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GObike Buffalo on a roll when it comes to public health advocacy

GObike Buffalo is about a lot more than fun and games.

The nonprofit that oversees Slow Roll Buffalo and the Skyride has become the go-to grassroots biking organization since it rolled onto the scene in 2008 with a dream to build “a thriving, dynamic and connected Buffalo” by promoting biking and other alternative transportation in the region.

To chase that mission, its leaders believed, would beautify Western New York streets and trails, improve the regional environment, and lift the quality of life for all residents.

“GObike Buffalo is a piece in the matrix of the health of our community,” said Phil Haberstro, executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo. “Its comprehensive, goal-oriented approach is a real model for the kind of strategic approach the region needs.”

Justin Booth went to work with the Wellness Institute after college almost two decades ago. He founded GObike Buffalo as part of that work and remains executive director of a group that now numbers 10 full-time employees, several part-timers and hundreds of volunteers.

GObike really got off the ground when it incorporated in 2010, and built momentum as the Buffalo resurgence hit its stride during the last half-decade, Booth said in a recent interview.

Many may think of GObike as the group that leads a host of public bike rides across the region — pleasing fitness enthusiasts and exasperating impatient motorists — but group leaders are mindful that the work they do has the power to address the region’s woeful state and national health rankings, reduce greenhouse gases and improve economic conditions.

If it's an approach that seems needless and unconventional to those who prefer the traditional Buffalo expressway system and want more surface parking in central business districts, Booth can live with that — but looks to change your mind.

“There are other ways to move around the downtown area,” he said. “It’s a question of, ‘Do we want our downtown to be a big parking lot, or an attractive, vibrant place to be?’”

Justin Booth, left, founder and executive director of GObike Buffalo, and Thea Hassan, communications director of the nonprofit, ride down Ellicott Street, which has been improved for bikers. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

May, National Bike Month, seemed a good time to ask Booth to talk about GObike milestones. Along with the group rides — which widen the circle of public awareness — these are what he named.

Complete Streets: GObike worked closely with the city of Buffalo to pass the first Complete Streets policy in New York State, in 2008, which led to the creation of the city's bicycle master plan. The city has since added more than 112 miles of bike lanes, along with bike racks and other amenities.

Green Code: The nonprofit was among groups to advocate for new city planning tools that encourage healthier behaviors. They include affordable modes of travel such as bicycling, bike sharing, carpooling, ride sharing and improved public transit.

Commuter biking: GObike is among health-minded advocates encouraging those with jobs in the region to bike to and from work. The group has made it easier by providing information and other services.

Nurturing other efforts: GObike started the Skyride — to draw attention to the limits of the Buffalo expressway system — as well as other public, community-building bike rides, but its stature has grown in recent years because it has partnered with local businesses and civic organizations, including health insurers, Reddy Bikeshare and Explore Buffalo. Slow Roll Buffalo, another grassroots group, which started in 2014, became a program of GObike before the start of last biking season. This season, GObike is bolstering the efforts of Buffalo Bike Tours (buffalobiketours.com), a new business that will offer rentals of bikes refurbished by GObike, as well as unique tours that include stops at city food and architectural landmarks.

Recycle a Bicycle program: This program teaches kids in after-school and school settings how to fix and maintain their own bicycles, and properly ride in the street. It also provides safety equipment including helmets, locks and lights.

Community workshop: This site at 98 Colvin Ave. provides people with classes and opportunities to learn how to fix, maintain and even build their own bikes. “We also have used bicycles for sale at very affordable prices,” Booth said. Summer workshop hours are 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, and 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Neighborhood involvement: “We've also been very successful with what we call Pop-Up Complete Streets projects,” Booth said. “We’re working with different groups to identify the traffic safety concerns of the neighborhoods and work with them to implement short-term, easy-to-implement projects that can lead toward long-term changes.” This has included painted crosswalks in several city neighborhoods and outside all city neighborhood schools. GObike and its volunteers also restriped Fillmore Avenue through Martin Luther King Jr. Park in collaboration with the city, Olmsted Parks Conservancy and civic-minded residents, reconfiguring the markings to include protected bike lanes, which the city committed to making permanent this year.

Lasalle Park, on the West Side, will get a major makeover as a key hub in the regional bike and trail system, thanks to the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Regional involvement: GObike is helping the city of Niagara Falls develop a Complete Streets policy and bicycle master plan. The group also is working with the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation to identify opportunities to establish the foundation’s vision of a connected regional Greenway and trail system. GObike also has worked with Buffalo as the city begins construction of its first protected bike lane on Niagara Street, from the Peace Bridge north to Hertel Avenue. Completion is expected late next year.

Go Buffalo Niagara: "This program was created to help businesses and developments curb the number of driving trips as a way to support environmental and health goals, and spur economic vibrancy in our city," Booth said. "A good example of that is the work that we've been doing on the medical campus to reduce single occupancy vehicle trips." GObike led the way in developing a "mobile transit hub" on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and is taking a similar tack with Ciminelli Development at 201 Ellicott St., downtown near Lafayette Square.

Nearby developers of the Ciminelli tract have criticized a scaled-down version of an original condominium and retail business proposal that now involves 200 affordable housing units, one small grocery store and 29 parking spaces — instead of 800. GObike has agreed to help Ciminelli create a hub to address the dearth of parking, which is allowed under the Green Code. It will offer indoor and outdoor bike parking as part of the project, as well as a paid guaranteed ride for bike-to-work commuters who need to get home for an emergency. The hub also will include a bike repair station, ride-share pull-off locations and information on public transit.

The existing and planned hubs are both within a few blocks of Metro Rail stations — and thousands of parking spaces, Booth said.

“I feel like we always just think about what's the immediate cost to our pocketbook, but we don't think about all those indirect costs that we have as a community,” he said. “We need to make downtown more walkable to encourage more people to utilize those spaces that aren't necessarily directly adjacent to where they're looking to go. In the long run that may help to address our deplorable health outcomes as well.”

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh@ScottBScanlon

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