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Buffalo's 'Complete Streets' strategy aims to make city more livable

If you ride a bike or drive a car on the streets of Buffalo, you know that there are safety issues involving the conflicts between pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists.
All of that is beginning to change. You may have noticed in your own neighborhood that there is a lot of street construction going on.
After years of criticism focused on the complexity of maneuvering through the patchwork of zoning rules and regulations, the city is finally addressing its coding and zoning systems. Soon we will have a new, place-based land-use and zoning tool that supports livable neighborhoods and includes street redesigns. This promises to bring a better quality of life for residents, businesses and visitors.
The new tool is called the Buffalo Green Code. It is a land-use plan and a unified development ordinance that is described as "combining zoning, subdivision and public realm standards into a single document." In an interview with The Buffalo News, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said that "the Green Code is designed to help transform Buffalo into an economically competitive city by making our neighborhoods and districts more livable. This will benefit all of our citizens."
Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the City of Buffalo's Office of Strategic Planning, has spearheaded the effort. "People are going to be seeing the results. We have been working hard, meeting with residents, businesses and others to make sure that we are all working in the same direction. We will have several more community work group meetings before we get to a final draft to send before the Common Council by the end of this year."
One of the most critical parts of the new ordinance is a concept called "Complete Streets." Complete Streets are rights of way designed to safely accommodate multiple forms of transportation, which in turn makes our neighborhoods more walkable and livable. This improves our quality of life. As streets are redeveloped, they adopt design and construction standards that meet new environmental needs and provide safe transportation lanes for all users, including motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians. Environmental standards include reducing street runoff into the sewer system and appropriate tree plantings.
Justin Booth, the founder of Go Bike Buffalo and the Buffalo Complete Streets Coalition - which was funded in part by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo - has been working with policy makers, private entities and civic leaders to create Complete Streets infrastructure in the city and region. Last summer, he brought together a Complete Streets Summit in Buffalo that attracted speakers and participants from across the United States. He has traveled with local policy makers to Complete Streets conferences around the county. His work has made a big difference.
Booth told us that Complete Streets are economic tools that can revitalize communities. "They are streets for everyone, not just cars. They promote healthier and greener forms of transportation and make it easier to drive less, which in turn leads to stronger communities."
Patrick J. Whalen, chief operating officer of the rapidly developing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, also sees the many benefits that Complete Streets have for communities and the public and private sectors. Earlier this year, the medical campus created a Transportation Management Association comprised of medical campus member institutions, state transportation agencies and local advocacy groups, with the goal being to work together to help advance a more sustainable transportation system for the city and the campus.
"We strongly support the development of a multimodal transportation system within the region that allows employees the option to get to work in many ways - train, bus, biking, walking, as well as driving. Encouraging alternative modes of transportation reduces costs for employees and employers, is more environmentally friendly and encourages economic spin-off in surrounding neighborhoods," Whalen said. "Complete Streets are vital to our overall goal of creating a distinct, innovative, healthy community."
This is all good news for Buffalo.
Brown is demonstrating a big-time shift in the attitudes of government leaders and policy makers by investing in the Buffalo Green Code and Complete Streets strategies.
"It is our intention to continue to make Buffalo more livable for everyone on a 24/7 basis. We are and will remain a live, work and play community," Brown said. "By doing this, we will attract more business, and more people will want to live here."
He adds emphatically, "When people talk about great American cities, we want to be on that table. We think that these strategies will bring us there."
Buffalo Department of Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak has led an effort to implement Complete Streets on roads that have been repaved or rebuilt during the past several months. There has been tremendous activity across the city as portions of Niagara Street, Main, McKinley, South Park, Clinton, Ellicott, Washington, Elmwood and Linwood are being reworked and improved. "By Dec. 31 of this year," Stepniak said, "the city will have created 22 miles of bicycle lanes since 2006, with 11 done just this year. It is our intention to do 10 additional miles each year."
Bike and pedestrian safety issues have to be of paramount concern to everyone. As we build out Complete Streets, motorized versus pedestrian and bicycle conflicts will continue to be a part of the story. We can avoid the sometimes tragic consequences of sharing roadways if we understand and respect the legal obligations and personal responsibilities associated with using the roadways. Often, common sense will make a huge safety difference.
The state laws excerpted below do not represent legal advice or judicial determinations. They are here for informational purposes only.
. In New York State, bicycle riders and motorized vehicle operators have basically the same rights to most urban roadways and share the same responsibilities. Generally, a bicycle has as much right to be in a traffic lane as a motor vehicle. By law, bicyclists are required to be in the road. It is illegal for an adult to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk. Bicycle lanes should be respected by all.
. Bicyclists are required to ride with traffic instead of against it. They are required to follow and obey signs, signals, pavement markings and to use hand signals when turning.
. Operators of motor vehicles overtaking a bicycle from behind are required to "pass to the left of such bicycle at a safe distance until safely clear thereof."
. No bicycle passengers under a year old are allowed, and no passengers at all unless the bicycle is properly and legally equipped.
. Articles carried must be properly fastened and not obstruct the view of the bicycle operator.
. All bicycles in use between a half hour after sunset and a half hour before sunrise need to be equipped with special lamps and specific reflective materials.
. Bicycle operators under the age of 14 are required to wear protective headgear.
. Pedestrians have important rights and rights of way. They have the right of way at crosswalks with no signals, and always before a car can make a right- or left-hand turn. If their activity is not lawful, yield to pedestrians.
Skeptics say that traditionally, the framework of getting things done in Buffalo has been complicated by the maze of agencies, departments and governments involved. It has often been demonstrated that sometimes the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. This has resulted in duplicated services and lost opportunities.
Now the city, working with county, state and federal agencies, and groups like the Complete Streets Coalition and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus' Transportation Management Association, seems to be changing this. The Green Code is becoming a blueprint for how we can all work together.
"Cooperation at all levels of government is always a communications issue. Thankfully, we now have agencies at the federal, state, county and city level, and in the private sector, that are investing in Complete Streets," said Booth. "It seems like more and more we are on the same page."
Brown agrees. "Collaboration is better today than ever."
As our new street infrastructure rolls out, it is a good time for the citizens and residents of Buffalo to find ways to use and understand these new designs. Users of the streets need to find ways to respect and cooperate with each other if these things are to work. Safety and a sustainable future depend on all of us. Let's enjoy our new opportunities and continue to engage with the city in the development of the Green Code.

Jay Burney, a naturalist, writer and conservation activist, founded the Learning Sustainability Campaign and is chairman of Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve.