When I first blogged about my fun-filled 2-day experience in Schenectady 2 years ago, my love for urban planning and my knowledge of the elements that lead to a successful downtown were in their infancy.
Since then, I’ve blended my first hand experience of small city urban revival with a tremendous amount of research from some of the greatest minds in the field. My friends will roll their eyes and tell you I’ve become a little obsessed. 😉
Recently I returned to Schenectady, which I’ve done on a semi-regular basis over the past 20 months since my first visit. This time, I walked the streets, not with the purpose of taking pictures or telling stories, but looking with the wide eyes of a budding city planning junkie. When you do what I do, you begin to pay attention to things you never thought you would… street width, sidewalk condition, cycling infrastructure, traffic speed, parking orientation, crosswalk and “bump-out” presence, greenspace, transit access… I could go on forever.
A few hours in the city made me realize one thing… Schenectady’s downtown surge isn’t stopping anytime soon. In fact, Schenectady’s downtown layout is so good, it may have the highest ceiling of any Upstate New York city I’ve seen.
How good is Schenectady’s layout? it’s so good, I don’t even have to go there to show you. While I’ve spent the past several years relying on stories and images for my content, just this once I am going to cheat and show you why Schenectady is awesome using Google Maps.
For the record, I would never substitute Google Maps for the experience of physically being in a city. But for this example A) I believe they make for acceptable examples and B) I think despite being dull and uninteresting, they show just how beautiful Schenectady’s downtown streets really are. Ready my previous blog post about Schenectady to see some richer photos by yours truly!
Even on these generic Google Street View examples (which, for the record I may or may not have made a little more vibrant in Lightroom for effect), you can see that Schenectady’s State Street is a bit of a pedestrian paradise. Wide sidewalks give walkers a greater feeling of security from auto traffic as well as more freedom to maneuver around passers by.
Studies have shown that people are more likely to use sidewalks that are wider, in good condition, and are flanked by parallel parking, which provides a barrier between pedestrians and passing traffic. Well placed intricacies in the sidewalk, as well as the occasional spot of green space also adds to a pedestrian-friendly environment. These are all elements that, as you see here, Schenectady has in abundance.
Schenectady also boasts a section of Jay Street that is pedestrian only, as shown above. Jay street is lined with shops and coffee houses, urging passers by to step inside. The freedom to experience local retail in walkable environment is key to the success of any downtown.
Another key to a walkable downtown is the two lane street with parallel parking. Narrower streets with fewer lanes create slower traffic, which means a safer, more manageable environment for residents and visitors on foot. Slowing traffic down also offers motorists a greater chance to look around and see the new restaurant opening, or the marquee on the big sign at Proctor’s Theater. The faster you drive, the less aware you are of your environment. This is why so many cities like Syracuse and Rochester, with speed-friendly highways that bisect their downtowns are taking another look at how slowing traffic down might help their local economy.
Schenectady doesn’t have any of these issues. With narrow streets, plenty of parallel parking, no downtown highways and generally slow traffic speeds, the city has an undeniable edge.
As much as anything, Schenectady is just an attractive little city. You can park your car and walk to the beautiful and historic Stockade neighborhood, circle back and enjoy all that downtown has to offer in just a few minutes.
Visiting from out of town? Amtrak drops you off in the middle of the action… no need to rent a car. You are already a 5-10 minute walk from literally everything, from Stockade, to Union College, to the vibrant nightlife on State Street and everything in between.
People ask me all the time “what’s so big about creating walkability? I like to drive, and I want to get to where I’m going as fast as I can.”
We’ve all heard the term “speed kills.” I like to add another word on the end of that… “speed kills economies.” Allowing equal access for pedestrians, cyclists, mass transit AND motorists is far more conducive to local economic growth. On the flip side, downtowns that place a priority on moving automobiles as quickly as possible from point A to point B generally suffer from socioeconomic stagnation. The solution? Get people out of their cars and back to experiencing their city on foot once again. Park your vehicle and enjoy a safe and enjoyable pedestrian experience as you go to work, grab a bite to eat, pop into a few shops, or maybe enjoy a coffee or cocktail. This IS Schenectady at it’s finest.
The best part of Schenectady is that it hasn’t come close to it’s full potential yet. So many streets off of State Street and Erie Boulevard have the same pedestrian friendly, storefront-rich potential to be the next hoppin’ place in downtown.
Can Schenectady improve? Absolutely. A greater commitment to bike lanes would be a huge step, but in the meantime, cyclists are relatively safe because the traffic through the city is generally slow. Still, cycling infrastructure should be an important priority in the city’s future plans.
Another issue as you move away from the main downtown streets is the always unattractive parking lot mania. Lightly or seldom used and poorly maintained parking lots have a deterring effect on walkability. Generally speaking, and this is going to sound completely counter-intuitive, the more parking lots you see, the less chance there is for economic growth in that area. In time, Schenectady will grapple with the issue of these lots and I have no doubt that developers and city officials will move in the right direction.
Schenectady has done a tremendous job of taking existing infrastructure and modifying it to benefit everyone. Much of the city is still a blank canvas, but it is one that has so much more potential than most other urban areas could ever imagine. I am truly excited to see how high this city can fly… in the meantime, keep the lights shining bright Schenectady, hats off to a tremendous job so far!