? Maybe not. It could just be that hiring unnecessary workers is cheaper than coughing up a $41.2 million fine. You can pay a lot of salaries before you reach that kind of money.


More problems

To make matters worse, some former Buffalo Tesla employees are alleging that there is a racist and hostile work environment at the company, along with a climate of favoritism. Six former workers filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in November, and six more recently inquired about filing similar complaints.


Two of them spoke anonymously with News 4 Investigates about their experience at the Tesla Buffalo factory at Riverbend. “What I encountered working in Tesla was just a very hostile environment is probably an understatement,” one African American worker who was fired in June 2019 for “excessive cell phone use” told to News 4. He goes on to complain that workers are isolated and “not given a lot of room for growth and for expansion.” Of course, maybe there is no room for growth, if Tesla doesn’t have enough work for the people it’s hiring.


This, of course, is just speculation, because Tesla won’t comment.



Recycling follow-up

Two weeks ago, LSS ran a story about Recycling Reinvented, the six-month citywide campaign of targeted messaging, with the goal of reducing contamination in Buffalo’s residential recycling totes, while increasing recycling overall. In the story I mentioned that “I’m personally looking forward to February, where they will discuss plastic bags/wrap. I’m constantly wondering what exactly is okay, and what’s not.”


The answer

Susan Attridge, Director of Refuse and Recycling in Buffalo, read the blog and responded. It turns out it’s more complicated than I imagined. “There are soooooooooooooo many plastic idiosyncrasies,” writes Attridge, who actually did use that spelling. She explains that their goal is to simplify the messaging, which might mean some recyclable material goes in the trash, which is better than the resulting contamination when people guess wrong (which I now realize I’ve been doing with some regularity).


The most valuable plastics are #1 and #2 which is PET and HDPE respectively. “A good rule of thumb,” says Attridge, “is to recycle plastics by shape and forget the number:  bottles, jars, jugs and tubs.” But get this; if you recycle pop or water bottles, or anything with small twist-on caps, the caps should be on the bottle. “An item as small as a cap would never be able to be captured on a recycling line,” Attridge explains, “It’s too fast.”


The bag dilemma

As for plastic bags, the answer is somewhat simpler. “No film plastic can go into the green recycling tote,” says Attridge. That means no bags of any kind, and pretty much no flimsy plastic material. No frozen food bags, no bubble wrap, no plastic garbage bags.



You may already know that grocery stores are required by law to take back and recycle plastic grocery bags, but did you know that they will also recycle many—but not all—other kinds of filmy plastic? Here’s a list of what you can stuff into that bin in the entrance of most stores:

•        grocery bags

•        garment bags

•        retail bags with string ties removed

•        newspaper bags

•        dry cleaning bags

•        produce bags

•        bread bags

•        cereal bags (but if it tears like paper, do not include it)

•        wrapping from paper products (paper towels, toilet paper, etc)

•        stretch/shrink wrap

•        zip top food storage bags

•        bubble wrap

•        air pillows found inside shipping packages (must be deflated)

•        shipping envelopes (must be all film plastic, labels removed)

•        furniture and electronic wrap

•        any film packaging or bag with the "How2Recycle" label indicating that it is plastic film and can be returned to store drop off.


But again…

There is also a list of things that stores can’t recycle. These items go in the garbage and then into landfills. Keeping this all straight is no easy task, but here’s the list:

•        food containers

•        bottles

•        salad bags

•        frozen food bags

•        six-pack rings

•        chip bags

•        snack/candy wrappers

•        degradable, compostable bags or film packaging (unclear if this includes Wegmans new produce bags)


All recycled items should be clean. For more information, check here


Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.


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