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Hot Button: Why not Buffalo?

If Madison, Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis can be on the bike-friendly list, why can't we?

I’m out for a pleasant evening ride on my bicycle when I approach the Richmond/Lafayette traffic circle. Richmond is one of the best streets in Buffalo for cyclists, with wide lanes and a clearly marked bike lane. Yet when I approach the circle and wait for my turn, a car with the right-of-way slows to a crawl and timidly rolls toward me, unsure of what to do, clearly afraid I’m going to go flying past him without looking. I wave him on. Seconds later, when I attempt to exit the roundabout, another car sails past me without even slowing down, let alone yielding, and nearly wipes me out. A principal woe of Buffalo cyclists––drivers who refuse to treat bicycles like cars––was thus handily displayed at two extremes.

And this happened on one of the city’s few bike-friendly roads. With exceptions I can count on two hands, the streets of Buffalo are friendly to motor vehicles and not much else. When you picture your commute to work, how many streets on your route have bona fide bike lanes? How many are designated bike routes? How many spots along the way have bike parking? Most importantly, how considerate are drivers to the bicyclists you see?

Every moderate-to-long bike ride I’ve ever experienced in Buffalo has included at least one instance of a car nearly hitting me as it slid through a right turn on a red light, or a driver screaming at me to “get out of the road” (bicycles are illegal on sidewalks, by the way), or narrowly missing me as he or she pulls out of a driveway without looking. Many who live here clearly feel that Buffalo is for cars alone—in spite of the statistics that contradict them. With more cyclists on the streets of Western New York than ever—a 175 percent increase in Buffalo alone over the past decade, according to the Atlantic’s online offshoot, Atlantic Cities (based on 2000 U.S. Census figures and estimates from the 2005–2009 American Community Survey). It’s time to assess where our city stands among the nation’s cycle-friendly cities.

How we measure up

For starters, we don’t make the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) list of bicycling-friendly communities. A bastion of palm-tree-lined California hippie havens, you scoff? Hardly. The snowy towns of Madison, Minneapolis, and Missoula scored in the gold category, while even Albany and Pittsburgh made bronze. In Madison, named by both LAB and Bicycling magazine as one of the most bike-friendly cities in America, consideration of bicycles occurs at the very top levels of government.  In 2007, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz formed the Platinum Biking City Planning Committee “to work in concert with city staff and the police department” to make Madison the nation’s best bicycling city, reports Madison’s glowing LAB review. “The committee’s report, “Making Madison the Best Place in the Country to Bicycle,” was adopted by the city council in 2008 and lays out an exciting future for cyclists in the city.” The report is excellent reading; visit the City of Madison's website to read it.

Today, in Madison, bicycles are a part of every aspect of city planning. “Specific bicycle policies include a provision of all needed bicycle facilities when constructing or reconstructing city streets and including the requirements of bicycle traffic in the design of all traffic control devices,” reports LAB. Madison’s large bicycle-commuter population weathers snow and cold to ride all year long (LAB notes that on University Avenue, in the heart of downtown Madison and the University of Wisconsin campus, “the city recorded 10,000–12,000 bicycle trips per day at the peak and 2,000 plus trips per day in January”) thanks to this infrastructure and, perhaps even more importantly, an avid and colorful cycling community: Madison’s Bike to Work Week, “an entire week of activities and media promotions,” boasts 2,000 participants each year.

Nonprofits and grassroots activists help, too. Pittsburgh’s bike advocacy group, Bike PGH, got raves from LAB for its successful community events and lobbying efforts. LAB’s review of Bike PGH notes that “Bike PGH’s three rivers bike rack design has been adopted as the city’s signature bike rack, and their bike map was the first produced of the area in fifteen years and has won multiple design awards. The organization also partnered with the mayor’s office to install 200 bike racks this year.”

How does Buffalo compare? “When we look at the ‘Five Es’ that the League of American Bicyclists uses, we’re doing okay on Engineering, Education, and Encouragement,” says Henry Raess, community outreach coordinator of our own cycling advocacy group, GO Bike Buffalo. “With Enforcement, we’re failing miserably. And Evaluation––following up, seeing what works and what doesn’t—I’d say we’re doing okay at best.”

