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COMMUTE OF THE DAMNED
GREATER BUFFALO'S DAILY DISASTER ADVENTURE IN GETTING AROUND

Twenty-minute commute. Hah!

In theory, it works. We don't spend half our lives in cars the way they do in Atlanta, Los Angeles or Houston. Driving back and forth to work usually takes under a half-hour. That easy commute is one of the city's endearing qualities people take for granted. And since spring is here and we'll be driving more, we'll be counting our blessings as we take advantage of those shorter rides to the next action destination, right?

It's not as simple as that. There's something insidious about that proverbial 20-minute commute.

Exit ramps aren't ramps; they're right turns. Traffic lanes simply end without warning. A major highway interchange is no wider than an alley, so traffic crawls way more than it needs to. Every time.

In short, the Buffalo commute is a daily high-speed near-accident. It's an M.C. Escher drawing come to life. It's a mess. And we're so used to it we barely give it a thought. Don't believe me? Let's go for a ride.

Screaming along the Scajaquada at 70 mph is a ritual. It's as much a part of Buffalo as butter lambs. Slide into the tight radial of the Kensington Expressway off-ramp toward Delaware Park, then accelerate into converging traffic until that first blasted red light at Parkside grinds everything to a halt.

Three lanes of fury await. You punch it once the light turns green, muttering at the belligerent traffic lined up to the far right. Their lane ends a few hundred feet ahead, and there's no time to let them through. But just as you're about to reach a comfortable cruising speed, you realize you need to get off at the Delaware exit. That's when the fun begins.

The Delaware exit. As we all know, that's really a shorthand term for a cold-hearted, take-no-prisoners, hard-right 90-degree-angle turn.

As you wear another inch off your brake pads and available G-forces set upon everything unbelted inside the car, a thought pops into your mind:

Who was the idiot who designed a right-hand-turn exit off a heavily traveled mid-city expressway?

And what about that shortsighted one-lane loop connecting the Scajaquada to Route 33 heading to the airport? Did they run out of concrete?

Blame the myth of the easy commute on the U.S. Census Bureau. The agency's 2002 figures still claim Buffalonians have a 20-minute commute, 20.7 minutes to be exact. Forgive me for challenging such a distinguished entity, but there are, in my estimation, 20.7 minutes of mayhem and calamity awaiting each and every one of us whenever we get behind the wheel in Beau Fleuve, French for "nine lanes merging at 85 mph."

Reading this might not change the daily paths of destruction and madness. But take some comfort in knowing you were warned.

Horse Path to Highway

Local Commuting Question No. 1: Why is traveling in Buffalo from point A to, say, Mighty Taco and back not as innocent as it sounds?

Answer: Because there was never a "master plan" for the commute. Almost a half-million people lived in Erie County when the famous Belt Line trains and streetcars still determined how fast you got home. By that time, say circa early-1900s, the city grid was already in place. Automobiles were an afterthought.

Today's suburban streets, designed for light, slow-moving traffic, are bursting at the seams. Transit Road has been stretched more times than Sam Adams' jogging suit. The point is, when need would arise, some money-gorged corpulent mid-management William Taft-type character would yell for a new road, and they'd shoehorn in an overpass or expressway or bridge and call it a day. Buffalo isn't the only Northeast city to deal with 50 or so poorly placed overpasses or ramps, but now that overpass is backed up for miles and you're facing hell on earth, or in this case cold tacos. Thanks for the traffic jam, pal.

I'll focus my amusement at our fit-throwing death ride of a road system and actually document some of my favorites. Let's get into the car, swerve past some minor accidents and laugh at these design relics of the past.

Worst Use of a Bridle Path

The Scajaquada Expressway is the mothership of Buffalo's poor highway planning. It was patched together in the 1950s during a massive overhaul of the city road system. The whole idea of the Scajaquada was moving people into and -- more importantly, thanks to the expanding suburbs -- out of the city.

"The Scajaquada was a series of park drives linked together," says Daniel B. Hess, a professor in the University at Buffalo's urban and regional planning department. "It wasn't made for trucks. That was never the intent. Nor was it intended to carry traffic at 55 miles per hour."

