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Bus, bike, train mark downtown’s future

Each workday morning she walks three minutes to Delaware Avenue and takes the No. 25 bus toward downtown. It’s an eight-minute ride to Virginia Street, then a two-block walk to her office on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. On nice days, she rides her bike.

Tamar Rothaus used to drive to work. Those days are gone. So is the $89 monthly ramp fee, and the nagging sense that she was part of the problem at the parking-challenged Medical Campus.

“I live barely a mile away,” said Rothaus, who’s married with two kids. “It seemed silly to drive every day.”

Welcome to the future of a growing downtown – where Old and New Buffalo butt heads, where the conversation evolves from “parking” to “access.”

The ongoing explosion of the Medical Campus accelerates a question already spreading to other parts of downtown: How to get there?

With the growing cluster of health, science and research buildings, 17,000 people will be working on the Medical Campus by next year. That’s 5,000 more than two years ago, with a net increase of just 900 parking-ramp spaces. Something has to give.

Symptoms of the city’s resurgence fill the news. Fruit Belt residents are jacked up about Medical Campus workers parking on neighborhood streets. The city is on pace for 150 miles of bike lanes in two years, nearly double the current total. Along stretches of Main Street, Nick Sinatra and other developers are transforming multistory structures near Metro Rail stops into apartment buildings.

They are not separate stories, but an interconnected tale of a growing downtown, where it will no longer always be easy or cheap to park within spitting distance of wherever you’re going.

Mike Galligano, former head of Buffalo CarShare, lives near SUNY Buffalo State. He told me Thursday at a Medical Campus event that he either bikes or takes the No. 7 bus to work.

“People are going to have to think of other ways than driving to get” downtown, said Galligano, 31, now CEO of Medical Campus-based Shared Mobility, which is co-launching a Buffalo bike-share program this summer. “You’re going to see that evolution over the next 10 years. You don’t want to rip down buildings for more parking, which tears up the urban fabric.”

Limited parking will force thousands of Medical Campus workers out of their vehicles. The dynamic will spread as downtown grows, buildings rise on surface parking lots and space becomes more valuable.

“It’s part of becoming a bigger city,” said Galligano, lean and intense, with a shaved head. “Even now, everyone takes the train to Canalside. It’s too much of a headache to try to park there.”

The parking strain forces us to better use what we have. A relatively flat city, Buffalo is bike-friendly six months of the year – and should have added miles of bike lanes years ago. Metro Rail is underused, although it runs along the downtown spine to the city’s northeast border.

The city’s parking-centric sensibility is a product of post-World War II suburban flight. As legions of families left, city officials and business leaders tried to compete with the ’burbs by offering convenient, cheap parking.

Buildings were bulldozed for ramps and surface lots, damaging the density that makes a city attractive. Officials kept rates artificially low at city-owned parking ramps, which undercut the value of the $545 million Metro Rail. There was little reason for commuters to take the train, or live within walking distance of a station, when it was easier and cheaper to drive to work. The proximity of parking cut downtown foot traffic, which hurt retail. Single-person vehicles fed pollution.

Downtown’s growth will slowly reverse the car-centric sensibility. The pricier and harder it gets to drive to work or an event, the more people will find another way – or move near a Metro station or bus stop.

This has always been the equation in larger, healthier cities such as Toronto, where exorbitant parking rates and limited spaces discourage driving.

“I’ve never owned a car,” said Annette Wong, 25, who moved here two years ago from New York City. She gets from an Elmwood Village apartment to her marketing job on the Medical Campus by bus or train. For trips beyond the city, she grabs rides with friends.

“People should think of the positives,” she told me. “You can read a book on the bus. It’s less stressful, not to drive and have to park.”

It’s expensive to buy, maintain and insure a car. In America’s third-poorest city, better public transit and more bike lanes make economic sense.

“Old School and New School are colliding,” said Galligano. “I don’t want to sink money into a car.”

Granted, suburbanites working downtown have limited options, beyond car pools or park-and-Metro Rail lots. The NFTA is still studying a rail or express-bus extension into Amherst. And downtown has tens of thousands of parking spaces in ramps, curbside or in business-owned lots. The drive-and-park mentality isn’t disappearing soon. Still, a changing downtown will prompt changes.

“One of my co-workers lives in Cheektowaga,” said Rothaus. “She’s one of the Fruit Belt parkers. Now she’s getting squeezed.”

Welcome to the New Buffalo. It’s all about access.