LAB doesn’t have assessments for every city posted on the website, but they do have a “report card” for New York State, which ranked a measly forty-two out of fifty on the list of bicycling-friendly states. New York scored only one out of five in the “Policies and Programs” category, with low marks in “Legislation and Enforcement,” “Infrastructure and Funding,” and “Evaluation and Planning.” LAB’s recommendations included the implementation of the Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) curriculum for bicycling enforcement, which would “focus on laws related to bicyclists, interactions between motorists and bicyclists, and bicycle collision investigation”; in Madison, for example, “approximately fifty Madison police officers have been trained for bike patrol and more are trained every year,” LAB notes. “Bicycle-mounted officers are used primarily for efficient movement in congested urban areas and at special events. In addition, the University of Wisconsin police and the Dane County sheriff’s deputies have officers trained for bike patrol.” The police commissioner’s office couldn’t be reached for comment on the implementation of such a program in Buffalo.

LAB’s recommendations for New York also suggested the dedication of “state funding for bicycle projects and programs, especially those focused on safety and eliminating gaps and increasing access for bicycle networks.” Safety is a huge concern, statewide and locally. Particularly in the suburbs, this summer has seen several nasty accidents between bicycles and vehicles. The belief that cycling is unsafe becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: as fewer residents cycle, the less familiar drivers become with the laws and how to treat cyclists.

The preamble to the Complete Streets ordinance (more on that later) on the city of Buffalo’s website notes that fears about cyclist and pedestrian safety “do not come unwarranted in New York State where police reports indicate that, in 2005, there were over 15,000 crashes between pedestrians and motor vehicles, and almost 6,000 crashes between bicyclists and motor vehicles.” GO Bike Buffalo reports that “in Erie County in 2010 alone, five percent of crashes involved bicyclists yet disproportionately included thirty-one percent of all injuries and fatalities.”

“It’s the same obstacle that you see in many places, and it’s twofold: infrastructure and culture,” says Raess. He would like to see “more bike lanes and designated bike routes. And, ideally, more education. A lot of people don’t feel safe cycling. So we can build bike lanes, make improvements, but that won’t get people on bikes. You also have to have education and community programs.”

Raess adds, “The city’s master plan of 1998 approved 100 miles of bike lanes, but now we have seven miles of lanes and about twenty miles of bike paths. So there’s more to be done. There are definitely politicians who aren’t pulling for bikes and just don’t care that much, and have to be persuaded. And there are some who are bike advocates.”


The good news

It’s not all doom and gloom, thanks to the efforts of individual cyclists, cyclist-friendly political leaders, and GO Bike Buffalo.

On the state level, LAB commends New York on a few things. A Safe Passing/Vulnerable Road User law is in effect, mandating stiff fines, loss of license, and other potential penalties for drivers of motorized vehicles who severely injure or kill pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users, motorcyclists, or construction workers. (How well that’s enforced is a topic for a future article.) We’ve passed a Complete Streets ordinance, which mandates the addition of bike lanes, pedestrian crosswalks, and other upgrades whenever a street is renovated. We have an active state advocacy group (the New York Bicycling Coalition), along with aggressive state policies for congestion mitigation and air-quality spending.

The Complete Streets ordinance Preamble recognizes that “a key factor contributing to the lack of physical activity in our country and specifically in New York State is the general lack of infrastructure to support pedestrian travel on foot and by bicycle. Currently, infrastructure of streets and roads in most communities focuses on the safety and needs of motorists, with few considerations made for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users.” The preamble makes note of the nationwide obesity epidemic, and adds, “It is our assertion that an important step in curtailing the obesity epidemic will be to revamp transportation infrastructure in communities to create ‘complete streets.’”

Obviously, the solution isn’t instant—each street is reevaluated when it comes time for reconstruction. Furthermore, there are limits informed by cost and practicality; the ordinance does not require “all modes on all roads”: for example, bike lanes are not required if the cost of adding them would amount to more than twenty percent of the project.

Public Works, Parks, and Streets commissioner Steven Stepniak was more than happy to discuss the ramifications of the ordinance and his plan for Buffalo’s streets. “Our goal is to get multiple transportation options to residents of the city of Buffalo, and to connect existing bike paths that haven’t been connected in the past,” he says. “We want to create pathways so that you can travel much farther more safely.” But planning progressively in Buffalo isn’t always easy, Stepniak admits. “It’s a little different because of the geographics in this city that was built 100 years ago,” he says, adding that he doesn’t consider our long winters to be as significant an obstacle. “We have a hardy group out here in Buffalo.” Buffalo’s spread-out nature makes commuting difficult; the bike paths and bike routes aren’t connected, forcing cyclists into potentially unsafe streets and traffic. Stepniak says addressing this problem is foremost among his bike-friendly goals. “We want to connect our park system, to allow people to travel from one park to another,” he says.