Planners needed a link from Interstate 190 to the Kensington, Route 33. They found gold in Delaware Park. Well, not gold, but a quaint tree-lined bridle path where women with umbrellas and horses once frolicked. What the men were doing at that time, I have no idea.

This path was plowed over. Four lanes of highway were poured in place. Even money says it took 20 minutes or less before the first Chevy Belaire barreled past Parkside 20 miles over the speed limit.

If the Scajaquada were built today, exits, like its infamous Delaware right-turn exit, would instead have a deceleration lane into an off ramp, according to Hess. "At the Delaware Avenue exit, you're crossing a historic bridge from the original Olmsted Parks design," says Hess. "You would have to alter or bring down the bridge, and I think there would be a huge outcry over that."

One recent engineering study recommends slowing traffic to 30 mph from its posted limit of 50 mph and adding tree-lined streetscapes, traffic circles instead of lights at intersections, narrowed lanes, bike paths and walkways at a cost of $25 million. The next phase calls for an environmental impact study, also known as "the point at which every good project dies."

What does this all mean? Slowing down the Scajaquada traffic stampede is a great idea, beautiful concept. But it won't happen in our lifetime. The state won't spend $25 million to actually slow traffic down when a short-sighted solution of posting a largely ignored speed will give the impression some official cares.

Therese Fisher, 23, a city resident who uses the Scajaquada frequently, agrees. "You can't get people to slow down in a school zone. How are you going to get them to slow down on a road they used to speed on?"

It's more cost-effective to minimize the risks.

"I won't even get off at the Delaware exit," says Ryan Markle, 25. "I'll avoid it and get off at Parkside instead. At least that has a small exit lane."

Certainly, the driving conditions are better in wide-open spaces of motorist Shagri-Las such as Cheektowaga.

Proof Engineers Once Drank On the Job

Say you're on the I-90 East, just past the exit to the Walden Galleria. Ahead is the Youngmann Highway and two exits for the Kensington, one labeled "Airport" and one labeled "Buffalo." You know where we are, right? OK, now let's say you want to go downtown, so you head for the exit labeled "Buffalo."

Time to test every driving skill in your repertoire.

As you merge into the right lane -- dodging trucks and vans as you do -- you notice a road out of the corner of your eye that loops right into that same exact lane. Where's that coming from? Too late for that. Your head is on a swivel, looking ahead and hoping no one stops in front of you. Check your rearview mirror, then look ahead. Check, look. Finally, you play this game where one car cuts in front of you, so you sneak behind her and eventually inch your way into the 33's "Downtown" exit.

"Every single day you have to decide whether to stuff it into the car in front of you or cut everyone else off," says Mark Walker, 37, a veteran city truck driver. "I drive through that every day. Within 200 yards you have to make lots of decisions on what to avoid and what to crash into. I hate it."

Keep in mind that section of the New York State Thruway was built between 1949 and 1951, under the leadership of then-New York State Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, who was no doubt bitter and embarrassed at losing the 1948 presidential election to Harry Truman. Maybe Dewey, either embracing evil or clouded in judgment, ordered this design in retribution. Just a theory, of course.

"I call that deadman's curve. There are a lot of accidents there," says Leia Militello, a reporter for Metro Traffic, which provides local traffic reports to the media. "People don't seem to like to merge."

Militello says she often reports on accidents from that section of the Thruway. Today's design standards would call for a flyover, or elevated ramp, that would carry you from the Thruway to the 33. But adding a flyover today would require more land and cash, according to Hess, and both are in short supply.

"Back then," he says, "these roads were designed to take people from the suburbs to the city and back again. The focus was on the urban core, not on cross traffic between the city and suburbs."

In a sense, merging traffic wasn't a concern 40 years ago, because commuters might have been going, primarily, in one direction in the morning and another late afternoon. By nightfall, Dad was on his third martini and Mom was paging through Betty Friedan and planning her escape, so traffic wasn't a problem.

We're on the Skyway to Hell

Looking for a thrill ride? Our next great demonstration is the I-190 ramp to the Skyway, just past the Breckenridge toll barrier and Peace Bridge.

