Chris Holmes, a 39-year-old bike shop owner and cycling advocate from West Seneca, was leading a small group of cyclists down Ridge Road in Lackawanna when a black Cadillac sedan blocked the intersection in front of them.
It was a cool, sunny Sunday in September 2020 – ideal biking weather. Holmes had just set out from the Botanical Gardens, with plans to pedal west to the lakefront and then turn north toward the nature preserve.
Instead, the group found itself penned in Ridge Road’s brand-new, two-way protected bike track, scrapping with a red-faced driver who didn't want to let the cyclists pass. The bike lane, installed earlier that month, was a demonstration project meant to raise the regional bar for walkable, bikeable streets. But public outcry prompted Lackawanna to remove the lane after less than a year – even as biking soared in popularity.
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Advocates, planners and public officials consider this a pivotal moment for biking in Western New York. Once the primary domain of dense coastal cities, on- and off-road bike lanes have exploded here since 2016 and now total more than 300 miles. Municipalities across the region – from Lackawanna to Lewiston, and Wilson to West Seneca – are in discussions to further build out their bike networks, perhaps with the help of the more than $1.5 billion targeted to bike and pedestrian projects in the recent federal infrastructure bill.
But the region still faces steep challenges – not least of all, a car-centric, suburbanized culture that has long favored drivers over cyclists and pedestrians.
“At the end of the day, you don't have to plan for a pedestrian-friendly community. You don't have to favor pedestrians and bicyclists,” said Amherst Supervisor Brian Kulpa, also an architect and urban planner. “But your community is going to be less successful if you don't do that.”
‘We’re in the mainstream'
As recently as 2008, the City of Buffalo offered cyclists only three designated paths: the S-curves on Delaware Avenue, the majority of Richmond Avenue and the pockmarked bend of the Shoreline Trail.
Today, bikers can pedal straight from Canalside to the Town of Tonawanda with only brief departures from marked bike lanes and off-road paths. The past year, in particular, brought landmark developments, including installation of the region’s first permanent, two-way protected bike track on Niagara Street in Buffalo and the completion of the 750-mile Empire State Trail.
Recent construction also extended or improved the Shoreline Trail in the City of Tonawanda and the Town of Tonawanda and the Niagara Scenic Parkway, formerly the Robert Moses Parkway, in Niagara Falls. In February, nearly a dozen Niagara County municipalities signed onto a plan to lay a 35-mile bike trail system between Lockport and Lewiston.
“When we started advocating for trails 30 years ago, we were kind of out in the wilderness,” said Robin Dropkin, executive director of the statewide nonprofit group Parks & Trails New York. “And now I feel like we're in the mainstream, because communities want these amenities.”
Western New York benefits from both an enthusiastic cycling culture and the work of growing advocacy groups, such as Holmes’ West Seneca Bikes, several greenway trail commissions and GoBike Buffalo. GoBike, in particular, has evolved from a volunteer-run bicycle-repair program to a regionwide movement with 13 staff, 475 members and annual revenues of almost $1 million.
Since incorporating as a nonprofit in 2010, the organization has supported efforts to build out trails and greenways and encouraged local municipalities, including Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Lackawanna, to adopt “complete streets” policies, which require that street designs account for a wide range of users. In the most recent rankings from the League of American Bicyclists, Buffalo earned high marks for its cycling advocacy and policy and its strong biking culture.
At the same time, the report found, Buffalo’s bike system is proportionally smaller than even fellow cold-winter cities like Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis, Minn. Fewer riders are on the road here, too. Though 60% of Erie County residents live within 10 miles of their workplace – the distance that the U.S. Census Bureau considers “bikeable” – less than half of 1% commuted by bike in 2019.
“You have a chicken-and-egg kind of situation, where if you don't have the infrastructure, then people don't bike – but if you did have the infrastructure, they’d be more inclined,” said West Seneca Supervisor Gary Dickson, who commuted by bike in Europe and Northern Virginia.
The pandemic may have disrupted that cycle by getting more cyclists out on roads and trails. An estimated 10 million American adults biked for the first time in a year or more in 2020, according to a survey by People for Bikes, an industry organization. More than 300,000 cyclists and pedestrians traversed a single stretch of trail in Tonawanda’s Niawanda Park last year – an increase of 24% from 2019.
Slow Roll Buffalo, which organizes free guided bike rides, also saw some of its tours attract as many as 1,000 riders last summer. On a recent Sunday, in a stiff December wind, more than 30 Slow Roll cyclists bundled up in scarves and balaclavas for a ride around the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood.
“The bike paths were packed this past summer,” said Janelle Brooks, a member of Slow Roll’s board. “In 2020 and 2021 you saw cycling shoot through the roof.”
Filling the gaps
Despite the increased regional interest, however, many suburbs have been slow to build the types of bike trails that now trellis Buffalo. Though Cheektowaga shares its western border with the city, it has fewer than 10 miles of dedicated bike lanes or trails – mostly short stretches of shoulder on Harlem Road, Union Road and Como Park Boulevard.
To the south, West Seneca has no dedicated on-street bike paths – only a handful of “sharrows,” the stenciled roadmarks that encourage drivers to share the road. In October, the town installed a bermed biking circuit, called a pump track, at Harlem Road Park, but a parallel effort to add a bike lane to Seneca Street stalled over funding concerns.
