Complete Street Movement: Creating a Behavioral Change in Buffalo’s Urban Center
This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.
By Melissa Bender, C+S ’15
Only a six-hour drive across New York state, Buffalo and New York City have completely different priorities when it comes to sustainability. When it came time to find an internship, I knew I wanted to return home to Buffalo to use my newfound knowledge gleaned from the Climate and Society program to benefit my hometown.
I have been fortunate enough to work with a nonprofit organization called the Western New York Environmental Alliance (WNYEA). The WNYEA is comprised of over 100 environmental groups in Buffalo and the surrounding area, and although it is still in its infancy, it has created massive change in the region. Rather than focusing on one specific issue such as fracking, the WNYEA focuses on general issues in Buffalo and tackles them from an environmental standpoint. This strategy allows all of the smaller organizations to combine resources and approach larger issues that only together they can undertake and conquer. Place-based collaboration, we call it.
My task was to interview key people who have advanced the WNYEA’s mission and create a funding presentation that the WNYEA chair would present to Overbrook Foundation. One of the working groups in particular stood out for its continued drive and success with its overarching goal of improving transportation options in the Buffalo region.
The transportation working group focuses on “improving the health, safety, environment, overall economy and quality of life in Buffalo through the way people choose to get around,” Justin Booth, the working group chair and Executive Director of GObike Buffalo, said.
Other collaborators within the working group are the City of Buffalo, New York State Department of Transportation, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo Olmsted Parks Nature Conservancy, Elmwood Village Association and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority among others. Together they have constructed events like the SkyRide, a bicycle ride over Buffalo’s historic skyway, so that people can experience our historic transportation infrastructure in a new way and be active at the same time. Booth aims to “engage the community at large with tangible and visible impacts,” a goal that is demonstrated through the increased public interest in the transportation working group’s events and ideas for new policies through its effective leadership in sustainability.
The biggest win so far for this group was the passing of the Complete Streets Policy which came to fruition in 2008 through a collaboration between the Transportation working group of the WNYEA, the City of Buffalo and the New York State Department of Transportation. The Complete Streets Policy is the vision that the transportation group has for Buffalo to improve upon social, economic, environmental and health aspects within the community while improving accessibility. This was the first step towards an environmentally sound and people-based approach to transportation in Buffalo. Although the policy was a high achievement, implementation was slow.
Then tragedy struck. A 3-year old child was killed after being hit by a car while walking in Delaware Park on May 30, 2015. The outrage spawned from this horrible accident has brought the Complete Streets agenda into the public consciousness. The awful circumstances have made it clear that the Complete Streets Policy needs to become more than a policy. It needs to be prioritized and implemented in full effect.
Using this burst of public interest as momentum, the transportation working group has created the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition (SCC). The SCC fully supports Governor Cuomo’s order to reduce the speed limit on the Scajaquada Expressway, which runs through Delaware Park (designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same landscape architect that created Central Park), the day after the tragedy. It was an effort they were pushing for years, though it’s upsetting that it took a tragedy to spur the action. Park users and City of Buffalo residents feel more safe with the slower speed and want to see what else can be done to improve the park with SCC leadership, such as “right-sizing” the expressway.
This initiative will bring Buffalo’s admittedly lacking transportation system into the modern era of walkable cities with public transportation options. This plan as a whole will improve access to the park system for all people instead of ushering traffic through it. It will return Delaware Park to its roots and historical significance, improving the Buffalo streetscape. It will increase connectivity within the park without the barrier of the Scajaquada Expressway running through its center, as Olmsted meant it to be. The health of residents will improve as they choose to enjoy the safer, more natural landscape around them by foot or bicycle rather than driving through it. The decreased car traffic will further benefit public health by decreasing emissions and particulates that inhibit respiratory function.
The success of the Scajaquada Corridor project will likely catalyze a movement towards complete streets throughout Buffalo and the suburbs. Discussions to expand the metro line have already begun; and under the Complete Streets Policy Mayor Byron Brown committed to installing 10 miles of bike infrastructure each year. Obviously, the greenhouse gas emissions reduction and health improvements involved with the progression of this movement will be substantial, making Buffalo an even better place.
Without the collaboration of the WNYEA member organizations, this case study of transportation progress would not be possible. This summer I have experienced firsthand how quickly a movement can be set into motion. The WNYEA and transportation working group have applied this momentum with groundbreaking efforts to make Buffalo a healthier and resilient place, propelling the city towards a bright and sustainable future.