No problem so far. The ramp is lifting me skyward. What a nice view of the lake. Wait, hold on. Here comes a voice in your head screaming, "Hey, dummy. You know what's ahead? Skyway traffic at 65 mph and 400 rpm. Watch the road! The lane is ending. Turn your head left!"

Of course, you can't see anything, because there's a wall of concrete to your left too high to see over. Is that a car roof I see? Why is my ramp lane ending 5 feet in front of me? You look left, think you see something, then look ahead and see a narrowing lane. Another look left. Is that a truck coming right at me?

As a tractor-trailer pushes you over the guardrail and into the lake, the most important question of all comes to mind: Do I have the $500 or the $1,000 deductible on my car insurance?

In 1955, when the Skyway opened, the Scajaquada and Kensington were still under construction. All were built under the same guidelines and regulations. The problem is there were fewer cars and trucks then, and they moved at a slower pace. Building a ramp where motorists could actually see oncoming traffic apparently wasn't a great concern. It is now. There's nothing like a near-fatal collision to get the blood jumping on your way to Route 5 every day.

Nice job, State of New York. Thanks for the daily heart attack.

Shoving the I-190 Into the Canal

When Canadian customs workers went on strike last year, it wasn't long before deadly traffic backups began to push traffic from the Peace Bridge entrance ramp into I-190 northbound traffic.

It's another flash point in Buffalo's calamity commute. As a matter of fact, the I-190 from the Peace Bridge to HSBC Arena looks like it was forced into the city infrastructure. Maybe that's because it was.

"(Engineers) were trying to squeeze the highway on top of the area that was the Erie Canal," according to Elizabeth A. Cheteny, director of planning for UB's Urban Design Project. "They filled in the canal and put the highway on top. Those buildings you see along the side of the Thruway were old canal-related industrial buildings."

The area from the One HSBC Center to Adam's Mark Hotel may be one of the most confusing configurations of ramps in the entire city. Because of the entangled overpasses, entire sections of the city never see the light of day.

"The engineers were probably constrained by the right of way of the (Erie) Canal," says Cheteny, "and the fact that development had come right up to the canal."

Lost tourists crying in the darkness, your maps are worthless.

Studies, We Need More Studies

Is there any problem that didn't call out for a study? Our community loves to commission them. When it comes to the city's highway system, there's the Scajaquada and Kensington Expressway Corridor study, then there's the Main Street Traffic study. Not to mention he waterfront, home to 2.7 million studies and counting.

Perhaps the biggest is the Thruway Authority's Buffalo Corridor study for the I-90, I-190 and I-290. "This will include engineering studies, environmental studies and a public outreach program," boasts the authority's Web site. "The project will involve the identification of the safety, structural capacity and operational needs and concerns that may occur over the next 30 years."

But something happens when capacity is discussed and lanes are added.

It's called "building your way out of congestion," says Hess, and here's what happens: An area will add more lanes to a congested road, thinking this will reduce traffic. Instead, traffic flow increases, meaning more cars begin to use the new lanes rather than fewer. In a few years, you're back to having the same congested road with an extra lane.

"They added another lane to the Washington Beltway projecting a certain amount of traffic in 20 years," says Hess. "But the lanes were already to capacity in just two to three years."

The lesson to those facing the Commute of the Damned? Add lanes, Hess says, and motorists will clog up the new ones just as they did the old. Instead, more engineers and planners believe the way to reduce traffic and accidents isn't to build wider roads but to simply encourage people to drive less.

In other words, emulate an era when parkways were parkways, traffic was slower and public transportation made sense. Given the speeding tickets I've accumulated over the years, I'll never survive the transition. But it does make sense. After all, most of our roads were engineered for such an era.

On second thought, just make sure your life insurance is paid up, and grab one of those dashboard crucifixes my grandfather had on his car and glue it to yours. The man had the right idea.

Tom Ragan's FIRST SUNDAY credits include articles on the strange and savage world of Buffalo softball, and favorite parking lots built over historic sites. He is co-host of the Shredd and Ragan morning show on 103.3 The Edge radio.

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