Even Amherst, the region’s largest suburb and the home of several popular off-road trails, is “woefully underdeveloped from a bicycle standpoint,” Kulpa said. Cyclists can, for instance, safely traverse the University at Buffalo campus. But to travel from the UB Commons to the Maple Road Price-Rite less than 2 miles away, cyclists must first navigate through a busy intersection and five lanes of heavy car traffic without a dedicated bike lane.
“I think we're finally starting to see results,” said Kelly Dixon, the principal planner for the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council. “But we still have lots of work to do, particularly to create facilities that the majority of riders will be comfortable on.”
Funding for such projects has proved a roadblock, as has regional coordination. Individual municipalities share ownership of major roads with the county or state departments of transportation, which each apply different standards and criteria to road projects.
The region, Dixon said, is riddled with “trails to nowhere,” often paths or lanes that end at the borders of jurisdictions. In 2020, the transportation council published a collaborative master plan to better coordinate interagency priorities and address gaps in the bike system.
Projects of this type will likely be eligible for new funding through the federal infrastructure bill, said Joseph Kane, a fellow at the Brookings Institution – though the timing and allocation of those disbursements isn’t clear yet. A spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation said the agency is still assessing the bill, but would eventually choose projects in collaboration with the regional transportation council.
If implemented in full, the bike master plan would build more than 800 miles of on- and off-road bike lanes, including new on-road lanes or side paths on Main Street north of Delaware Park, along the Millersport Highway, and on Elmwood Avenue in Kenmore and Tonawanda. It also calls for new off-road trails on the East Side of Buffalo, along the I-290 in Amherst and Williamsville, and from Bailey Avenue to Harris Hill Road in Cheektowaga.
“There’s a lot of talk about creating more walkability within communities,” said Daniel Young, an urban planner for the Town of Cheektowaga. “The big push is to try to bring more connectivity to residential neighborhoods, whether it be more sidewalks, more access for cycling or more mass transit access.”
But even as bike trails unfurled across the region, policymakers and planners have faced pushback from discontented residents and drivers. The phenomenon, sometimes called “bikelash,” has delayed or derailed bike projects in Buffalo, Orchard Park and – most visibly – on Ridge Road in Lackawanna. Mayors and planners from five towns across the region told The News that public backlash posed a primary obstacle to building out the bike system.
In Lackawanna, for instance, city officials first conceived of a Ridge Road bike lane as a way to address other problems on the busy four-lane thoroughfare. For years, it attracted noisy caravans of tractor trailers, and average traffic speeds moved well above the posted limit.
After consultations with GoBike Buffalo, the city installed a temporary, two-way protected bike track on the north side of the road. When the track opened in September 2020, it was lauded as the first and only protected bike lane in the region.
But a survey of 700 residents and bike track users, conducted as part of an interim assessment, found that more than three-quarters opposed the bike lane’s permanent installation. Even before the paint dried on Ridge Road, in fact, local residents were massing in neighborhood Facebook groups to decry the loss of parking and slowed traffic.
Drivers said the pylons protecting the track prevented them from pulling over for emergency vehicles. One 40-year resident complained that new congestion would prevent her from driving to the library and hurt local businesses. After several aggrieved residents stopped him in restaurants and at Sunday Mass, Council Member Geoffrey Szymanski sponsored a resolution to remove the bike lane – only two months after it opened.
“There are some bicycle enthusiasts within our city,” Szymanski said. “But the demand for that bike path didn’t warrant … all the problems and complications that came with it.”
There are signs that the culture is changing, however. When the Lackawanna Department of Public Works removed the bike track last August, they still striped a single, unprotected bike lane on both sides of the road.
GoBike, which did not conduct community outreach on the Ridge Road project, also redoubled its efforts to engage and educate residents before seeking infrastructure improvements in their area. In November, for a potential pilot project on Forest Avenue in Buffalo, the group distributed more than 700 fliers to nearby homes and hung posters seeking input in eight languages.
“We've learned a lot over the years of how we approach projects, and it's really been about centering the experiences of people that live in the neighborhoods,” said Justin Booth, the group’s executive director. “It's not necessarily a focus on always adding bike connectivity, but it’s about improving safety in the community and addressing community safety concerns – and oftentimes bike lanes are an effective way to accomplish that.”
For Holmes, the West Seneca cyclist, emphasizing the universal benefits of bike lanes has paid off. Research shows that bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets are safer for everyone, drivers included – and that bike infrastructure can make a community more vibrant and resilient.
In 2020, Holmes founded a group called West Seneca Bikes, which leads group rides, advocates for amenities like the pump track and educates people about road etiquette. In the summer, Holmes and his group hand out stickers at the farmers market and chat with people about why bike lanes and trails are important. When the group rides now, passing drivers honk and wave at them.
“We’ve definitely run into issues where we’re waiting to cross the street at a red light and someone drives by and screams at us,” Holmes said.
“But in our travels, we try to educate people – we’re trying to make it safer for everyone,” he added. “And that’s pretty well-received. Most people get it.”