Traffic engineer Eric Schmarder promises city residents, “You’re going to see increased connectivity. We’ve got no use for a bike lane that doesn’t go anywhere. This has risen to the top of our priority list.” He points to Porter Avenue, now sporting well-marked bike lanes and crosswalks, as an example of progress. “We’re looking to put bike lanes all the way up and down Niagara and connect to South Park to transverse the length of the city,” he says. “Right now, we’re traffic modeling Niagara to add bike lanes up and down that entire corridor, so it connects to different areas of the city.” They’re even looking at Delaware Avenue, considering a bike lane design to be implemented starting around fall of 2013. “We’ll know in six months, and traffic analysis will show if we can change configuration on Delaware. Niagara will be first, then Delaware,” says Schmarder. “That would give you connection from Delaware Park to Niagara square.”
Merlo says Main Street’s pedestrian-only area downtown is another bike lane project in the works: “We’re going to to be reconstructing that part of Main Street with bike facilities––and you’ll see two-way traffic on Pearl Street and bike lanes all up and down Pearl Street, so we’re bringing bicyclists to that part of the city.”

Both Schmarder and Stepniak say that they enjoy cycling themselves. “It’s good exercise and a good way to see different parts of the city,” Stepniak avers. “It’s a lifestyle that we’re supporting. For some people it’s a legitimate form of transportation. And it works.”


What we can do

The best news of all is that there’s much an individual can do to improve cycling culture and influence city development––all while saving money, getting fit, and having fun. “Cycling safety starts with the cyclist,” says John Clauss, assistant manager at Rick Cycle Shop. “I see cyclists all the time riding on the wrong side of the road, being careless, or riding on the sidewalk. We have to be responsible.”

Raess, of GO Bike Buffalo, reiterates that point, noting that education is key for both cyclists and drivers. It starts with knowing the law; visit BicycleLaw.com and the New York Bicycling Coalition’s website, nybc.net, to brush up on road rules as they relate to cyclists. “Learn how to maintain and fix bicycles,” he advises, adding that GO Bike Buffalo offers community bike workshops. Once you have a solid understanding of bike maintenance and troubleshooting, he says, “Walk and bike more; try to reduce your use of the car for shorter trips. Support your local bike shops.”

To take a more activist role, call up our politicians and “advocate for bike lanes and complete streets in general,” Raess advises. “In other cities, local governments are leading the way. In St. Louis, for example, the mayor is really procycling, and it’s blown up in the past five years as a result. Sometimes nonprofits lead the charge,but ideally it’s the mayor and city council. So contact your local politicians.”

In addition to advocating on behalf of cyclists, the GO Bike Buffalo group encourages individuals to contact their representatives; the GBB website has a list of talking points to address and community programs to mention. There’s also a bike lane request form initiative, and a calendar of the organization’s many procycling events.

Most of us learned how to ride a bike as children not because of fossil fuels or obesity or the cost of gasoline, but because it was fun. Jeremy Besch, Head of Upper School at the Park School of Buffalo and an avid cyclist, has been working with other bike-loving faculty and students to develop and nurture a blossoming cycling culture at the school. Besch, who commuted by bike from the city every day until his children were old enough to attend school, has been a leader in organizing group rides and student/faculty participation in the Ride for Roswell (one student even did the 104-mile route this year, and another rode sixty-five miles), and working with other teachers to include longer bike trips in the school’s week-long immersion program. He sees increasing participation and education as the keys to growing a community of aware drivers and mindful cyclists. Most of all, he says, “it’s about helping the kids and parents to rediscover the fun of riding a bike.”  

What else to get Buffalo on that list of bike-friendly communities? More of us need to reconnect with that sense of freedom and joy that only biking can provide. Get your family or a group of friends together for a bike ride––on a bike trail, to a destination, or just around the neighborhood. Round up coworkers who live near you, and start a group bike commute a few days a week. Learn how to take care of your bicycle and keep an eye out for bike-related events, which are a great way to meet fellow cyclists and see the growing movement in action. Before we know it, the familiar trope that “you need a car” to survive in this town will be left in the dust.        




Julia Burke bikes from Allentown to her job in the suburbs every day.

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