Thinking Holistically about the Future of our Streets

This past Wednesday Juan Pablo Garnham, an editor at CityLab published an article that explores the alternatives for what went wrong with the bridge collapse in Miami. His article raises an important question – “…(B)eyond the technical reasons why the structure failed, there’s a deeper issue: Was the 174-foot bridge that spanned eight lanes of traffic ever the best solution in the first place?” Planners from the firm Dover, Kohl, and Partners published an article challenging the basic assumptions that led to the bridge project and its accelerated construction schedule:

                        It’s clear that among official priorities, traffic flow eclipsed public safety long ago on Eighth Street. The corridor metastasized into a monster highway with eight, nine, ten lanes and no meaningful provision for walking, biking or transit, or even trees, despite its gigantic 130-foot

                        right-of-way. We are correctly focused right now on the six victims killed under the bridge collapse. But in the last 4 years, more than 2200 crashes occurred along this part of the corridor, and at least 12 other people died in those collisions.

We have had our own documented issues with pedestrian fatalities along the Erie Boulevard East corridor. Our community generally regards Erie Boulevard with disdain. Yes it is a regular shopping destination – but we hear regularly from businesses and residents of the Town that the current conditions of Erie Boulevard are deplorable. The photos below show the current condition – paved asphalt median with weeds growing out of it. Hardly a reference to the important role that this corridor played in the history of our community.

A cyclist rides down the middle of the asphalt median on Erie Boulevard East in DeWitt

A cyclist rides down the middle of the asphalt median on Erie Boulevard East in DeWitt

Existing conditions along Erie Boulevard East in DeWitt

Existing conditions along Erie Boulevard East in DeWitt

These issues prompted us to begin reimagining this corridor in 2015 with the Elevating Erie International Ideas Competition. We wanted to gather ideas from planners/designers/architects/landscape architects/artists/etc. about how we rethink the urban arterial of the past through the lens of urban ecology, economic growth, healthy urbanism, recreation, and multi-modal connectivity. We asked – and we received, nearly 70 proposals from 16 countries around the globe. There are a lot of ideas – and we wanted to gauge the community’s reactions to those ideas so we hosted a survey in the spring of 2016 and asked the community, “what do you think.” The community responded – we had over 1200 completed surveys, and some clear preferences arose – the most highly ranked preference was the idea of a median-based greenway/recreation-way.

We anticipated that there would be technical challenges to making changes of this nature along an urban arterial, which to quote Victor Dover (you could almost insert Erie Boulevard for SW Eighth Street):

            …. SW Eighth Street is just like a rushing river of cars. We’ve grown numb to so much driving. Like many of our regional thoroughfares, Eighth Street is, after all, a dangerous, ugly highway that repels one from choosing to walk, bike, or use transit. So in one of the worst self-fulfilling prophecies, a couple decades ago our government agencies assumed Eighth Street would always be clogged with cars, none of the space in the right-of-way could be used for anything else, and they gave up on making it a safe, complete street for all users. Perhaps inadvertently, they were sacrificing our public realm to the fast movement of single-occupant car trips. As a tiny band-aid on this gash across our county, a bridge at this one spot would be at least a perfunctory gesture toward pedestrians. The trouble is, a pedestrian bridge in one location, useful as it may be, does nothing to solve the situation at ground level at all the multiple other crossing locations where pedestrians are being killed. It doesn’t solve the real problems: the design of Eighth Street itself, and our seeming dependence on dangerous car trips for almost everything. We need to think about safety holistically.

In response to this concern we hired a consulting team to help us to look holistically at the corridor, review available traffic data, and to develop a technically sound approach to the incorporation of the greenway/bikeway approach. No we are not Miami – but Erie Boulevard is an urban arterial in much the same way, and has suffered from the same way of thinking as SW Eighth Street. There are residential neighborhoods and a college campus (LeMoyne) that abut the entire length of the corridor in both the Town of DeWitt and the City of Syracuse; and we have an opportunity to better and more safely connect those neighborhoods to this corridor. The image below was developed as part of the report:

Visual simulation of a median-based greenway/bikeway along Erie Boulevard East in DeWitt

Visual simulation of a median-based greenway/bikeway along Erie Boulevard East in DeWitt

In 2016, the Urban Land Institute released the publication, Active Transportation and Real Estate: The Next Frontier – which examines the impact of the growing interest in active transportation (e.g. bicycling) on economic development, public health, air quality, community design, and real estate design and investment. The report profiles 10 real estate development projects as well as five catalytic active transportation infrastructure investments such as, bike lane networks, and bike-sharing systems, which have supported real estate development opportunities. According to the report the projects share the following themes:

  • Active transportation infrastructure can catalyze real estate development. Trails, bike lanes, and bike-sharing systems can improve pedestrian and cyclist access to centers of employment, recreational destinations, and public transit, boosting the appeal of development near the infrastructure as a result.
  • Active transportation systems encourage healthier lifestyles. Convenient access to active transportation systems makes the healthy choice the easy choice, helping improve community residents’ fitness and overall well-being.
  • Investments in trails, bike lanes, and bicycle-sharing systems have high levels of return on investment. Regions and cities have found that relatively small investments in active transportation can yield high economic returns, due to improved health and environmental outcomes.
  • There is evidence of a correlation between access to active transportation facilities and increased property values. In urban and suburban markets, studies have shown that direct access to trails, bike-sharing systems, and bike lanes can have a positive impact on property values.
  • A reciprocal relationship exists between the private and public sectors in terms of maximizing investments in active transportation. Developers are benefiting from access to sought-after locations that are close to publicly financed active transportation routes, but they are also making direct investments in active transportation by helping to finance improvements to the systems.

The report points to evidence indicating that proximity to bike trails raises property values. For instance, the value of properties within a block of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail have soared nearly 150 percent since the trail’s opening in 2008; and the value of properties near the Katy Trail in Dallas have increased 80 percent. Homes close to Atlanta’s BeltLine have started selling within 24 hours; before the trail project began, homes in the same area stayed on the market for two to three months. And in Minneapolis, every quarter-mile (0.4 km) of proximity to an off-street bike facility raises the value of a home by an additional $510.

The study also cites examples of the positive impact of bicycle access on commercial and economic development. In New York City’s Times Square, building rents rose more than 70 percent following the addition of bike lanes in 2010. In both Salt Lake City and San Francisco, the replacement of some street parking with protected bike lanes along specific corridors resulted in higher retail sales in those areas. Meanwhile, in Sydney, Australia, the government concluded that building 124 miles (200 km) of bikeways would generate more than $350 million (U.S. dollars) in economic benefits. The increase in trail-oriented development “is indicative of a worldwide trend of civic and private sector investment in active transportation facilities, and the growing demand for walkable and bikable places,” the report also says.

In short – the proposed investment in Erie Boulevard East through the Empire State Trail project – has strong potential to be a catalyst for new economic growth and development situated along one of the most important historical corridors in New York State.