Ethan Johnson made the decision in the early 2000s to trade his car in for a bike as a means of transportation. In the wake of decades of putting cars first, his city of Buffalo was far from ideal for cycling.
“It was challenging,” Johnson recalls. “It was pretty much an everyday experience of people cutting you off and telling you to get on to the sidewalk.”
Johnson found solace and support by banding with other bike enthusiasts, forming a group that eventually became known as GObike Buffalo, holding local meetings, repair workshops and hosting local rides. They also pushed for safer, more bike-friendly roads. The group started capturing the attention of local media and politicians when they began to organize critical mass rides on the last Friday of every month during the height of rush hour.
As the bike community continued to grow, those disruptive, unsanctioned rides evolved into city-approved Slow Roll rides, still organized by GObike Buffalo, designed to reconnect residents with the community by exploring a different neighborhood by bicycle each week.
And that was just the start. In the spirit of Frederick Law Olmsted’s grand vision for the region more than a century ago, local governments, local foundations and local schools have all joined GObike Buffalo in knitting the region’s cities, neighborhoods and parks together again in ways that aren’t centered on cars.
The first urban park system of its kind in the United States, the Olmsted Park System in Buffalo was a landmark achievement when it was created in the late 1800s under the renowned landscape architect’s direction. A network of six parks, seven parkways and eight landscaped circles provided locals and visitors with a unique connection to nature in addition to each other.
One of the most popular ways of navigating Buffalo’s park system in its early years was by bike. But sadly, much of the network was disrupted in the mid-20th century with the construction of expressways to accommodate the growing number of cars on the road.
The reality of those highway barriers and increased traffic which persist to this day help to explain the rationale behind Justin Booth’s recommendation for the best bike route between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Despite being the executive director of GObike Buffalo, Booth sheepishly admits he often tells folks to ride up the Canadian side.
“It’s safer,” he says. “You have a connected pathway. Your route isn’t blocked by an expressway and overall it’s much more conducive to cycling than on the American side.”
But the days of making such a recommendation may be numbered, thanks to a tremendous upswing in interest in biking throughout the region, reaching far beyond GObike Buffalo’s members.
Other local players, such as the Campus Cycling Collective, have started organizing regular rides. An annual Skyride now involves shutting down the 100-foot high Buffalo Skyway to cars, attracting thousands of bikers each year.
It was this strong, increasingly vocal cycling community that helped to convince the City of Buffalo to pass a complete streets policy in 2008 and ultimately led to the establishment of the Buffalo Bike Plan— now entering its third year of implementation — with a goal of creating a 300-mile bike network. So far, Buffalo has completed 112.4 miles and has a target of surpassing 160 miles before the end of 2019. The plan also has a target of installing 800 bike racks throughout the city, with over 200 already in place.
And then last fall, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation announced that it would allocate $40 million will toward closing gaps in the regional trail system, along with an additional $10 million to help operate and maintain those trails for decades to come.
The potential benefits of establishing a comprehensive, safe biking network in Western New York are far-reaching, from reconnecting people with nature (in keeping with Olmsted’s original vision), to improving quality of life for residents, to providing companies with an added incentive to relocate and attract new employees. Such a network could also serve as an incubator for a myriad of new biking tours in support of local attractions, tied to the idea of encouraging same-day visitors to Buffalo and the Falls area to stay longer.
Basic street safety is also fueling interest in bicycle infrastructure. In 2017, Niagara Falls Elementary School invited GObike Buffalo to conduct a one-day workshop that involved the creation of pop-up crosswalks and bike lanes, both of which were painted by the school’s art students. The inspiration came from teachers, parents and local politicians concerned with making streets safer for kids walking and biking to school. Niagara Falls Elementary School is situated on Niagara Street, one of the busiest roads in Niagara Falls.
“We needed to find a way to calm traffic and make it safer not only for kids crossing the street but kids riding their bikes as well,” says School Principal Rocco Merino.
The pop up-up initiative proved such a success in terms of slowing local traffic and giving kids an added sense of security on their bikes that the painted crosswalk and bike lanes became a permanent fixture. Schools throughout the Niagara region have since followed suit, painting their own crosswalks and bike lanes. And having witnessed what Buffalo had already accomplished with its bike plan, combined with a community-wide heightened awareness for road safety, Niagara Falls decided to forge ahead with its own master bike plan, which GObike Buffalo is now steering.
“One of the criticisms we’re seeing is the bike plan isn’t being implemented quickly enough. But also, that there should be more protected bike lanes,” says Booth, who adds that local bikers tell him about “suicide lanes,” roads where cars are passing on one side and people in parked cars are opening their doors on the other.
As a sign of further momentum, in October 2018 the West River Parkway running through Grand Island between Niagara Falls and Buffalo was closed altogether to vehicular traffic, with the four high-speed lanes converted into two extra wide bike lanes together with a pedestrian lane. And bike lanes are included as part of the $21 million reconstruction of Niagara Street — a major road for traffic in Buffalo.
The Niagara River Greenway Commission, the state-funded group entrusted with the two-fold task of restoring the ecological health of the Niagara River while enhancing public access, recently received $8.5 million in funding to transform what Executive Director Gregory Stevens describes as ‘the ugliest part’ of the route between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. The funds will be used to create a 4-5 mile stretch of protected bike lanes from the North Grand Island Bridge along a stretch of road that borders the communities of Wheatfield and Tonawanda. The expected completion date for that project is 2020. Assuming all of these plans come to fruition, by as early as 2020, it might be possible to bike safely not only between Niagara Falls and Buffalo, but also to connect by bike with the Empire State Trail all the way to Albany, as well as north into Canada.
“The idea of strongly linking Niagara Falls and Buffalo, each of which has connections to Canada could be quite unique,” says Stevens. “We have the potential to be the best connected two cities in North America and the only two cities other than perhaps Minneapolis and St. Paul that are directly connected to Canada with dedicated bike trails.”
This story is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.
In addition to his blog, Sustainable Community Builder, Mark Wessel writes the Toronto Sun’s Green Living column and is a regular contributor to the European-based Urban Future City Changers blog. At the last Urban Future conference in Vienna, Mark chaired a panel discussion on communicating sustainability.