Photo Documentary: Buffalo’s Light Rail

You can tell a lot about a city by how people move around in it. Traffic congestion, bicycle accessibility, efficiency of public transit… all these things give residents and, even more so visitors, a strong impression about the care or lack thereof that goes into city planning.

On June 2nd 2014, I took a short ride on Buffalo’s NFTA light rail system, a single-line train that runs from University at Buffalo South Campus down through the heart of the city, totalling 6.4 miles. Buffalo is one of the smallest cities in the country with light rail, and it is one of the smallest light rail systems in the country as well. As a fan of commuter rail and trains in general, my goal was to use my camera to capture a story of Buffalo through through the eyes of a visitor on a single trip up and back down the line.

I took the Amtrak from Rochester to Buffalo’s Exchange Street station. From there, I rode my handy and extremely portable Dahon folding bike to the nearest light rail station approximately 0.3 miles away. It was a beautiful evening actually, right around 5pm with clear skies and a city before me.
20140729-022017.jpgI arrived at an empty street level platform… clean, simple… right away I found the fare card machines and paid my 3 dollars for an unlimted day’s ride. On an interesting note, in my entire trip, nobody ever checked my ticket! I literally could have ridden for free.

I asked the one young lady on the platform if I was in the right place to catch the northbound train. “Hmm?” She mumbled after she removed her earbuds. I repeated my question and she confirmed I was in the right place with a simple nod and a return to her music. Very shortly after, a 2-car train arrived and I pulled my bike up the retractable steps and into the empty rear car. 20140729-022305.jpg

20140729-023318.jpgShortly after, two young men boarded the train and instantly took to their cell phones. Minutes later (we were at the end of the line where the train pauses to change direction) we were on our way.

In the first few minutes of the ride, I looked around… the train was clean, bright and inviting. The ride was smooth and comfortable. All the initial feelings about the rail experience were positive.
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The first mile or two of the NFTA light rail system runs above ground in the middle of Main Street. When the light rail system began services in 1985, Main Sreet was shut down to automobile traffic in the hopes of creating a walkable commons with commuter rail for transportation back and forth to the college campus. It was an attempt to do what many cities have done to revitalize their downtown areas… create a center around culture and the arts, with restaurants, bars and other things for college students and upper middle class adults who appreciate a fun urban lifestyle. The result in this case, as I will touch on later, appears to be quite different. As a result, the city is now heavily engaged in construction to re-open main street to automobile traffic, which led to delays and train changes after a couple of stops.
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At Church Street, I changed trains (this was not normal practice, it was an added hassle due to the Main Street construction.) The new train was about 4 cars long, and was much more crowded. 20140729-023444.jpg<I stowed my bike in the front of the car and found a seat nearby, and said hello to a gentleman next to me. Turns out his name was Peter, and he had a lot to say about the light rail system and the city of Buffalo. Please know that I am paraphrasing but it’s the best I can remember.
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“I used to ride the train a lot. There was a stop right near where I used to live. I work right here in downtown so it made sense. The train used to come by every 10 minutes so it was very convenient. Then they changed it to every 20 minutes, and while you think that’s not a big difference, it is when you have to be to work on time. You miss the train, you go from being to work 10 mintes early to 10 minutes late. It just wasn’t convenient anymore.”

“Back before they put in the light rail, Main Street was really alive. Now they have something that isn’t very convenient for most people, it’s very slow and you look at Main Street now and it’s empty. Not a lot of people and other than the theater there just isn’t much here anymore. They spent a lot of money on something that really hasn’t done much… maybe it’s even taken something away from this street.”

“Now they are going to spend a lot of money again to re-open Main Street to traffic. Maybe that will help? I don’t know. But you wonder if there is any thought into doing these things before they spend the money to do them.”

I asked a question. “Do you see the light rail system being discontinued at some point?”

“No,” replied Peter. “It’s part of the city now. Enough people use it. It wouldn’t make sense to get rid of it. Does it add anything though? That’s the question they have to ask. I think it could be a great thing, but it needs to work for people better than it does. They need to be better about marketing it too.”

