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Gridlock during events at Canalside is an indicator of a city on the mend

Success comes in many forms and, as last weekend’s events in downtown Buffalo showed, it can include maddening traffic jams. Whoever thought, even five years ago, that the city would have that kind of problem on what was its long-beleaguered and underused waterfront?

And that, of course, is the key point: This is the better kind of problem, certainly preferable to those of a forlorn waterfront in a declining city. These are growth pains: important to address, but predictable and, given that they are a byproduct of revival, absolutely welcome.

It might not seem that way to those who were stuck in a perfect storm of snarled traffic over the weekend. Cars were barely moving in the Canalside area as a crush of events drew thousands of people downtown: a Kanye West concert, Buffalo Bisons Superhero Night at Coca-Cola Field and, most of all, the Buffalo Maritime Festival, featuring one of the unlikeliest attractions ever – a giant, floating rubber duck.

The six-story high, 89-foot-long bathtub toy floated across from Canalside for three days, as irresistible to both young an old as iron filings are to a magnet: People came, by the carload.

The problem is that the waterfront infrastructure can’t easily handle so heavy a traffic load. And, so, it didn’t. Cars didn’t move much during the height of the weekend’s activities. It was more than an inconvenience. If an ambulance or fire truck or police car needed to navigate that tangle, tragedy could have ensued.

Yes, it’s the kind of problem a city on the grow should be happy to have, but it’s also one that needs to be resolved. Emergency vehicles must be able to move and, more prosaically, people will stop coming if they think the trip isn’t worth the risk of a hassle.

Fortunately, city leaders understand the problem and they know it needs attention. And there is a record of affirmative responses. Last year, during the first season of operations for the Queen City Bike Ferry, lines and wait times were long enough to discourage many users. Leaders of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. responded, moving the ferry’s landing place to a more efficient spot on the Outer Harbor and adding a second ferry.

Growing pains aren’t unique to Canalside. They have also caused discomfort to the north, around the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where workers and neighborhood residents compete for on-street parking spaces. Efforts are under way to ease them.

No doubt, growing pains will occur around the SolarCity plant under construction at RiverBend in South Buffalo. Something will have to be done about them, but they are good problems to have.

The problems at Canalside may not be frequently repeated, since they were the product of several simultaneous events including one – the rubber duck that ate Buffalo – that was over-the-top popular and continually drew onlookers, unlike a concert or baseball game. Nevertheless, some remedies are possible.

The city is already planning for stepped-up traffic help from police, according to Mayor Byron W. Brown, and traffic devices will direct motorists away from parking lots that are already full. Other plans will be explored with area stakeholders such as the Buffalo Sabres, the Bisons and the ECHDC, he said.

Other ideas: Visitors heading south to downtown can use Metro Rail, which will give them easy access to – and exit from – Canalside. In addition, police will be better prepared next time to ensure the smoothest possible movement of traffic.

Event planners, meanwhile, should check schedules to avoid, if possible, crowding the calendar with events that could have the unintended effect of discouraging potential attendees from showing up.

Over the longer term, plans to return cars to Main Street in the Canalside area would add an additional way for traffic to move into and out of that area. Even further out, the removal of the Skyway and addition of smarter routes to the Southtowns would also ease traffic flow.

For now, though, the main point to be taken from the weekend’s gridlock is that people want to come to the Buffalo waterfront. It was all but unthinkable just a few years ago. Today, it is so popular that organizers will have to plan their events more carefully.

And what’s the problem with that?

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