Beyond the Paper Policy: Complete Streets in Western New York

While momentum is building on the local level in New York State for the passage of Complete Streets policies, the real test will be translating paper intentions into physical infrastructure changes. Buffalo, the first city in New York to pass a complete streets ordinance, is proving to be a good case study for what the successes, and challenges, of implementation might be.

Buffalo's Main Street, post-renovation.

Buffalo’s June 2008 law governs the design of all city streets, but did not clearly outline how implementation should proceed. One year later, Complete Streets advocates had a big implementation win. When Buffalo rebuilt the 700 block of Main Street, the design included a median strip, bike lanes, new street trees, and a switch from one-way to two-way traffic.  Plans are now underway to extend the improvements, including discussion of light rail.

Large reconstruction projects like the Main Street project, which are substantially funded with federal dollars, are moving forward with complete street designs, according to Justin Booth, Director of the nonprofit Green Options Buffalo. The challenge, Booth feels, has been at the micro-level—maintenance projects, like striping and crosswalks, which fall primarily into the hands of the local Department of Public Works (DPW) and are locally funded.  Booth identified three keys to improving implementation in Buffalo:

  • A clearly articulated design manual for complete streets, as exists in New Haven, CT and New York City.
  • Thorough education of the local engineers and DPW on the new techniques for road design. Last year Booth joined two of the city’s engineers at the “eye-opening” Walk 21 conference in NYC, which helped to elucidate methods for implementation. This August, NYSDOT will also hold a 2-day “Designing for Pedestrian Safety Workshop.”
  • Adequate staffing and funding, which have both been cut back over the years due to budget constraints.

“Changing the institutionalization of how routine things have always been done is proving to be difficult—there is a culture and protocol that needs to be rethought,” Booth said.

To tackle this challenge, a coalition of local advocates is taking a multi-pronged approach: looking at planning documents, demonstration projects, staffing levels, education, and communication. A grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, administered by Jessie Hersher at the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus, is paying for an assessment of existing road conditions and Buffalo’s planning and zoning documents. The assessment will ensure that, for example, language in the Comprehensive Plan and zoning laws is consistent with the Complete Streets policy, and will also help develop a prioritized set of policy and implementation goals. The Buffalo Olmstead Parks Conservancy is working on a plan to connect the parks of the city, and Buffalo Riverkeeper, concerned about stormwater run-off, is working on a street demonstration project that includes bioswale filtration.

In an attempt to improve the coordination of efforts, this spring the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, chaired by Booth, convinced the City Council to approve a Complete Streets Coordinator, a joint position for the Office of Strategic Planning and the DPW. Unfortunately, the approval came with a hook—the position wasn’t funded. Undaunted, the Advisory Board, which reviews all city streets and gives direct guidance to the city, is working to secure funding in the next fiscal cycle for the new, unfilled position.

According to Booth, it’s helped that squeaky wheels exist outside the traditional advocacy community. Buffalo Place, a 24-block business improvement district in downtown Buffalo with a $3.2 million annual budget, has worked on planning for revitalized streets, coordinating public events, and marketing the business district. The general public has also been casting its vote from bar stools—quaffing “Rusty Chain Lager” from Flying Bison Brewing Company helps to support a bicycle parking program in the commercial district.

A little competition may be helping as well—this spring, residents in neighboring Niagara Falls stepped out onto a newly renovated Old Falls Street, which blog Buffalo Rising describes as “second-to-none anywhere in the world in terms of green, complete, sustainable design.

Photo: Via Buffalo Rising.

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