By the end of our conversation, the train had gone underground.20140729-023520.jpg

As we pulled into one of the many subway stations along the line, I decided to hop out and take a look. I bid Peter farewell and walked off the train with my bike. After the train pulled away, I was left standing alone in an empty station. It was really quite nice… nothing epic about it, it just looked like a small, clean, brightly lit subway station. CLEAN, and I mean clean!20140729-023528.jpg

I walked up the non-functioning escalator and made my way outside. Metal sculptures greeted me when I stepped out onto the sidewalk.

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20140729-130422-47062034.jpgAfter snapping a couple pictures I made my way back inside. The top floor of the station was lined with funky, colorful art on the walls and the ceiling. The sun poured in through the glass roof, coating the open, empty room in a warm glow. It was beautiful! I’ve seen huge, ornate subway stations in my day, but this station’s beauty was in the simplicity, with a special attention to an economical and efficient beauty.

I walked back downstairs and struck up a conversation with Odochi, a budding, successful young man with a bright smile and a brighter mind. He also had a bike with him.

“I was biking to the campus but I saw you take your bike into the station and I was like ‘hey, maybe I will ride today,’ ” he said. “I don’t take the metro much.”

I asked him why.

“If something like this is gonna work, it has to be efficient and effective. This is neither. The trains come like every 20 minutes, and that just not convenient. Honestly it’s faster for me to ride my bike. But they are building the new medical campus right on top of one of the stations, so I think ridership is going to increase a lot. Hopefully they will improve train service accordingly.”

After what seemed like forever, a train finally arrived and I continued my trip to the university campus. It didn’t take long to get there. I exited the train, and once again, walked into a very modest but very clean, sharp looking station. The escalator to the street level was brilliant! Long with a bright, reflective, futuristic tunnel effect.

Again, the station was virtually empty.

After a short stop at street level, I turned around and stepped onto a train headed back toward the city. There were delays along the way and since I was short on time, I got off at one of the stations. I was going to bike the rest of the way into the city. As I was crossing the platform I grabbed my camera to take a picture of the train.

“Do you have clearance to take pictures here?” I heard over my shoulder. it was an NFTA station attendant. I wryly smiled, knowing what was coming.

“No ma’am, I’m a tourist, these photos are for my own personal use, not for sale.”

“You still need clearance.”

Picking my battles, I put my lens cap back on and laughed. This is one of those moments that make us photographers shake our heads. The truth is, everyone has a camera on them at all times now. You cant possibly regulate that. But as soon as we pull out a DSLR camera, we are suddenly terrorist suspects.

“With all due respect ma’am you have thousands of riders each day. almost every one of them is armed with a camera phone. Are you telling me every time an 18 year old college student pulls out a cell phone and takes a picture on your platform you’re gonna ask if they have clearance, or are you just giving me a hard time because my camera’s a little bigger?”

“You gotta have clearance sir.”

“Yeah I’ll get that.” I didn’t.

I brushed off the experience that I’ve had so many times and focused on biking the last leg of my trip. My ride took me to the point where the tracks transitioned from subway to street level. At a leisurely pace, over about half a mile, I had beaten the train by nearly a minute. I snapped a few last pics as it went by, and I headed to my final destination, the Buffalo Bisons baseball game.

It was my first time at the stadium. It was massive! The seating capacity was far beyond any minor league ballpark I’d ever seen. About 1/3 of the seats were full. Someone told me they built it that big with the anticipation that, maybe someday, it might house a major league team.

And that’s when it really made sense. From an outsiders perspective, Buffalo appears to be a city in between. Once a thriving manufacturing hotspot, it now aspires to make the long and agonizing transition to a mid-sized, walkable, service oriented city. Much of the infrastructure is oversized and slightly overambitious, based on the promise of a growing population. But in reality Buffalo struggles to hold its youth, and this is a problem that will be solved only by a relentless effort to make the city lean, efficient and approachable.

Maybe Buffalo’s light rail system figures into this, both as a practical transportation solution and a Main Street novelty. Or, maybe it’s not practical, and will see an end due to operational inefficiencies. Either way, the pieces are there for success. I witnessed a smooth, clean mode of transportation and I was sold on it. Only time will tell.