Thinking Holistically about the Future of Our Streets

Submitted by: Samuel Gordon, Director of Planning and Zoning, Town of DeWitt

In January of 2019 Smart Growth America released Dangerous by Design 2019 which documents the issues surrounding the design and function of our roadways in the United States. While the most dangerous places in the nation tend to be located in the Sun Belt – the Rust Belt is not immune. The Upstate cities of Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse all appear in the top 100 of the reports Pedestrian Danger Index (PDI). As a state, New York ranks 40th on the PDI; but it is number four for pedestrian fatalities from 2008-2017, and 19th in terms of the number of pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 residents during the same time period. While complete streets legislation has been passed in New York, concrete action has been slow to follow, especially across the Upstate corridor between Albany and Buffalo. Even then, much of the documented work has occurred inside city boundaries.

This past year in April the nation was taken aback by the catastrophic collapse of a pedestrian bridge over Southwest Eighth Street in Miami. In response Juan Pablo Garnham, an editor at CityLab published an article that explored the alternatives for what went wrong; his article raised an important question – “…(B)eyond the technical reasons why the structure failed, there’s a deeper issue: Was the 174-foot bridge that spanned eight lanes of traffic ever the best solution in the first place?” In addition planners from the firm Dover, Kohl, and Partners published an article challenging the basic assumptions that led to the bridge project and its accelerated construction schedule:

“It’s clear that among official priorities, traffic flow eclipsed public safety long ago on Eighth Street. The corridor metastasized into a monster highway with eight, nine, ten lanes and no meaningful provision for walking, biking or transit, or even trees, despite its gigantic 130-foot right-of-way. We are correctly focused right now on the six victims killed under the bridge collapse. But in the last 4 years, more than 2200 crashes occurred along this part of the corridor, and at least 12 other people died in those collisions.”

In the Syracuse region we have had our own documented issues with pedestrian fatalities along the Erie Boulevard East corridor that connects Downtown Syracuse to the suburban community of DeWitt. The roadway at points has eight lanes of vehicular traffic and has little to none by way of pedestrian infrastructure. Residents of Central New York generally regard Erie Boulevard with disdain. In fact, during the ongoing debate on the future of Interstate 81, many have correctly intimated that they are opposed to the “community grid” option because they don’t want it to become another Erie Boulevard. The corridor is a successful regional shopping destination – but in my position as Director of Planning and Zoning for the Town of DeWitt, I often hear from businesses and residents that the current conditions of Erie Boulevard are deplorable. The photos below exemplify the conditions that so many have come to dislike: a paved asphalt median, up to 30 feet wide, with weeds growing out of it; inconsistent sidewalks; ubiquitous curb cuts and turning movements; and a palpable disregard for the safety of anyone not sitting inside a vehicle (and at times, even those sitting inside vehicles).  Though in many ways it is the center of our community, Erie Boulevard hardly serves as a reference to the important role that this corridor played in our industrial and commercial heritage.

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These issues prompted us to begin re-imagining this corridor in 2015 with the Elevating Erie International Ideas Competition. We wanted to gather ideas from the broader planning and design community about how we rethink the urban arterial of the past through the lens of urban ecology, economic growth, healthy urbanism, recreation, and multi-modal connectivity. We asked for their “big ideas”, and received them in spades – we collected nearly 70 proposals from 16 countries around the globe. We also wanted to gauge the broader community’s reactions to those ideas, so we hosted a survey in the spring of 2016 to collect their input and evaluate their priorities. The community responded – we had over 1200 completed surveys, and some clear preferences arose – the most highly ranked preference was the idea of a median-based greenway/recreation-way.

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In response to the preferences outlined in the survey responses, the Town of DeWitt sought to look holistically at the corridor, review available traffic data, and to develop a technically sound approach to the incorporation of a greenway/bikeway. There are residential neighborhoods and a college campus (LeMoyne) that abut the entire length of the corridor in both the Town of DeWitt and the City of Syracuse; and we have an opportunity to better and more safely connect those neighborhoods to this corridor. The following image depicts our vision for the future of the roadway:

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In 2016, the Urban Land Institute released the publication, Active Transportation and Real Estate: The Next Frontier – which examines the impact of the growing interest in active transportation (e.g. bicycling) on economic development, public health, air quality, community design, and real estate design and investment. The report profiles ten real-estate development projects; as well as five catalytic active transportation infrastructure investments such as, bike lane networks, and bike-sharing systems; which have supported real estate development opportunities. According to the report the projects share the following themes:

  • Active transportation infrastructure can catalyze real estate development. 

  • Active transportation systems encourage healthier lifestyles. 

  • Investments in trails, bike lanes, and bicycle-sharing systems have high levels of return on investment. 

  • There is evidence of a correlation between access to active transportation facilities and increased property values. 

  • A reciprocal relationship exists between the private and public sectors in terms of maximizing investments in active transportation. 

    The report points to evidence indicating that proximity to bike trails raises property values. For instance, the value of properties within a block of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail have soared nearly 150 percent since the trail’s opening in 2008; and the value of properties near the Katy Trail in Dallas have increased 80 percent. Homes close to Atlanta’s BeltLine have started selling within 24 hours; before the trail project began, homes in the same area stayed on the market for two to three months. And in Minneapolis, every quarter-mile (0.4 km) of proximity to an off-street bike facility raises the value of a home by an additional $510.

    The study also cites examples of the positive impact of bicycle access on commercial and economic development. In New York City’s Times Square, building rents rose more than 70 percent following the addition of bike lanes in 2010. In both Salt Lake City and San Francisco, the replacement of some street parking with protected bike lanes along specific corridors resulted in higher retail sales in those areas. Meanwhile, in Sydney, Australia, the government concluded that building 124 miles (200 km) of bikeways would generate more than $350 million (U.S. dollars) in economic benefits. The increase in trail-oriented development “is indicative of a worldwide trend of civic and private sector investment in active transportation facilities, and the growing demand for walkable and bikable places,” the report also says.

    Moving Ahead

    As a result of the work of the Town of DeWitt, in collaboration with the City of Syracuse, we are looking forward to the transformation of the Erie Boulevard East corridor through New York State’s ambitious Empire State Trail (EST) project. The EST will invest over $20 million in Erie Boulevard East to implement a median-based bikeway that will connect riders between the Old Erie Canal State Historic Park in DeWitt and Downtown Syracuse. The EST has strong potential to be a catalyst for new economic growth and development situated along one of the most important historical corridors in New York State. These types of infrastructure projects are consistently documented to improve the health and development of urban regions. The EST represents an historic investment on the part of New York State – one that has the potential to be transformative for communities located along the historical Erie Canal Corridor. Let’s make sure that we take full advantage of the opportunities!

    As planners, we play an important role in helping communities to visualize the possibilities for change. Just as Dangerous By Design 2019 documents the grave concern for the safety of pedestrians across the United States; we need to rise to the challenge of providing our local communities with the tools and resources to transform our infrastructure, re-imagining its purpose and design through a more holistic lens that respects the safety of all modes and users. These types of investments improve the quality of life of the communities that we live in; help to attract and retain residents; and ultimately lead to the enhanced vitality of our regions. Especially for Canal communities across the Upstate corridor – we have an historic opportunity to reconnect to our history and propel our communities forward!