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The Editorial Board: Despite initial complaints, Buffalo must accommodate cars and cyclists safely

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Forest Avenue bicycle lanes (copy)

Most of the temporary traffic bollards at the intersection of of Forest Avenue and Grant Street have been knocked over by vehicles negotiating the narrow lanes. It will take time and patience to safely accommodate bicyclists and other traffic in Buffalo, but it needs to be done.

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Car traffic has to share the road with bike traffic and pedestrians need to be able to navigate streets safely. These are simple and inescapable necessities of urban life in the 21st century.

Buffalo streets must accommodate all methods of transportation, not just cars and trucks. The national Complete Streets program, which was adopted via local ordinance by Buffalo in 2008 and by New York

State in 2011, is intended to make our roadways safe and sustainable for all who use them.

Some progress has been made, but there’s a long way to go, and – yes – there will be plenty of hiccups before our streets are complete.

There’s a bit of a hiccup happening on Forest Avenue now, as the GObike Buffalo organization, in collaboration with the city’s Department of Public Works, tries out some temporary protected bike lanes on Forest between Rees and Niagara.

The key words here are “try” and “temporary.” The project, initiated in late July, also includes painted crosswalks and bump-outs at corners. Not everyone is happy.

Bike lanes with barriers provide the best protection, hence the temporary bollards separating the bike and car traffic. Bump-out extensions of sidewalks at street corners protect pedestrians, hence the simulation in GObike’s trial project.

However, the plastic bollards were no match for annoyed, impatient – or maybe just oblivious – motorists, who have made quick work of them, with most lying prone and useless in the street. Competing uses of the street are also a factor. But does this prove that bike lanes are a hard no for Forest Avenue? Probably not, but there’s no immediate answer because public feedback is being accepted until November. At that time, the temporary infrastructure will be removed and the planning begins for what happens when the street is repaved next year. Decisions will be based on public feedback and the needs of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

Complaints about the Forest Avenue trial project reference the difficulties of negotiating the barriers, especially when the vehicles are large delivery trucks and fire trucks, and the fact that parking is restricted to one side of the street, with the two-way bike lane on the other side.

These are legitimate complaints. They are also complaints that could be made about any major avenue in Buffalo where huge delivery trucks, fire trucks, bikes and cars are frequent sights and people need to park. Clearly, compromises and concessions must be made so that all this traffic can use the streets safely.

Forest Avenue was one of many roadways included in Buffalo’s bike master plan, adopted in 2016. According to Gobike’s Kevin Heffernan, a central reason Forest was chosen as an early candidate for bike safety measures is that neighbors reported vehicles zipping up and down the avenue at speeds of 80 mph. Bike lanes force cars and trucks to go slower. In a dense urban neighborhood, can this be considered a bad thing?

And there’s one underlying fact that cannot and must not be avoided: When it comes to fatal accidents, bikers and pedestrians are the most vulnerable. There have been 1,622 bicycle and pedestrian-involved crashes in the City of Buffalo from 2017 to 2021, and 3,472 crashes involving cars with pedestrians and bicyclists in Erie and Niagara counties over the same span.

For an excellent example of Complete Streets in action, look to Niagara Street between Forest Avenue and Hampshire, where a two-lane bike lane is separated by a buffer from motorized traffic. The new lane and other improvements have transformed this section of the street, making it more attractive and less worrisome for drivers as well as safer for cyclists.

It’s discouraging that there aren’t equally inspirational examples of Complete Streets throughout the city. Most bike lanes are still restricted to trails and paths outside Buffalo’s urban center.

It’s also discouraging that so much of the response to Forest Avenue’s bike safety efforts is complete rejection. It does not bode well for future projects.

What will it take for people to look beyond inconveniences that can be overcome to a future where we can all be safe, whether riding a bike, walking or behind the wheel of a car?

Sadly, it seems all too possible that it may take more fatalities.

We can – and must – do better.

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