Buffalo has sometimes fumbled the ball when it comes to advancements in transportation – think extending the light rail to Amherst (or not), replacing the Peace Bridge (or not) and taking cars off Main Street (only to put them back).
But city leaders say they think that this time around, Buffalo will be able to chart a more successful course in planning for the future of transportation – one that will include fewer cars, less parking and a bunch of various modes of transportation in their infancy.
“Scooters, autonomous buses, car shares, bike shares – they’re really about extending the reach of the downtown area,” said Ralph DeNisco, a Boston-based “urban places mobility” expert with global firm Stantec.
Last week, the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency and the national Congress for the New Urbanism collaborated to bring together community leaders and experts like DeNisco to begin sketching a mobility plan for downtown.
On Saturday, they unveiled an early draft of their findings to several dozen people at Seneca One, soon to be the home of M&T’s tech hub, which is expected to employ 1,500 people downtown. Those jobs, along with many more at other companies, will stoke the demand for housing, dining, entertainment and other activities and services downtown.
Now, if a city worker has five minutes to travel to get lunch, they’re likely limited to the few blocks they can walk in that time. But with the introduction of other options, such as electric scooters, in the same five minutes, they could travel much farther.
“Extending those reaches out into the surrounding neighborhoods is really critical,” DeNisco said. “It’s not just about the technology. It’s about how you apply the technologies.”
And because so much of this is so new, it’s not clear how those technologies will evolve or how they will best fit into Buffalo specifically. That’s why an essential aspect of the plan for Buffalo includes a “mobility innovation zone” in a designated area downtown.
That would provide a concentrated area in which to experiment with new technologies and new approaches, identify concerns and problems, and iron out snags before they are introduced to the city as a whole.
“That will give us the ability to model some of these other types of mobilities, like scooters,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said. “Some communities went right into scooters and regret that they did that. Having a district where we can try some of these concepts is exciting.”
“Lower Main can be the laboratory for Buffalo’s future,” said David Dixon, a vice president at Stantec.
The path forward will include deciding how to integrate newer options with existing ones.
One element of that is likely to include designating a lane on Washington Street for bicycles and electric scooters. That would preserve Main Street as a destination for pedestrian traffic, while providing a safe route for scooters and bikes.
Experts have also sketched plans for North and South Division streets that would reduce the number of lanes for car traffic from three to one.
“We took away on-street parking and left room for delivery, Uber and buses,” said William F. Price, a landscape architect and urban designer with SWBR, a Rochester firm.
Curbside management is an important piece of that. When a car is parked on the street, one person moves from the street to the sidewalk in an hour. But if that parking space is eliminated and converted to a drop-off area, there could be at least 30 interactions in that same hour, in the form of things such as taxis, robot taxis, Uber and Lyft.
“We are entering an era where we will need less and less parking,” Dixon said.
A final version of the proposed mobility plan is expected to be completed by May 1 and presented to the Common Council for its consideration.